Lance Ito grew up a Los Angeles Rams fan. He cheered from the L.A. Memorial Coliseum stands in October 1961 when five-time Pro Bowler Jon Arnett returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions.
Although his heart and loyalty remain with the Rams and the hometown UCLA Bruins, the 67-year-old Ito now has a legit reason to root for at least one player on a football team located outside Los Angeles. It's a guy nicknamed after the famed judge from the well-publicized O.J. Simpson murder trial: Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Ito Smith.
"No, I was unaware of the existence of a pro football prospect by the name of 'Ito' Smith," Judge Ito told ESPN. "Having looked him up and discovering he is a handsome and talented fellow, certainly not a bad thing. Pro football is a tough business, and I wish him a long and healthy career."
Smith's eyes bulged and his smile widened when told of Ito's well wishes. The story behind Smith's nickname, told countless times, never seems to lose its luster.
Smith, from Mobile, Alabama, was born weighing 7 pounds, 8.5 ounces on Sept. 11, 1995, the day Judge Ito ordered the prosecution to begin its rebuttal in the Simpson case. Smith's given name is Romarius. But when Smith's cousin, Brittney Smith, entered the hospital room, she saw her baby cousin's features and blurted out, "That little baby looks just like the judge off TV."
Brittney was just 4 years old at the time.
"I guess she had been watching the trial with her grandmother," Smith said of his cousin. "And everybody in the family has been calling me Ito ever since."
Smith's mother, Raven Smith-Isaac, still laughs when recalling how her son's nickname evolved.
"I've heard the story told about 20 different ways," Smith-Isaac said, "and I'm the one who has to go into all the whole details. I'm just used to it now.
"Of course, everybody was paying attention to the trial because it aired day and night. But we didn't know Brittney had really been paying that much attention. When she first saw the baby, it was the first thing that came out of her mouth, that he looked like Judge Ito."
Through middle school, Smith's peers called him Romarius. His mother called him the same only when she was angry and had to yell Ro-marius with emphasis. But by high school, Ito had caught on with everybody as Smith started to establish himself on the football field.
"I always was good," Smith said. "But when I got to high school, I started getting more serious about it. I used to work out every day by myself. Then I got to college and started working even harder."
Telling the story behind his name became almost as routine as going for a workout. Smith admitted to not knowing much about Judge Ito and the Simpson trial until he started watching documentaries on Netflix.
Does he agree he looked like Judge Ito as a baby?
"A little bit," he said with a laugh. "I guess I looked like a little Japanese baby."
What Smith might not know is that Judge Ito, who is of Japanese descent, was a standout athlete himself. He won the senior scholar-athlete award from L.A.'s John Marshall High School in 1968. It was given to the sports letterman graduating with the highest grade-point average. Ito played tennis.
"Although I was a better-than-fair athlete, I was a little guy, and football was not a realistic possibility," Judge Ito said. "No, I did not receive any college athletic-scholarship offers."
Attending law school at the University of California, Berkeley worked out rather well instead.
Although Judge Ito is sure to always have a place in American history, the future will determine whether Ito Smith makes himself a household name in the NFL. The fourth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi joins an already crowded backfield, with Devonta Freeman the starter and Tevin Coleman the backup, though Coleman has just one year remaining on his contract.
Smith had some impressive moments during offseason workouts and will have to carve out a role on special teams with his return ability. However, the Falcons also are high on undrafted rookie running back Malik Williams, so Smith can't relax and think he is assured a spot on the 53-man roster.
Some evaluators projected Smith as a seventh-round pick, but the Falcons had no problem selecting him much higher.
"I've been overlooked all my life, man," Smith said. "It's nothing new to me. I'm actually kind of used to it. It doesn't really get me mad because I know God always makes a way for me, no matter what. He always comes through for me. I'll just continue to work hard and keep that chip on my shoulder and just give it all I've got."
He'll win over a lot of fans in Atlanta with such an attitude. He already has one person with a familiar name backing him from the West Coast.