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“The higher they climb, the harder they fall” is a proverb used to describe the challenges celebrities face when life breaks bad. But former Florida State running back Sammie Smith is living a life that proves “The harder they fall, the higher they can bounce, too.”

Blessed from birth with an abundance of physical and intellectual gifts, as well as a nurturing nuclear family, the Apopka, Fla., native dominated the Sunshine State sports scene in the 1980s. Few high school sprinters have ever run a 9.2 100-yard dash and only a handful in the world have done so while carrying 225 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame.  

The combination of size, speed, athleticism and coaching enabled Smith to become a USA Today All American high school football player. He had scholarship offers it seemed from every major head coach before Smith chose Bobby Bowden and Florida State University. While enjoying a remarkable career in football, rushing for 2,539 yards in his collegiate career (1985-88), Smith also ran the anchor leg of FSU’s 4×100 relay team, which qualified for the NCAA track meet.

“When we recruited him out of high school he was probably the best running back in the nation,” Bowden said. “He came in and contributed immediately, breaking some long touchdown runs, probably because of his upbringing. He came from a very strong family and was never a problem at Florida State. Never.”

The two-sport athlete would fulfill a lifetime dream of playing in the NFL, the ninth player selected in the first round of the 1989 NFL draft by his favorite team, the Miami Dolphins.

Seminole teammates and fans were shocked when news broke that Smith had been charged with possession and conspiracy to sell cocaine.

The two-time AP All American’s story is one of redemption, a testimony to God’s grace, which inspired fellow Seminole track athlete John Crossman to honor his fellow track athlete by raising $10,000 to name a locker within the Florida State’s McIntosh Track & Field Building in Smith’s honor.

“Certainly I am honored,” Smith said. “I really respect John Crossman for his philanthropy, the things that he does to help people who have less and need help. He’s really passionate about Florida State and bringing people together, and I enjoy having people like that in my circle.”

“In these times of prejudice and unrest, I am so pleased to honor someone who has done so much for others,” Crossman said. “It took less than a year to raise that money because people believe in Sammie, in his character and in redemption.” 

Smith entered the NFL draft right before Crossman enrolled at FSU as a freshman. “I became a huge fan who followed his career,” Crossman said. “When I had the privilege of meeting him 10 years ago at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event, I knew that Sammie embodies the characteristics that I’ve always admired and advocated.” 

“Sammie was a kind, gentle man who wanted to see his teammates do well,” Crossman said.  “He helped coach Deion (Sanders), along with Coach (Dick) Roberts, on techniques that made him a better sprinter. Sammie is one of the most selfless athletes I’ve ever known.  Extremely talented and very humble. The truth of Deion is actually greater than the legend of Deion and the truth of Sammie is greater than most men we will ever know.”

And that is what makes Sammie Smith’s journey so compelling.

Sammie Smith runs against Nebraska. (photo courtesy Garnet and Great archives)

What happened?

The breaking news was Smith had been arrested, charged and convicted of federal crimes, which was incongruous with the Sammie Smith former coaches, players and friends knew. Collectively they asked, “What happened?”

What happened is regrettably too common; he committed a crime and got caught. What makes the story uncommon came later after his star hit the cold concrete floor and bounced even higher than the version of Sammie Smith coaches, teammates and friends had come to know. 

Certainly, football and life in the NFL were challenging Smith in a way linebackers had failed to do on the gridiron. He was 20 years old when he signed a multi-million dollar contract with the NFL, which is an acronym for Not For Long. The league is especially punishing for running backs, whose careers seldom last past four years due to injury. Smith was no exception. Unable to avoid injury, he put in three years in Miami and one in Denver.

The loss of his two-month old son, Jarrod, to sudden infant death syndrome in January 1990, was a life challenge that would test the strongest of us.

In spite of those adversities, Smith seemed to be adapting quite well to life after football as his construction business was building and financing low-income housing in his community.

