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Smith makes his mark at NDSU

Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service Ryan Smith, grandson of Rollie Greeno, has had a successful career for the NDSU football team.

It was in Ryan Smith’s senior year of high school when it appeared Grandpa Greeno would have a tough time making the drive from his home in Jamestown to Wahpeton. It just so happened Smith’s Wahpeton Huskies were playing the Jamestown Blue Jays.

So being the resourceful man that he was, Rollie Greeno called friend and Blue Jays assistant coach Lennie Steinmetz to see if he could ride on the Jamestown team bus.

No problem.

Later that night, his grandson set a single-game rushing record with 388 yards. Smith scored six touchdowns in a 61-46 Wahpeton win.

“I can’t imagine how he gloated on the way home,” said Trudi Smith, Rollie’s daughter and Ryan’s mother. “It must have been awful.”

Rollie never missed one of Ryan’s games that year. Even in a playoff game against Beulah in the western part of the state, Rollie drove through a snow and sleet storm arriving in the middle of the first quarter.

No problem.

There are so many stories about Rollie Greeno that you could write a book. Well, there has been. He’s a focus in two of them including the latest by Robert D. Sawrey called “The Coach and the College.” On the outside, he’ll forever be remembered as a legendary football and track and field coach at Jamestown College.

On the inside, he was tougher than nails.

Today, with Furman University (S.C.) in town for the second round of the FCS playoffs at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, there is no need to wonder about the gene pool of the North Dakota State senior receiver.

“He’s probably the toughest football player I’ve ever been around,” said NDSU wide receivers coach Kenni Burns, who played in the Big Ten at Indiana. “Just mentally and physically. He’s short, small but has a lot of fight in him.”

Bison head coach Craig Bohl calls him pound-for-pound the fiercest competitor on the team.

“He’s the toughest football player I’ve ever played with,” said quarterback Brock Jensen, a fellow senior and current roommate. “Period.”

Rollie died in the spring of Ryan’s senior year at Wahpeton. His wish was for Ryan to play football and run track at Jamestown College. Even Trudi wasn’t sold on the Division I idea at NDSU.

For instance, she said, when Bohl was sitting at the dining room table at the family home in Wahpeton on a recruiting visit, she remembers the head coach asking Ryan what his expectations were at NDSU.

His reply was a national championship.

“I looked at him and thought, ‘Ryan, are you nuts?’ “ Trudi said. “It’s not going to happen. You’re 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds. But he’s kind of like a little bulldog; he does not step down.”

Not only did Ryan sign at NDSU, he played as a true freshman immediately establishing himself as one of the top kick returners in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

His lifetime position, running back, however, wasn’t working out. He was just too far down the depth chart, so the coaches switched him to receiver. No problem.

In three years, he’s reached fourth on the NDSU all-time receptions list with 136. You know the inner toughness of Grandpa Greeno would appreciate those numbers. As Trudi put it, his response now would be something along the lines of “I knew that would happen.”

“He thought I would never play here since North Dakota State went Division I,” Ryan said. “He always wanted me to succeed no matter what, and he thought the best place for me to succeed was at Jamestown College. So, oh yeah, he’s definitely smiling.”

He’s probably smiling at the total package. Ryan was named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference all-academic team this week with his 3.57 grade-point average in business administration.

Walking around campus, he’s about as mild-mannered as they come. It’s a trait that connects Ryan to Grandpa Greeno, said Rollie Greeno Jr., Rollie’s son. Both are competitive, but humble.

Two weeks ago when the NDSU players were accepting the Missouri Valley title trophy after the South Dakota win, Rollie Jr. saw Ryan off to the side and out of the attention. He noticed the same thing when the players were accepting the national championship trophy in Frisco, Texas.

“Dad liked to win, but he was always pretty modest about it,” said Rollie Jr., a retired high school teacher and coach in Apple Valley, Minn.

But once the football pads get strapped on, things change.

“He’s got the luxury of being an extremely professional person with his classwork, football and everything he does,” Burns said. “He doesn’t seem like an over-the-top guy, but on the football field he plays with an anger and a frustration and a willingness not to be denied more so than I think any other player on our team.”

Rollie Greeno was from a family of six brothers. The foreword for the book “Greeno: A Winning Tradition of Teaching and Coaching” was written by Tom Brokaw.

It’s a legendary name that will last for generations and probably beyond. Ryan says he still hears about his grandpa maybe once a month. Once, at a sales presentation, a gentleman came up to Ryan and talked about how he knew Rollie and what it was like to run cross country for him.

“Just to be a part of that, one of the greatest coaches ever in North Dakota, is quite something,” Ryan said.

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.