Meet the women who raised OSU’s leading rusher and biggest personality

Meet the women who raised OSU’s leading rusher and biggest personality

Ollie Gordon made funny faces at the Arizona State student section last weekend. That personality? Having fun? Keeping it light? “His mom and his aunt are that way,” Mike Gundy said. “He took their personality.”

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Sep 15, 2023, 7:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Sep 15, 2023, 7:00am CDT

STILLWATER — Ela Smith yells and hollers, then yells and hollers some more watching Ollie Gordon play for Oklahoma State.

“I scream so much,” she said, “I get headaches.”

She chuckles.

“He’s a part of me.”

Sounds like a mom, right?

But she isn’t the Cowboy running back’s mom, not biologically anyway. Tarona Smith is the one who gave birth to Gordon, but soon after, her sister Ela started helping with little Ollie. The sisters raised him together.

“If I wasn’t with my mom, I was with my aunt,” Gordon remembered, “and I was with both of them a majority of the time.”

It made Gordon who he is today, not only the Cowboys’ leading rusher heading into Saturday’s non-conference finale against South Alabama but also one of OSU’s biggest personalities. He is friendly and chatty and rarely seen without a smile. 

A rare exception: he was seen poking fun at the Arizona State student section at the end of last week’s OSU victory, making sad faces and even sticking out his lip like he was pouting.

But for teammates and coaches, his personality draws people to him. In this transfer-portal era where roster turnover can be significant, Gordon is a much-needed connector.

“His mom and his aunt are that way,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy told Sellout Crowd. “He took their personality.”

Gundy likens the Smith sisters to the high school classmates you know are still going to be fun to hang out with at your class reunion.

“And they are the life of the party,” Gundy said.

Gordon sure seems that way, too. 

When reporters interview players and coaches after practice, there are regularly a handful of Cowboys who shoutout the interviewees. A few weeks ago, as defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo talked to reporters, a couple of players started hollering, “Nar-do! Nar-do!”

Among the group: Gordon.

Whenever such a thing happens, he’s normally part of the fun.

“With the personality that he has, he definitely is a person that everybody could talk to,” said fellow running back Elijah Collins, a transfer from Michigan State. “He’s not afraid to do that. If it be on the field, off the field, locker room, classroom, he’s gonna speak up and speak his mind.

“His personality is really contagious.”

‘If I wasn’t there, she was’

Ela Smith remembers the first time she got to take her baby nephew on an adventure.

Tarona remembers, too.

“Barely a month” old, she said of Ollie.

When Ela (pronounced EE-luh) proposed the idea of taking Ollie with her to visit a friend, Tarona (pronounce Ta-ROW-nah) wasn’t so sure.

“She was literally looking at me like I was a stranger,” Ela said. “Like, ‘I don’t know if you can take my child. I don’t know about that.’ I’m looking at her like, ‘I’m your sister.’”

When Ollie Gordon signed with Oklahoma State, his aunt Ela Smith (left to right), his grandma Jacqueline Nelson and his mom, Tarona Smith were there. The Smith sisters have been there for the Cowboy running back every step of the way. (Provided)

“I mean, he’s brand new,” Tarona interjected. “It was new to both of us. If I’m going to mess up, then let me mess up on my own.”

“It was your first.”

“And my only.”

The sisters laughed.

Even from those early days, they worked together to raise Ollie. Taking care of him when he was little. Getting him to practices and games as he got older. Making sure he got homework done.

Tarona and Ela have been a team.

“Where I wasn’t, she was,” Tarona said. 

The sisters say they were simply modeling lessons they learned from their mom, who was a single parent. She preached supporting each other, always encouraging, always motivating, always being there.

“And she always told us, ‘Stay together,’” Ela said.

She didn’t just tell her daughters that; she showed them, going to every game and track meet and assembly.

That’s what Tarona and Ela did for Ollie. When he started playing T-ball, for example, both were there for the games. 