“I had desires to have a great career after football and to do things in the community and I got sidetracked,” he said. “I got involved with some lifelong friends that were engaged in things that were (illegal) and I got caught up in it. I made some choices that were bad and that certainly weren’t of the character of how my mom and dad had raised me. That wasn’t who Sammie Smith was. I just kind of lost my way.”

On September 14, 1995, the day of Smith’s arrest, he found his way, a new way.

“Sitting in that cell in the Orange County Jail House, I got the chance to really get on my knees and have a one-on-one conversation with my Savior,” he said. “I got a chance to see exactly how I had allowed the enemy to take hold in my life; how I hadn’t allowed God to use all the gifts He had given me physically, athletically, financially and everything I have been blessed with. When I really look back, I thought Sammie was doing it. God showed me in that moment that, ‘No, I’ve been behind you all the way and I’m gonna help you get through what you’re going through now.’ ”

The brutal fall was punctuated by the awakening and by a realization he would be a young man when released from prison with a lifetime to lead the life he desired.

“I got a chance to apologize and to ask Him to come into my life and to change me,” Smith said. “And it’s just been different ever since that night, up until this day, because I really knew what it was to surrender. He showed me, ‘I never gave up on you but this is where I had to get you so you can hear me.’ So, I was able to hear loud and clear there at the Orange County Jail.”

Sammie Smith earned his degree from Ole Miss earlier this year. (photo courtesy Sammie Smith)

Testimony and service to others

Smith’s life today is one of service to student-athletes through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Currently he serves as the Director of Character Development for University of Mississippi football team as the chaplain. Sammie’s wife, Shalonda, serves the women’s athletics teams at Ole Miss too. 

“Because I’m willing to be transparent and to talk about those times, I’m able to help young men who may be headed down the wrong path,” Smith said. “Through those experiences I had to go through, I can change lives now.”

Smith sees himself in the football players he works with; guys who think the NFL is the means by which they’ll provide for their mothers and siblings.

“They think football is the way and we know a lot of times that is not the way it is going to happen,” Smith said. “But you got the opportunity to get an education and to grow as a young man and to understand and seek God for what he would have you become. I get more joy out of that than any touchdown I have ever scored.”

“I can’t think of a better person to talk with our young people. He is the perfect example of how even a good guy, who has been raised in a loving Christian home, can fall into trouble by trusting someone you know who is into the wrong things,” said Jim Gladden, who recruited Smith out of Apopka High School. “Sammie is an outstanding person who paid his dues and has a story to tell. He is perfect for the role he is in.”

Call it coincidence, or as Smith sees it, the hand of God but the steppingstones to Sammie Smith’s journey started right there in the Orange County Jail.

One of the first people to reach out to Smith was his former team chaplain at FSU, Clint Purvis, who sent him a Bible. A host of former FSU teammates and coaches – including running backs coach Billy Sexton, his recruiter, Jim Gladden, and head coach Bobby Bowden as well as track and field coach Dick Roberts – stood by his side throughout his incarceration and Florida Clemency hearing when his rights were restored.

“I look back at all those years at Florida State and I think about the impact Ken Smith and Clint had on my life and the impact the Christian atmosphere at Florida State had on my life,” Smith said. “It’s not a coincidence that God opened the door for me to be placed in a similar role, the same role, and is allowing me to have that same platform to impact lives here at Ole Miss.” 

The first team chaplain Smith met when he arrived at FSU as a freshman was Ken Smith, who has returned to Tallahassee after serving congregations and football programs across the south. Ken Smith has played a significant role in Sammie Smith’s journey as a mentor and an advisor, including now at the University of Mississippi.

“As I look back at my days at Florida State and Sammie today, I realize that was why I was a part of the Fellowship of Christian Athlete ministry,” Smith said. 

Sammie’s ministry started in the final years of his incarceration, while a prisoner in Edgefield, S.C.

“The warden asked me, ‘Would you be willing to go and speak to some local schools here and share your journey,’” Smith said. “I also got the opportunity to record a video for Coach Bowden and for the team when some of the players were in some trouble. I got a chance to speak life into those young men about choices and how I had made a wreck of things, so I got a chance to see some ministry start to unfold even before I left prison.”

