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Former Florida State cornerback Leroy Smith has turned Jefferson County High School into a contender in Florida’s 1A classification, but the former defensive back says accolades were never the reason he got into coaching.

“I didn’t want to be a head coach,” Smith said. “I just wanted to help kids. I don’t want these kids falling victims to the street. Without the people in my life, it could have been me.”

Before National Signing Day, Smith’s program made local headlines for sending every senior to college after a winning season that fell just three wins short of a state title. Smith will enter his third year as head coach at Jefferson County, but his effort to make a difference predates that.

In 2010, Smith founded his “Diamonds in the Rough” nonprofit, which aims to reach the youth through sports, education and entertainment. Services provided include helping students with development, resources, tutoring and mentoring. Since it was founded, Smith estimates that about 150 students from elementary through high school have come through the program.

“We try to give the kids the resources they’re lacking,” Smith said. “It started in rural areas, but it’s not just needed there. We want them to be productive citizens. Prisons are getting built faster than schools.”

A native of Quincy, Smith started 17 games for FSU over his final three seasons from 2002 to 2004, recording six career interceptions, including ones he took back for touchdowns at Notre Dame in 2003 and against Clemson in 2004. Each summer, Smith hosts a football camp in Quincy called the “WIN-WIN” camp. WIN is an acronym for “Work is Necessary”. The camp is sponsored by the nonprofit.

“We teach that you have to put something in to get something out,” Smith said. “We try to teach the kids to be self-reliant. It’s been an amazing organization and we’re always looking for more sponsors.”

Prior to becoming a touted recruit, Smith acknowledged that his horizons were pretty narrow. That’s why “Diamonds in the Rough” organization takes the children on college tours.

Mercer University is one of the campuses toured by Leroy Smith’s nonprofit. (Photo provided by Diamonds in the Rough)

For rural communities like those in the “Big Bend” area of the state, Smith said some students know nothing outside of their respective towns. Touring college campuses, he said, exposes the youngsters to what opportunities are available after high school and gives them something to shoot for. Smith said it’s also an opportunity to expose the children to other cultures and get them to think about fields they may never have before such as engineering.

“We want to get these kids on as many trips as we can,” Smith said. “Growing up in Quincy, I thought it was the biggest place in the world. I knew nothing but Quincy until I left. We’re not going on these trips just to have fun. We have fun, but we want them to know the meaning behind it. Exposure to success creates success. If these kids see these campuses, they’ll have a goal or a vision.”

The skills that Smith’s organization tries to get across don’t pertain only to academics. Other areas of focus, he said, include life skills and time management. One thing Smith tries to drill into the head of the youngsters in his program is to avoid getting complacent.

“Some skills will transfer anywhere,” he said. “You just have to continue to reach for the sky. We’ve seen amazing outcomes. It can be a diversion program; it keeps kids from going into the system and those who go into the system — we try to keep them from going back into the system.”

The array of children who use the program is wide, Smith said. Some have had past troubles with law enforcement while others have grade-point averages pushing a 4.0. Smith said some of his students who went through the program are now attending college or working professionally in cities like Atlanta, Orlando and Tallahassee.

In some cases, Smith said, some of the program’s success stories will come back and serve in mentor roles. One of those who has volunteered time at Smith’s camp is former FSU running back Ryan Green.

“We’re building leaders, developing leaders and mentoring them. I still have people mentoring me,” Smith said. “I know the importance of a good mentor. We teach these kids that it’s OK to be smart. These kids can achieve great things and it’s our job to make sure they know that and to help them get there.”