By Chris B. Bennett
The Seattle Medium
When it comes to Sav’ell Smalls, the five-star defensive end from Garfield High School, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news, for Garfield fans, is that he will lead the Bulldogs into battle for the next two years. The bad news for opponents is that they will have to face him for the next two years and he’s only getting better.
According to 24/7 sports, Smalls (6’4”, 240 lbs), who helped the Bulldogs reach the Class 3A state semifinals last year for the first time since 1977, is a “do-everything kind of defender that can rush the passer as an outside linebacker, drop into coverage and defend the pass or put his hand down and do some dirty work in the run game.”
Garfield High School Head Football Coach Joey Thomas agrees and believes from a coaching perspective that Smalls is the best of both worlds – a smart player who is very coachable and a dominant player with an aggressive edge to him.
“He’s a relentless beast,” says Thomas. “He has a Grant Hill personality off the field, but when he gets on the field he’s Ndamukong Suh. He’s nasty, he’s not dirty but he has that nasty, gritty mentality that any coach would love to have on their team.”
Currently ranked as the 4th best player in the country in the class of 2020 by ESPN (#1 in the West), 4th in the country by Rivals.com and #3 by 24/7 sports, Smalls has scholarship offers from 23 Division I schools including Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and ten out of the twelve teams in the Pac-12.
Both his mother, Sophia Butler and father, Joseph Butler are Garfield alums and they are excited that their son is a part of the resurgence of the school’s football program, which had been struggling to have a winning season until Thomas arrived a few years ago.
“Just to see the rebuild is just miraculous and to know that he’s a part of that is really something,” says Joseph Butler. “Regardless of what happens he will have a legacy for the rest of his life.”
However, Smalls’ parents are quick to point out that they are raising all of their kids, Sav’ell and his two younger brothers, to value education, to be respectful, provide for themselves and to be able to stand on their own two feet. But more importantly that football and athletics is not the be all, end all.
When talking to Smalls, who carries a 3.8 GPA, you quickly realize that he is a student athlete in every sense of the word. He’s a soft-spoken, articulate young man, who sets high standards for himself both on and off the field, and more importantly, has very high aspirations for himself beyond the game of football.
“He’s phenomenal in the classroom,” says Thomas. “He has a 3.8 GPA and he was upset he didn’t get a 4.0. Anytime you have a GPA that high and you’re not satisfied with it that’s a huge testament to how he was raised and who he is as a young man.”
His mother says that Smalls has always been competitive both on and off the field, especially when it comes to his academics.
“His passion has always been a little different for football and his schoolwork,” says Mrs. Butler. “He’s always wanted to be the best in the classroom as well as on the field. He doesn’t want anybody to have better grades than him. He’s just always been hungry to just be the best at everything.”
While Smalls, a self-described perfectionist, takes care of business in the classroom, it’s his efforts on the field that have caught the attention of college coaches across the country. He’s a very vocal, disruptive force that can drive opposing coaches crazy, and his play is very contagious and can elevate the efforts of his entire team when the game is on the line.
“I’m happy that guy plays on my team,” says Thomas. “People always say they want to be the best, but they don’t want to put in the work that it takes to be the best. I think he has an opportunity to be one of, if not the, most dominant defensive football player to come out of Washington. I don’t believe he’s there yet, but I think that if he continues to grow and work then he’ll become that.”
Understandably, Thomas is all smiles when he talks about Smalls being the anchor of his team in the upcoming season. Only a junior, Smalls’ versatility will provide many opportunities for him to influence the outcome of a game.
“He’s becoming stronger, and more dominant,” said Thomas. “[This year] we’re going to allow him to be the physical, dominating presence that he is. He was dominant last year, no doubt about it, but this year I think he’s just going to take over games.”
Thomas’ predictions are not without merit. Smalls has continued to grow and perfect his craft in the off-season. His workout days consist of a lifting session, a position specific session to work on technique, and he has a body mechanics stretching session to increase his flexibility – all in an effort to maintain a high level of play on both sides of the field for four full quarters.
“I’m always working on something so I can get better,” says Smalls, who maintains a clean diet that includes coconut water and only complex carbs. “I’ve never been in better shape and I’m going to keep getting in better shape.