Sammie Smith outruns Florida in the rain. (photo courtesy Garnet and Great archives)

The minister draws blessings 

“It was a time I tried not to focus on the fact that I was there but on the fact that it was gonna be over at some point of time,” Smith said. “I wanted to be better when it was all over, in a better place to be able to share the journey, and to highlight God and his power to allow me to get on the other side of it. I am now on the other side of it and it is beautiful. ”

In January of 2011, after Smith made a compelling talk to Alabama and Michigan State football players, including those in attendance at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Capital One Bowl Breakfast, FCA offered him a full-time opportunity to share his story with others. He seized upon it, speaking to hundreds of groups in the coming years. After speaking in Ocala, Fla., he was approached by an Ole Miss graduate who asked if he’d speak at their athletics banquet. While explaining the gig, he handed Smith a brochure from the previous year’s banquet. Smith noticed that the emcee was Ken Smith, the same chaplain Smith met at Florida State. 

A few days after accepting, Smith received a call from then head coach Hugh Freeze, who offered him the job as chaplain and director of character development. The timing wasn’t right for Smith, who was content with his FCA work in Central Florida and with a sports training company he had recently opened, but that would soon change. While on a trip to speak to the Mississippi High School Athletics Association, Smith thought he’d take a second look at Ole Miss. While having coffee, before making the drive to Oxford, the television station was reporting that an Ole Miss player (Laremy Tunsil) had just endured a draft nightmare for using drugs and the football program was under NCAA investigation.

“God showed me right then, ‘This is why I want you to come to Ole Miss,’” Smith said. “There’s work for you to do here and I believe you are the man to help, to share some, to shed some light and bring a different view to the young men and coaches there. That’s why I chose to come and it’s been a blessing to us.” 

The blessings have been plentiful. Smith’s oldest daughter, Jenee, finished her degree in Florida as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. His son, Cre’Shawn, is a senior at Ole Miss in mechanical engineering. Daughter Sania is an eighth-grader who is a natural runner and a future Seminole sprinter, Smith predicts. Wife, Shalonda, will finish her degree in social work this spring, and Sammie just finished his undergraduate degree at Ole Miss 32 years after his junior season at FSU. 

Smith didn’t just finish the academic drill, he finished it with straight A’s and loved every minute of it.

“The message I was always giving these athletes was how important it is to take advantage of this opportunity to be here and make sure they leave with an education,” Smith said. “I’m thinking, you left early and didn’t finish so that kind of compelled me to want to go back and finish as an example. I’m not gonna just talk it, but I’m gonna walk it.”

It wasn’t long after he enrolled in classes at a cost of $12,000 that he received a call from an Ole Miss alum. “He was so excited he called to ask if he and his wife could pay for my two semesters I would have had to pay out of my pocket or get a student loan.”

Smith didn’t look to be blessed in these ways but he does see the blessings as a confirmation he’s where he is supposed to be, doing the work he’s supposed to be doing. 

“As I look back at those times, and it took me a while to do it, I realized God could use my situation even more than He could have when I was a runningback, or when I was enjoying success in track and field,” Smith said. “He could impact more lives if I would allow him to… Because I’m willing to be transparent and to talk about those times and I’m willing to help young men, who may be headed down the wrong path. That’s where I am now that I made those choices, choices are the cornerstone of my testimony, the cornerstone of my ministry. Through those experiences I had to go through, I can change lives now.” 

Smith feels blessed to be joined at Ole Miss by two former FSU defensive backs, Terrell Buckley and Devon Bush, who share his love for Florida State.

“I love my Seminoles,” Smith said. “I’ve never, ever, stopped loving my Seminoles and the folks that have impacted my life there,” Smith said. “Those friendships will last a lifetime.”

Bobby Bowden is very proud of the kid he recruited from Apopka, Fla., but not the least bit surprised by Smith’s journey as his family had taught him well. 

“I am very proud of him,” Bowden said. “He had his tough days but he listened to his family and he came back to those teachings, which is Biblical. He has been a great example for young people coming up.”