Now, they get to laugh about the memories. 

Ollie didn’t grasp the concept of staying in his area of the field when playing defense — or maybe he didn’t care — so he’d run to get the ball no matter where it was hit. One of the girls on his team once broke down crying because she wasn’t getting the ball.

“Ollie was like, ‘I’ll get it,’” Tarona said. “He gets the ball and gives it to her — ‘Here, run it in’ — and we’re all in tears.

“He’s a protector.”

But he wasn’t always gentle. He’d occasionally run over his teammates to get to a ball, though he’d stick out his hand and offer to help them up afterward.

“That’s how we switched him over from T-ball,” Ela said.

Football soon became Ollie’s main sport, and even though it meshed with his rough-and-tumble nature, his never-met-a-stranger personality was on display, too.

At the end of one of Ollie’s peewee football practices, he ran to Tarona.

“Can we take him home with us?” she remembers Ollie asking.

“Who?” Tarona replied.

“This guy,” Ollie said, pointing to one of his teammates, a kid named Matthew. 

“Son, I don’t know his parents, so I can’t just put him in the car and take him home.”

“Yes, you can. You’re Mama. You can do anything.”

“Son, I’ll tell you what: tomorrow if he’s still out here, I’ll take him.”

Matthew was there after the next practice, so Tarona gave him a ride. He and Ollie have been friends ever since.

Being kind and looking out for others were things Tarona encouraged in Ollie while Ela was more about teaching structure and goals.

“The disciplinarian,” Tarona said with a smile.

Tarona would actually tell Ollie, “Call Dad” when she wanted him to check with Ela about something. For several years, Ela had no idea she was known as “Dad.”

Not that she minded.

“She’s more lenient, more the mother,” Ela said of Tarona. “And I’m more, ‘Let’s get this done, let’s focus, have a plan.’”

But a role both women play is fan. No one pulls harder for Ollie Gordon.

‘Without them, I wouldn’t be here today’

If you want to get Tarona and Ela Smith talking excitedly, the high school football playoffs during Ollie’s junior year are a good place to start.

He was already established as one of the best players at Euless Trinity, a powerhouse program in the Dallas-Fort Worth area playing in Texas’ largest football classification. But in the playoffs, he became a star in the football-crazy state.

Ollie Gordon was raised by his mom, Tarona Smith, right, and his aunt Ela Smith, left, and just like when he was little, they still come to the Oklahoma State tailback’s games. (Provided)

“He showed out,” Ela said. “We didn’t know that he was capable of doing that.”

In a third-round game against Allen, arguably the premier prep program in Texas, Gordon had a game for the ages.

“He rushed for 455 yards,” Ela said.

“Six touchdowns,” Tarona interjected.

“Over 50 carries,” Ela continued.

Actually, it was only 49 carries, but the rest is absolutely accurate. Gordon’s performance went viral online and drew a bunch of college recruiters. His scholarship offers went from two to too many to count.

The rest of the story: Gordon had broken his clavicle a few weeks earlier and played through it.

“We have always taught him,” Tarona said, “you finish what you start.”

But Tarona and Ela Smith showed him that they’d be there, too. They were there every step of the way when Ollie was growing up, and they continue traveling to games, whether in Stillwater or on the road. 

“They don’t have a choice, or I would have a problem with it,” Ollie said, stone faced, then he broke into a smile.

“I just thank them. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m just thankful for how they raised me.”

As grateful as he is for his mom and his aunt, they are every bit as proud of him. No, he’s not a perfect kid. He’s made mistakes on the field and off of it. But they see his kindness, his heart and his passion.

“You’ve got people that live for a lifetime and still don’t know what their purpose is,” Ela said. “I see that, and that’s the best part as parents, raising children that you see that gift and that purpose. You try to pull it out of them so they can propel.

“It’s just like, ‘Oh, he’s doing it.’”

 

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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