From Statesville to Super
star linebacker honored his roots
Chicago Bears LB in game
against the Jacksonville Jaguars (AP Photo)
Even today, three years removed from his last NFL
appearance, Vinson Smith can’t quite figure out how he went from East
Carolina to the National Football League. He gives himself the
proverbial pinch to see if it really happened.
You’d think that a guy who had a 12-year career –
that’s three times the average – could tell you he was simply one
of the better linebackers in the game during the time. But instead, call
it humility, Smith opts to describe it this way:
“It seems like every time I’ve had an opportunity
to shine, things have happened for me,” Smith said. “In college, as a
rookie, in Dallas, in life… I have been very fortunate.”
Smith credits a power greater than all of us for his
success and he feels a sense of responsibility to repay the debt in his
own way. In gratitude for having been so fortunate and for having been
shined upon, he has dedicated his post-professional life to giving back
to those who, for whatever reason, have had a tougher go at life.
“I work a lot of hours now,” he said. “I do some
local broadcasting (for high school football), but my ‘real’ work now is
renovating low income housing for people.”
Smith returned to his hometown of Statesville, NC,
after his last stop in the NFL with New Orleans to begin his second
career. He started a business called JPC LOC, which is named for his
three children – Jayme, Payton, and Christian. The federally subsidized
business goes into poor areas and renovates homes, making them livable
and affordable for people who are living on annual incomes comparable to
the amounts more affluent families might toss about on trivial
“It is an incredible thrill to see people react to
having a house, when they never believed it would ever be a possibility
for them,” Smith said. “I know that feeling to some extent. When I was
growing up, we were so poor. I remember that I would rarely bring
friends over to our home because of how poor we were. So, now, when I
see how excited the kids are when they see their home… I know I am doing
what I am supposed to be doing.”
The reward he feels when he turns over the keys to
another family is demonstrative of the type of guy Smith is. He chooses
to see the glass as half full, when he could have spent a lifetime angry
about a poor childhood, about losing his parents while he was still a young
man, or about various other low points in his life. But he opts to see the good
in his life and he moves forward holding those things close to his
Perhaps this attribute is the reason he has
seemed to shine at precisely the right moments in his life to create the
next big opportunity.
It began in junior high back in Statesville.
“My favorite coach (then) was Weston Mayhew,” Smith
recalled. “He went to ECU and was a terrific person. There were a lot of
ECU fans and students from (Statesville), so I already liked the
Of course the 1983 Pirate team, which burst into
the limelight and carved out a national ranking, also had left impressions
on Smith. He was impressed enough, in fact, that when Coach Ed Emory came to visit Smith and his parents,
Robert and Bertha, the likelihood of the now budding prep star heading
to ECU became exponentially more likely.
“Really… Ed Emory talked my mom and dad into
believing that ECU was the best school for me,” Smith said. “He told my
parents, ‘I think your son could be one of the best linebackers who ever
played at ECU.’ Ed really knew how to talk to black parents and made my
dad comfortable about what he was saying. He gained my parents trust.”
With South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State,
and West Virginia waiting on word from Smith, the decision was all but
already made that it would be the Pirates.
“My dad and I had just visited West Virginia a week
before (visiting ECU) and they were riding high and had brand new this
and brand new that and it was very impressive (in Morgantown),” Smith
said. “But I knew that it was too big and too commercial for me and the
thought of going there frightened me a little. I also had though that
South Carolina was a better second option, but then I got to ECU. ECU
was just different. The facilities didn’t really thrill me, but the
people did… I knew I just fit in there best.”
Vinson Smith in his days as a Pirate linebacker (Photo: ECU SID)
So it was, Smith became a Pirate and as Emory had
forecast, earned a place in ECU football lore among the best of what has
been a long line
outstanding linebackers, serving as the link from the Danny Kepley-Jody
Schulz-Zack Valentine era to the Robert Jones-George Koonce era.
It didn’t start out so great for Smith, though.
His first news, upon heading to ECU, was that the
coach who recruited him had been fired.
“It was very difficult,” Smith said. “Even though
Coach (Art) Baker had been there, I think that Coach Emory really knew
my potential. But, I just told myself that everything happens for a good
reason. Coach (Les) Herrin came in and I couldn’t have asked for a
better (linebacker) coach.
“He was an outstanding teacher, a great
disciplinarian, and made you want to play hard for him. He would never let
you get down about things. He taught me the value of leaving everything
on the field, which is hard when you are losing. He instilled all the
right things in me while also making me believe in my potential.”
