Wednesday, February 07, 2001

Robert Smith's Best Yet to Come

February 7, 2001
By Len Pasquarelli

Nearly eight years after the fact, and on the heels of Wednesday's surprising announcement that Minnesota Vikings standout Robert Smith is retiring from football at age 28, it's easy to recall the 1993 scouting combine and the undeniable feeling this dazzling young tailback was a little bit different kind of guy.

Not weird different, mind you, the way some players are when you first encounter them in the lobby of the downtown Indianapolis hotel where NFL officials annually bivouac the premier prospects for every year's draft class. Just, well, different different, sort of like the brown pair of loafers worn with a tuxedo.

In a hotel filled with 300-pounders, most of whom likely majored in phys ed, the presence of the engaging Smith was notably incongruous.

So gracefully did Smith articulate his views on issues so wide-ranging as to have been disarming that one couldn't help but walk away thinking this guy was one of that rare breed that plays football but refuses to be defined by it.

An hour of rummaging through the basement for the stenographer's notebook labeled "Combine '93" revealed that the non-football topics covered in a 30-minute interview included world hunger and the place of the black athlete as role model.

So it wasn't stunning on Wednesday morning when the cell phone jangled and an editor said Smith was walking away from the game.

Surprising, yeah, because Smith is coming off a career 2000 season in which he led his conference in rushing yards, and he is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Translation: A rich man would have gotten even richer in the next few months, particularly given the business acumen and negotiating savvy of Smith's agent, Neil Cornrich.

But shocked by this sudden sprint authored by a back who, during his eight-season tenure, ranked as the league's premier long-distance runner? Uh, no, not really. Not having remembered that first meeting with Smith, who departed Ohio State following his sophomore season.

There were rumblings last week, on the Internet fan site Vikings, that Smith had whispered to confidants he might have played his final game. He confirmed that Tuesday night for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"The people who know me best," Smith said later in the day, "might not have seen this coming. At least not exactly at this time. But they knew that, while I love the game and my passion for it is something no one can question, football wasn't my life. There are more important things."

That there always have been more essential things for Smith, who last week underwent the third knee surgery of his career, made the retirement decision at least a little easier.

Most players begin to plot their football afterlives when their body tells them it is time to prepare for an alternative to Sundays in the spotlight. Ever the Boy Scout, Smith was forever prepared, it seemed, to swap his livelihood for his life. It was only a matter of when for him, and not of if.

Just as no one had to point Smith to the tiniest crease in the opposition defensive front, neither did he have to be led by the nose into retirement. He left with the same kind of grace few players, like Lynn Swann or Joe Montana, exhibit at both the apex and the denouement of their careers.

The numbers, even taking into account the 30 games lost to injuries, are impressive. Smith totaled 1,411 rushing attempts for 6,818 yards and 32 touchdowns and a gaudy 4.8-yard average. He also had 178 catches for 1,292 yards and six scores. He scored on a least one run of 40-plus yards for six consecutive seasons, yet he was deceptively strong as an inside runner.

"Football is a trade, it's a skill, and that's how Robert viewed it," said former San Francisco tight end John Frank, not only a longtime Smith friend but also a man who helped to recruit the highly sought Euclid (Ohio) High School star to Ohio State. "The game didn't consume him."

Frank, 38, can certainly relate to Smith. Now the president and CEO of Hair Restorations of San Francisco, a doctor who is board certified in ear-nose-throat and has practiced plastic surgery, he retired from the 49ers after just five seasons. Frank earned a Super Bowl ring in his rookie year (1984) and another in his NFL farewell season (1988) but always knew, he said Wednesday, that he would not stay long in the league.

Once a curiosity to his 49ers teammates, Frank has now proved successful in two high-pressure endeavors.

Surgery keeps him from "sitting around on a Sunday afternoon and just analyzing my belly button," Frank said.

He expects that Smith, who once spoke of his desire to attend medical school and actually entered Ohio State as a pre-med student, will soon enough locate the same kind of healthy adrenaline rush outside of football that he has experienced as a surgeon.

Smith allowed Wednesday that medical school "might still be an option" but seemed much less inclined to commit yet to anything concrete.

"I just know there is something meaningful out there for me to do," Smith said. "This doesn't have anything to do with injuries, not being in a Super Bowl, nothing like that. It's just about turning the page on one chapter and moving to a new one in my life. I'm excited to see where it leads me."

Even close friend and agent Cornrich, who lost a few hundred-thousand dollars in commission fees with the retirement, was genuinely excited by what might lie ahead for his client. Cornrich also represented Frank, so he knows the potential possessed by a player as bright and as socially conscious as Smith.

Not given to the usual agent rhetoric, when Cornrich proclaims Smith as "an extraordinary man," it is not hyperbole. While he might not be the agent with the highest profile, Cornrich certainly is one of the most conscientious and innovative. He structured Smith's contract in '98 to provide his client the best of all worlds.

Because of one clause that voided the final two seasons of the five-year $25 million deal, and another that precluded the Vikings from designating Smith as a franchise player, the tailback would have been one of the most coveted veterans on the free-agent market had he decided to continue his career.

At the same time, the structure of the contract permitted Smith to walk away from the game financially secure and able to take his time in determining into what area he will next channel his energies.

"Whatever that is," Smith said, "it will be done right."

There is, reiterated Cornrich and Smith, no power play being orchestrated here. There is no plan for Smith, a few months from now, to announce his return.

"I've been around long enough," said Cornrich, "to know you never say never. But I'd be as shocked if he came back as the people who are stunned that he is leaving."

For eight seasons, there were some detractors who pointed to the injuries and considered Smith a bit of a tease, wondered if the best was yet to come. It might be apropos that, less than a month after concluding the best season of his career, Smith now agrees.

The difference, we're betting, is that the best of Robert Smith will now be witnessed off the field.

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