Before Embarking on Successful NFL Career, Ihmir Smith-Marsette Flashed Talent in Water Polo

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

Before Embarking on Successful NFL Career, Ihmir Smith-Marsette Flashed Talent in Water Polo

To make a roster in the National Football League, one of America’s most elite and lucrative sports fraternities, takes superior talent, intense dedication and years of effort. Pro football is generally considered among the most physical and demanding of all sports. 

But even NFL players are in awe of what it takes to play water polo.

Case in point: Ihmir Smith-Marsette, currently a member of the Carolina Panthers. Smith-Marsette has paid his NFL dues. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2021, he joined the Kansas City Chiefs last year—and got a ring from being on the winning side of Super Bowl LVII. This season, traded to Carolina, he scored for the Panthers on an exhilarating 79-yard punt return.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

Courtesy: Glenn Cassidy

For a two-year period while attending St. Benedict’s Prep, a collegiate preparatory school in Newark, NJ, Smith-Marsette played water polo. When asked recently to compare water polo and football, he explained that: “You can’t really compare (them). But just know in water polo, you’re working every part of your body—just being able to be gritty, being able to bounce back from getting hit and being smacked around.

“There’s a lot of stuff in water polo that not a lot of people see (and) actually hurts,” Smith-Marsette added. “Being able to bounce back and take the physical punishment of it all.” This statement comes from a veteran at the highest level of what is generally considered to be the most violent of team sports.

Smith-Marsette certainly has what it takes to succeed in football. After his freshman year at St. Benedict’s, he transferred to Weequahic High School. From there, Smith-Marsette earned an athletic scholarship to Iowa, where he played four seasons for the Hawkeyes, before moving on to the NFL. 

According to Glenn Cassidy, his former St. Benedict’s water polo coach, Smith-Marsette could have enjoyed a different, albeit equally successful, water polo career.

“From the time he was young, his talent was unquestionable,” Cassidy said in a recent phone call. “I believe if Ihmir had stayed in water polo he would have been an All-American… (he) had the same potential to go to the next level in water polo, in terms of international play, as he did in football.”

Clearly, Smith-Marsette made the best choice of athletic careers. 

“Obviously, football’s a much more lucrative place to be,” said Cassidy, a St. Benedict’s lifer who for decades has coached and refereed water polo. “It’s hard to be critical of the fact that he left water polo and got into track, where he was an All-American athlete, and then football, where of course …he’s gone on to play for a Super Bowl-winning team.”

Said Smith-Marsette: “It was incredible going to the Super Bowl, seeing the things that I’ve seen and the people that I met—and making memories with my teammates…. It was beautiful, and I plan on getting back there one day.”

New Jersey is clearly in his blood. During Smith-Marsette’s time in Kansas City, he teamed up with Isiah Pacheco, a Rutgers product, also from the Garden State, who has emerged as the Chief’s top option out of the backfield. 

“I did know Pop; we went on the same recruitment trip to Rutgers,” Smith-Marsette said, then added about their year in Kansas City: “We always talk about being in Jersey together. It’s incredible to have somebody from your same state being able to live out their dreams, taking advantage of every opportunity given to them.”

Smith-Marsette’s life story is also a case study—in brief—of St. Benedict’s success story.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette

Courtesy: Glenn Cassidy

“At St. Benedict’s, we try to challenge our kids to perform at the highest levels,” Cassidy said. “That’s true in the classroom, on the athletic field, in leadership positions. We push [our students] to perform at the highest levels.”

When it comes to water polo, a sport that enjoys little of the recognition that football in America does, the St. Benedict’s Gray Bees’ success reflects the character of the athletes and the institution they play for.

“The fact that we’ve been about to take kids who don’t know how to swim and know nothing about (water polo) and make them competitive with the best teams on the East Coast has been our badge of honor for many years,” Cassidy said. “When we get an athlete like Ihmir, or J.R. Smith or Precious Achiuwa—and so many others who have come through—we do our best to hone their talent, make sure we’re doing right by them… and provide them with the best opportunities.”

When asked to describe his switch to football after swimming and playing polo with the Gray Bees, Smith-Marsette was definitive about what came first.

“My favorite sport now is definitely football,” he declared. “I grew up a football fan; it’s something I loved (watching) with my family on Sundays. Swimming and water polo are sports I played…. I mean, I fell in love with them, but ultimately football will always be my number one love.”

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