Though the Baker years were hard for a competitor
like Smith to endure from a win-loss perspective, the brutal schedule
afforded the linebacker opportunities to shine — and shine he did.
One game in particular, the 1985 Miami game, was a
stage for Smith, and he delivered — bigger then he even knew at the time.
“The Miami and Southern Miss games were big games
where I showed up and did well,” Smith said. “I don’t know why God
chooses certain things, but he highlighted me in those games. It was for
some reason. Honestly, I never saw the NFL coming, I just loved playing
football – I love the game – I always loved the big hit.
"When you have the game that is the dream game,
when you have that great game and never get tired, when you are always
in the right place at the right time, delivering the big hits, it is
incredible and you’re like, ‘God please don’t let it end.’ That moment
comes around very seldom.”
But for Smith, those special performances came around quite a bit at ECU.
He lowered the boom often on the Hurricanes and subsequently the Golden
Eagles in 1985, and people in the The League took notice of the 6-2,
235-pound linebacker flying all over the field. Not just scouts, who
certainly would come to play a role in his life, but also then-Miami
coach Jimmy Johnson who neatly filed Smith’s – and ECU’s – name away for
Smith’s career at ECU had generated a lot of
speculation about the opportunities he might have on the next level.
From the activity surrounding Smith, it appeared he would go around the
fifth round. It never happened for Smith.
“I was so disappointed,” he recalled. “I was so
caught up in the hype of the draft and thinking how good I was and
really believing it. You know, I was the most valuable player on our
team for two years and I believed I was best guy on the team. But I
didn’t get the chance to go to the combine. And seeing other guys going
that I thought I was better than... I thought I had done enough, but then
I realized I hadn’t ever really won anything, not enough games, no
conference championships… I didn’t have those things going for me.”
Smith’s psyche took an additional jolt on draft day
when Tony Dungy, then-defensive-coordinator for Pittsburgh called him to
tell him that the fifth round was a likelihood.
Smith in Chicago
game versus the Rams (AP Photo)
“Dungy called me during the fifth round and told me
that they were looking for a fast, quick linebacker,” Smith said. “And
then nothing. I have no idea why I fell (out of the draft). I cursed
(Dungy) and was angry about not getting drafted. I was so disappointed
sitting there in my room. I told my roommate, Joey Franklin, that whatever
team calls me first for a tryout, that that was where I was going to go.”
With his emotions on fire, the phone rang and it was Atlanta. Had Smith not been so fired up about his
draft experience, he may have thought it through and passed on the
Falcons, but he knee-jerked and made a deal.
“The Falcons called first and I said yes,” Smith
said. “That really was not a good idea. They had just drafted Andre
Bruce (Auburn) with the first pick and Marcus Cotton with the second
pick. Two linebackers. At the time everyone was looking for the next L.T.,
you know, 6-6, 240 pounds and can run. I didn’t fit that, for sure. They
also had Phillip Brown from Alabama who was a good physical player.
Probably wasn’t the team for a free agent rookie linebacker to try and
make, but I went to camp.”
Smith was met at camp with daily newspaper
clippings about Bruce, Cotton and Brown.
“I would read articles about them all,” he said.
“Stories about Bruce the all-America who will play instantly and Cotton,
blah, blah, blah and me, Vinson Smith, the linebacker from East Carolina
who will basically be a blocking dummy until he is cut.”
He was motivated and fueled by the expectations of
failure. And, once again, when given the opportunity, Smith shined in a
big way. In a preseason game against New England, Smith was thrown in
during the third quarter. It was the first action he had seen at
linebacker, having played only on special teams in practice and in
preseason. Although he did not realize it at the time, he actually piled
up 12 tackles in that one quarter of play.
"After the game, most of the guys go out to parties,
but I was in my room, totally depressed," recalls Smith. "It didn’t help
that my (camp) roommate was saying stuff like, ‘Why are you mad? You
know we’re not going to make this team.’ He had already been through a
"I was really down and started to make plans to go
back to finish school. I wouldn’t answer the phone which was ringing and
ringing. Finally I picked up the phone and it was one of the guys who
was having a party. He wanted me to come to the party and I told him I
couldn’t, I wanted to get packed up to go.
“He was like, ‘What are you talking about V-Man?
You’re the only person they’re talking about on TV.’ He must have been
standing near the television because I could hear my name a couple of
times in the background. So I go over to his room and see on television
that I had 14 tackles and three more on special teams… and I really
thought I had not done anything.”
After that game, the Atlanta coaches were well
aware of Smith. However, with the linebackers ahead of him, he saw
action in only three games his rookie season and then found himself out
of the game the next season.
