As far back as he can remember, Zach Smith has spent time around professional athletes.
His father Chip is one of the nation's most well-known athletic trainers, and as a youngster Zach was there watching future NFL stars work out. Like most kids, he had a dream of being a pro athlete.
Now 21, Smith still hasn't given up that dream. But he's got a pretty good backup plan, too.
Instead of selecting a less challenging college path, Smith used his college experience to build an impressive resume outside of football.
"I probably (work so hard on academics) because my dad's on that (athletic) side of the business," Smith said. "He sees guys every day and knows the life of a pro athlete is just a few years. Most college guys never see the (pro) field. My parents always instilled in me grades No. 1 and athletics No. 2."
Smith expects to graduate from Duke University next month after just three years there with a degree in political science. And a 3.7 GPA.
Knowing he would have his undergraduate degree so fast, the Buford grad planned to take advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed him to transfer to another Division I-A school and gain immediate athletic eligibility. Duke granted Smith a release last November and he accepted a scholarship offer from California head coach Jeff Tedford.
But the NCAA voted to change the graduate transfer rule in January, forcing Smith to appeal. He was granted a waiver March 29, so he can head to California this summer with two more years of football eligibility (he had a medical redshirt for the 2006 season). The Pac-10 school likes the 6-foot, 230-pound Smith, a linebacker at Duke, as a fullback. But the school also is getting a great student on his way to a master's degree and law school.
Smith doesn't slack off in any area. He could have taken a simple language at Duke, but chose Hebrew, which he speaks fluently now after trips the past two summers to Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
He volunteers as an elementary school tutor in Durham, he plays guitar and he leads Athletes in Action services. Given his father's background, he's also a freak in the weight room who holds Duke strength records for power clean (385 pounds), squat (600 pounds) and vertical jump (39 inches).
Those numbers may give him a shot in pro football, but he won't need his athletic ability to be successful.
"I've got a great degree from Duke and I will have a great degree from Cal," Smith said. "I'd love to play pro football, who wouldn't? But I'm not relying on that to happen."
Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnett
dailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.