KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — After 11 years in the NFL playing at tight end, Powell native Lee Smith called it a career on Jan. 25.
“If I would’ve tried to go back, I would’ve been that guy they were trying to kick out of the league because it wasn’t my top priority,” said Smith. “I wouldn’t have been able to be the football player, the teammate, the man inside those buildings that I was for these 11 years, and I wasn’t willing to ever walk back in if I wasn’t all in. So, it was time.”
Smith spent his final year in the NFL playing for former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith in Atlanta with the Falcons. Lee knew it would be his final year in the NFL, crediting Arthur Smith for playing his eleventh season.
“Arthur Smith is the main reason I decided to play year eleven and go down to Atlanta and give it my all. I was ready to kinda retire last year, but I knew I had a little juice left in me. I wasn’t quite ready like I am now,” said Smith.
Smith and his wife and four kids enjoyed a farewell tour of their own. Reflecting on the blessings the NFL has brought to their family. But Smith also reflects on his journey to the top that was filled with trials and tribulations off the field.
“I literally got raised by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Football runs in the Family
Smith grew up around football. His father, Daryle Smith, was an offensive lineman at the University of Tennessee. Daryle was a part of the 1985 team that represented the orange and white in the 1986 Sugar Bowl. He would follow that with six seasons in the NFL.
“I was born my dad’s Rookie year in Dallas, so from the day I was born until three weeks ago, the NFL, and it still is, so my whole life it will be a part of my life,” said Lee Smith.
Naturally, Lee grew up on the gridiron. He played football for the Powell Panthers, aspiring to one day play in the NFL.
“My father played and I just always thought I was going to play in the NFL as a young kid.”
Smiths’ dream would become a reality, but his path to the NFL came with trials and tribulations off the field.
Trials and Tribulations
Life after the NFL took a dark turn for Lee’s father.
“My father was the best man I’ve ever known as a kid, but then it shifted pretty aggressively overnight almost. Post-NFL, post trying to start a business, and it all just came crashing down,” said Smith.
“Alcoholism took hold of his life in a very aggressive way. We were burying him ten years later, from never drinking a beer to never seeing the angry him, nothing to just poof… so that sent me.”
His father’s struggles with alcoholism would eventually send Lee down a dark path as well.
“Not to blame my dad for everything, you know, I had to make my own decisions but 12-18-year-old kids are idiots either way especially when they’re males,” Smith said reflecting on his past.
“But when you don’t have that person steering you, or pushing you the right way, it’s hard man. And I just got off the rails, I became very self-destructive.”
Smith was a three-star tight-end prospect out of high school according to the 247Sports Composite. And as a Tennessee kid, he dreamed of playing orange and white. Smith signed with to play for the Vols, but he would never see the field. He never even made it to training camp.
“I was a summer enrolee and got a DUI,” said Smith. “Actually my pretty bride was in the seat next to me, not many people know that story, so I should’ve let her drive looking back.”
Smith got a DUI and failed a class for cheating.
“Coach Fulmer just said man, you’ve got to get it figured out buddy, you’re not going to like how this story ends if you don’t get it figured out,” said Smith.
So, he ended up at Marshall.
A Thundering Comeback
Marshall University was the clean break Smith needed. A jaded player who felt he should have been playing in the SEC, Smith had some adjusting to do playing for the Thundering Herd.
“They (Marshall) don’t even have an indoor facility and I’m practicing outside in the snow and I’m like, ‘I’m too good for this place,’ which was absolute crap,” mentioned Smith.
“That place was one of the main things that saved my life.”
Smith married his high school sweetheart, Alisha, and the two welcomed their first-born son, Brody, all while playing college football in Huntington, West Virginia.
“She’s the best woman on the planet and if it wouldn’t have been for her and that little boy, I would’ve had no chance,” said Smith.
With two people counting on him, Lee knew he had to get his act together. He learned how to be a husband, father, elite run-blocker, and quarterback protector. Smith went on to play 11 years in the NFL.
“I tried to keep my head down and not come up for air as much as I could while still keeping it light and allowing me and my teammates to have a good time and enjoy those moments,” said Smith.
“But I never really came up for air until that U-Haul drive home.”
Life After Football
Smith accomplished a feat not many can do. Only 1.6% of college football players go on to play for a major professional team according to the NCAA. Smith played in the NFL for 11 seasons. He spent six total seasons with the Bills, four with the Raiders, and his final season in Atlanta. It was not until the three-hour and six-minute trek from Atlanta to Knoxville that Smith took time to process his accomplishments.
“My little eight-year-old was with me in the U-Haul on the way home and that’s when it all finally hit me of like, holy smokes man, I did it, said Smith.
“I’ll toot my horn a little bit it’s pretty cool. It’s something I’m excited about and I want to use all those blessings and all those things to help people and I think I’ve got a pretty solid plan of how to leave this game and do some good stuff.”
Smith plans to open a gym called Triple F Elite Training. The three F’s stand for, faith, family, and football in that order. The gym is open to males and females, of all ages, looking to take their game to the next level. Smith also plans to bring a “pro experience” to Knoxville.
“I wanted it built specifically to the specs of like I said what I’m used to, I can’t say train like a pro and be in a pro-environment if it not exactly what I’m used to in the NFL,” said Smith.
He also plans to become a youth mentor, helping guide young athletes who have found themselves on a troubled path.
“I want to get into a place where it’s like, alright, here’s what you did it was stupid, I’ve done it and worse so here’s what we need to do to get back on the rails and oh, by the way, go sit on the wall and do a wall sit for your punishment,” said Smith.
Smith’s passion project for the future is to develop scholarships to help young athletes searching for guidance train at his gym and help get them back on the right back.
“I can grab them and say, “Hey man, listen, when you get on the bright side of the darkness it’s pretty cool, but most people don’t, and the way you’re going statistics show you’re not going to make it so, I’m going to send a van to get you and were going to get your butt over to the gym three days a week,” said Smith detailing his new ambitions.
“Pro football allowed me to do all this, so I will always be eternally grateful for God for giving me this big ugly body and keeping it healthy and pro football for what it’s allowed me to do for this community going forward.”
Triple F is slated to open in summer 2022.