“I went back to school,” Smith said of the
following season. “Then, Pittsburgh signed me, but I broke my foot. I
came home and then took a job as a YMCA coordinator in Fayetteville and
continued training while I got calls from other teams. Green Bay, Tampa
Bay, and others were calling, but Pittsburgh had told me they wanted me
back. They had been very good to me through my injury so I felt a lot of
loyalty and planned to return to Pittsburgh.”
But then, Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson
decided to pursue the linebacker he had seen up close in college.
“Jimmy Johnson gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse,”
Smith said. “My agent called me after Dallas contacted him and I told
him to tell Dallas that I wanted to leave (the offer) alone because
Pittsburgh wanted me back and I didn’t want to keep moving around. I
wanted to spend time with my family. So I told them ‘No.’ Dave Wannstedt
calls me and tells me that he and Jimmy really loved watching me play
when I was at East Carolina. He was like, ‘Come on…come on…’
Oilers running back Marion Butts
is slammed to the turf behind the line of
former ECU star Vinson
Smith (55) during
Smith's stint with the
(AP File Photo)
“I told him, ‘No, coach. I am very loyal and I want
to give (Pittsburgh) the first opportunity. Well… then the phone rings
and its Jimmy and he’s like, ‘V-Man, Vinnie, I loved you at ECU and I
need you here now. What’s it going to take?”
As it turned out, loyalty to his family’s future
well-being and some convincing sales pitches had him headed for Dallas.
“Honestly, I (couldn't) refuse the offer,” Smith said.
“The signing bonus was triple what my base would have been in
In retrospect the money paled in comparison to what
being in Dallas did for his life.
“Jack Del Rio (current Jaguars head coach who last
season was the Panthers' defensive coordinator) used to say, ‘The money
comes and goes, but the memories of being part of something being built
against the odds and rising to the top, there is nothing like it.'"
Smith joined a Cowboys team that was 1-15 the year
before and had his doubts early on.
“We were 7-9 that first year for me,” he said.
“There were great players there, but they didn’t know how to play at
that level and the coaches didn’t know how to coach at that level yet.
Then, we won five games in a row and the whole city turned around.
"When I first got there, if you played for the
Cowboys, you couldn’t even get a table at a restaurant. All of the
sudden the bandwagon was filling up. It was unbelievable. I think the
success was because we all played like we were college players, because
that’s what most of us really were at the time. It had that feel.”
Dallas and the money also allowed Smith to dote a
little on his mother, though her pragmatism wouldn’t allow it.
“You know, my mom (Bertha) didn’t want me to play
football at first,” Smith said. “She ended up being my biggest critic
and she praised me the most. She really enjoyed ECU more than the NFL.
She was happy to see me have the opportunity (to make money), but money
was never a big deal to my mom.”
And, it was in Dallas that Smith was able to create
some especially priceless memories with his mother.
“My mom came to Dallas and stayed with me the last
two weeks of her life,” he said. “I remember a funny moment with mom.
When she had come down to Dallas, I took her out to a restaurant, a nice
one. She would see fans and say, ‘This is my son and he plays for the
Cowboys.’ And they would say, ‘Yes, we know who Vinson is.’
“It was fun to see that. To see how happy it made
her. I tried to spoil her because it feels good to do things for someone
you love so much. But, she would worry about if I had enough. She was a
wonderful woman. And, dad, the NFL was a big deal for him and I’m just
glad that they both lived to see me play in the pros.”
And they both saw his career explode.
Again, in Dallas, Smith was relegated mainly to
special teams until
another opportunity and another shining moment arose. It was very late
in the season and Smith had been backing up regular Ken Norton, Jr., as
the Cowboys were trying to make an unlikely playoff run. Norton got
tangled up on a play and was injured. Watching it unfold from the
sideline, Smith says he was starting to get a little nervous.
“Basically, I was a special-teamer,” he said.
“Norton goes down in the Philadelphia game and I’m on the sideline. I
had always studied to be ready, but this was the second to last game of
the season and I didn’t feel like I was prepared. I’m like, ‘Ken, get up
"One thing for sure when you play for Jimmy Johnson. No matter who
you are, if you go in and are not prepared, he will cut you. So when I
look over and Coach Wannstedt is staring at me, I turned and pretended
not to see him. He calls my name and I say, ‘Coach, you’re going to put
(9 year veteran) David (Howell) in, right?’
