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Rod Smalley, former Santa Ynez football great, dies at age 50

Rod Smalley, former Santa Ynez football great, dies at age 50

Rod Smalley, one of the greatest football players in Santa Ynez High School history, died on Jan. 1.

He was 50. 

Smalley spent years as a football coach and school employee at Douglas High in Minden, Nevada. He was named the Santa Maria Times' All-Area MVP as a senior at Santa Ynez in 1989. 

Santa Ynez' current head football coach Josh McClurg, a Santa Ynez High grad himself, was a few years behind Smalley growing up. McClurg says Smalley was idolized by the younger kids in the Valley for his toughness.

"He was one of the hardest hitting, win-at-all-costs type of guys I've ever seen," McClurg said of Smalley. "Lots of energy."

McClurg was in the eighth grade while Smalley was staring with the Pirates varsity football team in 1989.  

"That team of 1989 was one of the best team's in our school's history," McClurg said. "As an eighth grader, we idolized him and loved watching him play football."

Smalley had 144 tackles that season, playing under former longtime coach Ken Gruendyke.

"Rod's number of tackles were actually down this year because most of the teams we played wouldn't run against him," Gruendyke said in 1989. 

The Pirates went 10-2 that season, the best mark since the 1969 CIF championship squad at Santa Ynez, which also went 10-2. The Pirates lost to Orange 15-14 in the quarterfinals of the playoffs in '89.

Smalley earned All-CIF honors three straight seasons at Santa Ynez. As a senior, he was a 6-foot-3, 215-pound linebacker, who earned a full-ride scholarship to UCLA as a middle linebacker. He also played in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Smalley and Jacob Fiske, the 1993 All-Area MVP, are the only Pirates to earn that honor since 1985.

On Facebook, Douglas High head football coach Ernie Monfiletto shared his memory of Smalley, who was a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at the school in the small Western Nevada town of Minden.

“Rod was a friend, confidante and mentor to everyone. Rod was the ultimate father, and it was clear that his primary goal in life was to be a great dad and role model for his kids,” Monfiletto wrote in the social media post. “He had high expectations for his children and their success reflects that effort, they are his legacy!” 

Smalley was a truancy coordinator at Douglas High.

Signs of Smalley's toughness were apparent at UCLA, where he played through broken wrists on each arm, according to the LA Times. The LA Times reported that the bone in his right wrist basically died, requiring a bone graft from his hip. Smalley also played through a neck injury during his senior season.

Smalley was named the N.N. Sugarman Perpetual Trophy for Best Leadership during his 1994 season at UCLA. He played briefly in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

McClurg relayed the story of Smalley playing with Matt Soensken, an Arroyo Grande High graduate who also played at UCLA. Soensken and McClurg both coached together at Nipomo High.

"Matt was on the offensive line and Rod was on defense," McClurg said. "Matt said the hardest hitter he ever faced was going up against Rod Smalley every day in practice. 

"He kind of epitomized the Santa Ynez style of football. Rod was a big guy and he was mean and nasty on the field."

McClurg says Smalley's mentality and physical style of play is something that has lived on at Santa Ynez and can still be found in the DNA of the current program.

"We've shown our kids the film since I've coached here," McClurg said. "The '80s and '90s highlights -- our teams have always watched that. My plan when I took over here (in 2012) was to start bringing that back and Rod embodies that spirit."

Smalley is survived by his parents Roy and Karen; his three children, Madison, Christopher and Cole; and their mother, Wendy.

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