“We’ve added new moves to my arsenal, and my footwork is the best it’s ever been,” added Smalls. “I feel like I’m definitely more skilled, and this year I’m hoping to be even more explosive and faster.”
Thomas says that Smalls is a technicians and it’s his work ethic that sets him apart from his peers. When you combine that with his size, strength, athleticism and growing football IQ, according to Thomas, “you have something special.”
“His work ethic is far greater than his talent and I think that’s the biggest misconception [about him],” says Thomas. “You know people think his talent is far better than his work ethic, but his work ethic is far superior to his talent.”
“People see his accolades and they see his success, but they don’t see the hard work that he puts in,” continued Thomas. “He’s by far the hardest working kid that I’ve coached. He puts it in and that’s why he is as successful as he is.”
While Smalls’ individual accolades precede him, he recognizes that football is a team sport and in order for his team to be successful he must encourage his teammates to be the best that they can be, trust in one another and buy into the program and the game plans put in place for each opponent.
“He’s learning how to be a leader and that’s one of hardest things for a young man or any person to learn,” says Thomas. “He definitely wants to make his teammates better, he encourages his teammates to come to all of the workouts that he does. He’s always trying to help his teammates with techniques and things that they can do to improve. He’s definitely a team guy.”
Despite all of the good things that come with being a top prospect, Smalls has also learned the burden of success. There are those who question his national ranking and claim that he’s not as good as advertised. There are also those who believe that his team’s run in the playoffs last season was a fluke and that the team will struggle this season to find wins against quality opponents. But Smalls, who really doesn’t need any outside influences to motivate him, likes to make his points on the field and uses the rhetoric of his critics and the critics of his team as motivation to improve as a player and a leader.
“I don’t let that affect me,” say Smalls of the criticism and skeptics. “If I’m going to let it affect me I’m going to let it affect me in a positive way. I’m going to let it affect me the next time I go hit that bench press, the next time I hit that mile or next time I hit that handwork. I’m going to just hit it harder because that’s in the back of my head.”
In listening to Smalls and his parents, its obvious that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that he learns and implements the lessons instilled in him by his parents.
“We encourage him to be his best at all times,” says Mr. Butler. “Even when people make negative comments [we encourage him] to use that as fuel to be better and to do better. You don’t have to attack them or their character negatively, you just keep right on rolling and not let that stuff bother you.”
That notion is something that Smalls and his teammates truly believe as they get ready to embark on a new football season, and look to bring a championship back to the Central area.
“We’re really determined right now to prove people wrong,” says Smalls. “We are not people’s favorites and we’re not trying to be people’s favorites. We are just trying to win games. We want to do what we did last year, but this year we want to finish it off [with a championship].”
One of the most impressive things about Smalls is that he understands, even though he has aspirations to play in the NFL, that football is not something that he will be able to do forever and that he must use football as a means to get an education.
“You can’t play football forever. So, I’m definitely trying to use football to drive my academics because Sav’ell the person is definitely more valuable than Sav’ell the football player,” he says. “I feel that I’ve got a lot more qualities than catching a football or getting a sack.”
With dreams of getting a business degree and to one day start his own business, Smalls says that part of his decision on which school he will attend may hinge on the quality of their business program.
“I want to be a businessman, use my social skills and pick up knowledge everywhere I can to drive the rest of my life forward,” he says about his plans for life after football.
As it relates to accepting the challenge of having a target on his back because of his national profile and the high expectations of the Bulldogs’ football team in the upcoming season, Sav’ell Smalls relishes at the thought of the challenge.
“Pressure makes diamonds,” he says. “Everybody feels pressure but it’s how you respond to that pressure. It can make you or break you. [Playing under pressure] makes me who I am. I like the spotlight. In the biggest moments, in the littlest moments, but especially in the biggest moments that’s when I come alive.”
“At the end of the day it’s [us] versus everybody else and I like our chances at all times,” concludes Smalls.
Despite all the accolades bestowed upon him, many people forget that Smalls is only 16 and that he still has time to map out his future. But for now he has an ever evolving story to share that should inspire those who look up to him.
“I’m a super proud father because I can remember a time when he was doubted,” says Mr. Butler. “I always believed that he had it in him and now to see it manifest itself is just extraordinary.”
“Hopefully, [his success] opens the door for other children behind him, especially children that play defense,” adds Butler.