NORTH SMITHFIELD – His all-out smile that charms in an instant, affable personality and cordial “Yes, sir” response allows Paris Correia to fit in at North Smithfield High. His relentless desire to attack the opposition on the football field with impetuous abandon is also a plus, for sure.
Yet is hasn’t always been that simple.
Correia, a junior, doesn’t hide from the fact that he was booted off the team as a freshman, the final straw in a confluence of events that had seen him coast in life up until that fateful day. Handling the dismissal was Wes Pennington, the same head coach of the Northmen who has known Correia dating back to their time together with the Central Falls Panthers youth football organization.
“He’s always been tough on me,” said Correia about Pennington, offering a wry smile. “I thought he would yell for no reason, but now I see why he was always on me.”
For Correia, who over the past two seasons has emerged as one of the top two-way players in Division IV, the day that football was taken away has served as a means of motivation.
“When I first got kicked off, I didn’t really care,” Correia said. “After a while, I kind of regretted everything I did.”
CORREIA IS CONSIDERED a relative newcomer to the North Smithfield community, moving here (along with his mother Maria) prior to starting seventh grade. His formative years were spent living in the Darlington section of Pawtucket and competing for the C.F. Panthers, of which Pennington is one of the program’s founders.
“Paris, who I’ve known since he was eight, was on the junior pee wee team when I was the president of the organization,” noted Pennington, now in his third season at North Smithfield.
Even then Pennington could see what a burgeoning talent Correia was. The same shifty moves that have allowed Correia to rack up consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons at North Smithfield allowed him to soar so far ahead of his peers in terms of overall ability that the youngster was working from a position of strength.
“He was a Pop Warner star and got used to being treated as such,” Pennington remembers. “He was allowed to come to practice late and be lazy and not work hard.”
Correia concurs with Pennington’s recollection, saying “In Pop Warner we didn’t practice that serious. Plus my attitude was one of ‘Who cares?’”
Upon Correia learning that Pennington was coming to coach the Northmen following a stint as an assistant at Exeter/West Greenwich, his mind immediately drifted back to his C.F. Panther days – the good old days in which the player’s bad habits were overlooked because his skill set was beyond reproach. Plus, Correia had a predating connection with Pennington, a trump card that surely would come in handy on days when Correia was tardy to the practice field.
Pennington, who never directly coached Correia while associated with the Panthers, had other ideas. He was taking over a North Smithfield program that in the decade prior to his arrival in 2009 had posted as many winless league seasons (three) than winning campaigns (two). A state trooper, Pennington knew his first order of business was to breathe fresh air into a dormant program. Such a cultural change would best be accomplished as a no-sugarcoated coach ruling with an iron fist – one that wasted little time in unleashing its wrath upon Correia.
Talented or not, Pennington had seen enough of Correia to remove him from the equation with a few games left in the ’09 season. It was better to get rid of a bad root before it spread to the rest of the team.
“From Pop Warner, there were certain things that the coaches would let go. Now that he’s in high school, there are certain things he can’t lack,” pointed out Pennington “Maybe because of our connection or whatever, Paris was not adhering to our rules.
“His head wasn’t in the right place and he had to learn.”
“He didn’t take anything,” Correia said, at the time sidelined with a broken finger. “Every little thing I did was bad.”
FROM THE LOWEST of humbling lows came the long climb back to earning the trust of his coach. Not just from a football sense, mind you. To Correia, picking up the pace in school was just as crucial in his move from one side of life’s ledger to the other.
“School-wise I was doing horribly, it was bad,” Correia said. “Now as a junior I’m passing everything, five B’s.”
Correia remembers going to Pennington to inquire about how he could improve as a football player. Besides dropping that enormous chip off his shoulder, regular visits to the local gym had to become a must. Nowadays Pennington gets reports from friends that Correia is working out at the Planet Fitness located in Cumberland at five in morning, his “up and at ‘em” schedule based on whether North Smithfield plays Friday or Saturday. (Typically, Correia scales back the day before a game.)
“I’d set my alarm for 4:45,” said a deadly serious Correia, not blushing the slightest bit when the topic shifted to waking up a time normally reserved for farmers. “I wanted to show coach that I wanted to play.”
After a sophomore season in which Correia received first team all-division honors (as a defensive back), Pennington thought Correia was primed to take another step. The coach saw fit to appoint him a captain, one of four on the Northmen. Correia quickly embraced his newfound responsibilities, serving as a catalyst during captain’s practices held over the summer.
Such leadership continued throughout preseason camp as Correia started to get on the underclassmen in the same chastising manner that has become second nature to him.
“Since coach is always on me, I always get on the younger guys,” Correia says.
“He had to become a person everyone looks up to, not the person people are looking to joke around with,” Pennington said. “He now understands that he’s part of the team with the rest of the guys all pieces as well.”
THE ONE AREA where the coach/player accord has always been in sync is on the field. Standing on the sideline, Pennington simply marvels whenever Correia takes the handoff. For all his ability to take the ball to the house on a moment’s notice, the North Smithfield mentor is just as pleased whenever Correia, listed at 5-foot-7 “and a quarter” is a north-south runner.
“He sets guys up so that they become confused and don’t know whether he’s going to go (between the tackles) or bounce to the outside,” Pennington said. “He’s actually very strong and has the ability to break tackles when guys get a hand on the hips or feet.”
As a strong safety, Correia is just as deft in creating plays. In North Smithfield’s 14-12 win against previously undefeated Mt. Pleasant earlier this month, Correia came up with an interception near his team’s goal line in which he outworked Kilties wideout Emmanuel Marsh, who had a good four inches on Correia.
“I love to hit,” said Correia, once again breaking out into a grin. “Come up and make the tackle, that’s what I enjoy the best because defense wins the game.”
Pennington legitimizes Correia’s stance. The coach has watched him grow up in two years time, blossoming from an immature youngster to someone who has his head on straight. Now Correia, also a basketball player at N.S., talks about the future with reverence, whether it’s guiding the Northmen to a possible Super Bowl title or catching the fancy of some college recruiter.
Both sides admit they’ve seen the tough love pay off.
“We’ve come full circle,” Pennington affirmed.
Echoed Correia, “Everything has happened for the best.”