PEELER: Smith's Hard Work Made Him an NFL Starter
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. Even in his final year of college, Corey Smith wasn’t convinced he could make it to the National Football League.
For a lightly recruited, barely known player from Richmond’s John Marshall High School, being a successful professional was something he daydreamed about in the days before he left NC State in the spring of 2002. Even then, he had never even attended an NFL game in person.
But he hoped to get a chance.
“That's my dream, just to get into camp somewhere,” Smith said in a 2001 interview, confiding that he wanted to go into coaching or strength and conditioning training one day. “At least if I don’t make it, I can see what they do and what all they go through.
“I would like to see that.”
For seven years, he got to see it all first hand, while playing for three different NFL teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions. It was a remarkably long career for a player who signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent. He spent 2002 and ’03 on the Bucs’ active and inactive rosters. He went to Germany to play for the Berlin Thunder in 2004, and helped his team win the NFL Europe World Bowl XII title.
He signed with the 49ers in 2005, shifting from defensive end to linebacker. He was picked up by the Lions midway through the 2006 season, and contributed for three seasons as a starter, a reserve and a special teams player. He became a free agent at the end of the 2008 season, and was just beginning to look around for a new team, according to his agent.
That career has now seemingly come to an end. The 29-year-old Smith was one of four fishermen whose boat capsized in stormy weather in the Gulf of Mexico late Saturday afternoon. Prayers asking for a miracle rescue were answered Monday afternoon, when the overturned boat was found floating 35 miles off the western Florida coast, with a sole survivor clinging for life.
But it was not Smith. It was one of his close friends and workout partners, former South Florida football player Nick Schuyler, who survived the ordeal, while Smith, fellow Oakland Raiders defensive back Marquis Cooper and William Bleakley are believed to have perished in the choppy waters off of Clearwater, Fla. The search for the three missing men was called off early Tuesday morning.
“We were praying for a miracle,” said former Wolfpack cornerback J.J. Washington. “We didn’t get the one we were looking for.”
But it wasn’t from lack of trying. Washington, a seminary student and youth pastor in Atlanta who began a Bible study during his senior year at NC State, activated a prayer chain of the 50 or so former football players and former Wolfpack student-athletes who receive his on-line devotionals.
It was a particularly difficult task for Washington, whose older brother died from injuries he sustained in a boating accident off the coast of Clearwater during his freshman year at NC State. The search for his former teammate in those same waters brought back painful memories.
But it also triggered memories of the joy Washington saw on Smith’s face the last time the two visited, last spring at head coach Tom O'Brien's reunion of former Wolfpack football players. Smith, who had spent much of his career on the West Coast, hadn’t come back often in recent years, but wanted to reconnect with his former teammates.
“It was good to catch up with him,” Washington said. “He wanted to talk about what he learned in the NFL. And he talked about how much he had learned to love fishing. Even though he played in San Francisco, he made his home in the Tampa area, because he fell in love with the water.”
Smith was recruited to NC State by Mike O’Cain’s staff, but he was a two-year starter under Chuck Amato. His senior year, he tied the school record with six fumbles caused, helping the Wolfpack finish in the Top 25 in scoring defense and total defense. For his career, he had 158 tackles, 30 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks.
But his legacy at NC State and with his teams in the NFL was his hard-working nature. Maybe he wasn’t a superstar, but he showed up for work every day, kept his head low and did everything he could to improve his game.
“He wasn’t really highly recruited out of high school,” said former NC State assistant and current director of football operations Joe Pate. “A lot of people thought he wouldn’t make it in college, but he proved them wrong. Coming out of college, I don’t think many people thought he would wind up playing professional football for seven or eight years. But they were wrong too.”
He did it with hard work. His teammates and his coaches thought he was the most relentless, dedicated player on the squad his senior year.
“No matter what drill we were doing, he was going 100 percent in that drill,” Pate said. “That carried over when the ball snapped. He was just a full-speed guy.”
But a relatively quiet one, who generally avoided the spotlight.
“He talks with his play,” former safety Terrence Holt said of Smith in 2001. “He's not a guy who hoots or hollers. He just plays. I just think that is his personality.”
He stayed that way in the NFL, going to work each day and getting better. He was never very flashy or flamboyant, and never at the center of media attention until his final tragic few days.
“He was not your typical NFL football player,” said former teammate Craig Moody. “As far as talent, he was not Mario Williams or Manny Lawson or some other superstar. But you wouldn’t find anybody who worked any harder. He kind of quietly went about making a nice career for himself in the NFL.”
Smith remained loyal to NC State, which he chose over Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia because he liked the food he was served in a campus dining hall on his recruiting visit. By the time he was a senior, he was among the strongest players on the team, tying offensive lineman Shane Riggs for the best bench press in a preseason competition by lifting 475 pounds.
His biggest goal as a senior was to become an All-ACC or All-American player, because he hoped that would get him to the NFL. He was a second-team All-ACC pick and the winner of the Carey Brewbaker Award as NC State’s top defensive lineman.
But, as it turned out, he didn’t need any of those post-season accolades: he reached his ultimate goal thanks to his own hard work.
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.