Pali High Wrestler Eric Smith-Williams Has Found a Father Figure in Comedian Jay Mohr
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
When he lost in the finals at the L.A. City Championships, Palisades High wrestler Eric Smith-Williams thought his season was over. However, he found out Saturday that the Oakland Section didn’t have a qualifier in the 145-pound division, so he’ll join teammate Ryan Woods (the City 106-pound champion) at this weekend’s CIF state meet in Bakersfield.
Making the trip north with them is Dolphins assistant coach and actor, comedian and radio host Jay Mohr, who has a strong bond with Smith-Williams.
“Eric is like a son to me,” Mohr says. “In fact, I refer to him as my third son when I’m with my friends and they know what I mean. I don’t say it lightly. I love this young man and having his family accept me into their circle has been a blessing.”
The feeling is mutual, as Smith-Williams credits Mohr with molding him into the wrestler he is today: “He’s been a father figure to me since my freshman year. He’s taught me to be a beast on the mat, to trust my shot and to set my goals high. That is to be a state champ.”
Smith-Williams, now a junior, was fifth at 138 pounds at City Finals last winter. He has moved up one weight class, taking third at BlackWatch in December, first at the Sam DeJohn Invitational in January and scoring three pins on his way to winning the Region 3 tournament earlier this month. He lost a tough 6-2 decision to Desi Lobos of Birmingham in this year’s City title match—only his sixth defeat in 35 matches.
“I told Eric you’re totally prepared to be here, you’re peaking at the right time and no matter what you won’t lose, you may just run out of time,” says Mohr, who volunteers countless hours to the Pali High team and its feeder program at Paul Revere Middle School under fellow stand-up comic Adam Hunter.
Smith-Williams used to play soccer but after failing to make the Pali High team as a freshman he met Erik Miranda (a 2015 Palisades wrestling alum who was serving as an assistant coach) at a football game and Miranda convinced him to try out. Smith-Williams even knows the date he joined the team.
“It was October 15, 2017,” he recalls. “I met Jay for the first time my freshman year when [former coach] Aldo Juliano brought him to practice. He’s been like the father I never had.”
Mohr, 49, grew up in northern New Jersey and was a wrestler at Verona High. He has since maintained his passion for the mat and shares his wisdom with his latest protege. He too recalls their first conversation:
“I walked up to Eric as he was stretching and asked ‘Are you varsity?’ He spoke so softly I could barely hear his answer, ‘No sir, I’m Eric.’ As funny as that was it was prophetic because that’s exactly who Eric is.”
Mohr recognized the cat-like quickness and fearless aggression Smith-Williams displays.
“When I first saw Eric three years ago I was impressed, no, curiously fascinated, by his speed,” Mohr says before leaving for a gig at Hollywood Improv. “He was so fast I couldn’t see what I normally see, like which foot is being pushed off from. What really impressed me was the pace with which he wrestled. The best way I can explain it is everyone in the room was rock and roll and Eric was jazz. He’s a master at improvisation. He’s never stressed out there. He keeps working, trying to perfect his instrument—himself. He hasn’t missed a practice. He works the hardest. That’s really all wrestling is, all life is—attendance and effort. You’re going to get knocked on your rear end a bunch of times, but you get up, you keep working and when you do you’ll see good results.”
Smith-Williams gets his work ethic from his mother Elita, whom he respects more than anyone. A single mom, she’s never known easy street, only that you work as hard as you can and you sacrifice because that’s the way it is. She has raised Eric and his older sister Beja (a 2018 Pali High graduate and now a Santa Monica College sophomore) without any nannies or after school programs. She wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to make the kids’ lunches. Then, she gets a head start on dinner. She also works nights. There are no handouts, no short cuts. She holds her kids to the highest standards and they’ve constantly met them.
“My mom has been to all of my matches and I owe my life to her literally and figuratively,” Smith-Williams says. “My dad’s been in jail for four or five years and just got out in December. I saw him again for the first time at City Duals and he came to City Finals too. I commend him for trying, but he’s missed too much of my life for me to call him my dad. He lives in Las Vegas and is trying to move back here but it’s not much to me either way. I’m with my mom and I’m grateful for her love and support.”
Smith-Williams lives at Vermont and Exposition near USC and takes a 6:15 a.m. train to Santa Monica, then catches the Route 9 (Blue) Bus to campus every morning. He doesn’t regret the hour or longer commute.
“I could’ve gone to Foshay or Dorsey since they’re close but I’m happy at Palisades,” he says.
Practice ends at 4:30, then it’s a bus to a train every night to get home, so he doesn’t enter the house until long after sundown. Then, he starts on his homework. Smith-Williams not only excels in the wrestling ring, but also in the classroom. He even made the Dean’s List this year.
“When he got fifth at City last year Eric made the decision then and there to throw all of himself into wrestling,” Mohr says. “He went every Tuesday and Thursday to Santa Monica Open Mat from 6-8 p.m. He worked one-on-one with me weekly. He even attended kids’ club wrestling on Fridays and Sundays to get more reps and be around other coaches. He didn’t absorb wrestling, he devoured it! If you add up the hours of extra practice Eric had in the offseason you can see he started the season with a year’s worth of extra experience. No one can catch up to that.”
Smith-Williams is eager to show what he can do at the state meet—an unexpected opportunity he doesn’t intend to waste.
“I love the fight, I embrace the grind,” Smith-Williams says. “There’s no greater feeling than to get your hand raised, but if not it humbles you. I’ve sacrificed a lot for this sport and I’ve lost friends because I haven’t given them enough attention. I’ll have plenty of time to party and all that. Right now, I want to live in the moment and dedicate myself to wrestling. If I lose, I analyze the video with Jay. I even ask the other coach how I can do better.”
Mohr, best known for his “Saturday Night Live” skits, his role as Peter Dragon in the TV series “Action,” and for his stint as a Fox Sports Radio host, overflows with pride talking about Smith-Williams:
“Friends? Doesn’t need’em. Girls? Same. Parties? Impossible.Soft drinks, chips, cookies? Nah. Eric’s not a common 16-year-old. He’s looking at free college and for Elita not to have to stress about college finances is exactly what she deserves.”
First things first, though, and Smith-Williams wants to win his mom a shiny gold medal.