“Coach tells me that I got to play and I’m like ‘I
can’t do this.’ But, I go in and the first thing I do is trip on that
(Veteran’s Stadium) carpet and all the Philly guys are laughing at
me… calling me ‘Fresh Meat’ and saying that they are going to run at me.”
Opportunity was knocking for Smith again.
“Gene Lockart and Jack Del Rio say, ‘V-Man, I got
your back. They don’t understand your speed, you can do it. Let’s roll.’
"I’m scared to death, but they are supporting me. Gene’s like, ‘Don’t you
come out here scared.’ Anyway, we get out of the huddle and on the first
play, I line up right next to Del Rio, which means that I am on the
wrong side of the field. Jack’s screaming at me to get on the other side
and run over there. Before I can even get set, Philly runs right at me
and I make a tackle for a five-yard loss. The next play, I tackled a guy
for a nine-yard loss. I ended up with nine tackles.”
The next week, ironically versus Atlanta, Smith got
his first career start and earned game MVP honors.
“I really could not have written it up for myself
any better,” he said of his first start. “My family was there and I was
The next season, two monumental moments occurred
for Smith. One would catapult him into league recognition and the other
would ironically spell the beginning of the end for him in Dallas.
First, Dallas would recruit an
All-America linebacker from East Carolina University in Robert Jones.
“I was really happy for Robert,” Smith said. “I
hosted Robert when he came to ECU on his recruiting trip. I may have had
a little jealousy… we both wore number 44, too. But, I was happy to play
with him (in Dallas).”
The problem, however, was that Jones was a number
one pick and the Cowboys had also drafted Dixon Edwards and Godfrey
Miles, paving the way for a youth movement at the position.
However, with Jones in the fold, the Cowboys had a
very ECU-tinted defense with Smith and Jones starting. The season would
end with a Super Bowl championship in hand and the ring firmly on
“The Super Bowl. Every time I talk football, people
want to know how that felt,” he said. “Again, God puts us in situations
we never thought we’d experience. I mean, we were there in Pasadena
where it was total Hollywood. It was like a dream and after the game, it
was hard to adapt. I’m just a country boy and didn’t really know how to
handle it, so I kind of just observed it.”
After the season, Johnson sat down with Smith and
told him that he would not get the playing time he was accustomed to as
the Cowboys were going to move the younger players into the lineup.
Smith appreciated the honesty and not long after
the two met, Wanstedt headed for Chicago and took Smith with him.
“Jimmy told me that he had asked Dave if there was
anyone he would take from the Dallas team to build his team in Chicago
and that Dave had told him, me,” Smith said. “So, I figured I was better
off in Chicago.”
The move turned out to be another good one, in an
even more meaningful way than just football. It spelled a tightening of
the bond between Smith and his wife Anne and their growing family.
“In Chicago, there were not as many standout
players, so I stood out there. I was there for five years and
financially, I was taken care of,” he said. “And, honestly, Chicago was
the best thing for my marriage and family. We were able to be closer and
experience more together.”
Smith knew that another Super Bowl ring was assured
had he stayed in Dallas, but he saw things in the wake of the first
title that made him happy he left.
“A lot of people lost their souls after that Super
Bowl,” he said. “The money, drugs, women, it became like a soap opera
there. Instead of driving jeeps and trucks, now the guys were in
Mercedes, Porches. Everybody changed. I think God had a reason in mind
when I left Dallas.”
Chicago afforded Smith the chance to solidify his
finances and family life and prepare for the eventual end of his career.
The end came in New Orleans.
“The New Orleans thing was real hard,” he said. “It
was different for me. To go from being a starter to people telling you
that you are old – and you are – makes it tough. The younger players get
better and you get tired. I didn’t feel like I wanted to do what was
needed to get back to that level. I broke my ankle and that was kind of
It was time to put his second life in gear and make
up for lost time.
“I think my wife misses the shopping,” Smith said.
“I missed a lot of my daughter (Jayme’s) life and that bothers me.
Payton and Christian came right before I retired so I have been there
for them. I’m home again and the (NFL) was a great part of my life, but
now I am immersed in what I do and my family. After all those years of
life on a set schedule, the hardest thing to do is to adjust to having
to set your own schedule, to stay busy.”
For an undrafted free agent, Smith done good.
Twelve years, 414 tackles later, he is still shining, only now, he is
the star at home and in the lives of all of the people for whom he
And he gives back to ECU.
“East Carolina is such a special place,” he said.
“White kids, black kids, whatever. ECU showed me a life that I never
thought about. It was heaven on earth. It didn’t matter who you were,
everyone fit in. I love going back to ECU.”
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