Ready to release autobiography, ex-Vikings star finally tells why he retired
Posted: Friday July 23, 2004 5:25PM; Updated: Friday July 23, 2004 8:47PM
Robert Smith on ...
• How the cult of celebrity often can be double-edged for black athletes:
"It starts from such a young age for athletes. You get treated completely differently, especially for somebody of color. It changes things for you dramatically, the fact that you're an athlete. You never get seen the same way.
"I think Americans in general tend to see black athletes differently than the rest of the public, until there are [off-the-field] problems. And then I think it's easier for them to turn on the black athlete, and to go back to the prejudicial feelings they have. I think a lot of people root for you on Sunday, but they'd disown their daughter if she came home with you."
• On former Vikings teammate Randy Moss:
"I had my run-ins with Randy. I was seconds away from pouncing on him in Tampa Bay in the locker room, and there was a time up at training camp in Mankato Minn.) where I had some problems with him. But for the most part I just think he was a guy who was just overwhelmed by the amount of attention that he had.
"I think he wants to be a good person, but he struggles with the idea that he needs to keep it real in a sense. I think what Bill Cosby said is true: If you don't act like a thug and you're black in America, then it's hard to get street respect, especially if you're athlete or an entertainer. I think a bit of that plays into Randy's attitude. I think he wants to be a better person and he's growing into his superstar role, but it was just all too quick for anybody to handle, probably."
• If he would change anything about how he left the NFL in early 2001:
"No. There's nothing I would change about it, other than if I could change the fact that we had some players quit against the Giants in that NFC title game." (The Vikings lost 41-0 to New York in January 2001, in Smith's final game).
• On former Vikings teammate Cris Carter:
"There were a lot of positives that have to be mentioned with Cris. But you also have to talk about Cris being in the huddle yelling at the offensive linemen in the middle of the game. I had several Mondays where I was telling him, 'You really have to watch it. You could really get into those guys' heads and then that would end up hurting all of us.'"
• On the nation's obsession with football:
"If people would spend as much time investigating and looking at our government or some of the decisions that are made in our country as they do memorizing stats of players, then we'd have a better understanding of the world and would be capable of making better decisions."
Of the hundreds of the players I've come into contact with in over the course of covering the NFL since 1990, Robert Smith was the most intriguing individual I had the chance to write about on a regular basis.
Thoughtful, complex and as intelligent off the field as he was intuitive on it, the former Minnesota Vikings star running back was never an easy interview. If you didn't have your "A'' game going that day, you might as well have saved your questions and yourself a trip to Smith's locker. Many times I saw him greet a hesitant reporter's offerings -- occasionally mine -- with a tiny head shake and a half-sneer of condescension, barely containing his disdain for any query that lacked in originality or failed to sufficiently pique his interest. Which was nearly everything.
The "Robert Treatment'' was a running joke among reporters who regularly covered the Vikings in the five years that I lived and worked in the Twin Cities (1996-2001), and in a way it became a badge of honor to see who could engage him in conversation the longest without inducing his eyes to glaze over.
Known for his cerebral approach to everything -- he has a well-chronicled love for astronomy and he first gained national attention in 1991 at Ohio State, when he opted to sit out his sophomore season in order to concentrate on his studies -- Smith reveled in his reputation as a thinking man's football player.
Today, three-plus years after he stunned the sports world by disappearing from the NFL in Garbo-like fashion, Smith is no longer a football player. But he is still thinking and talking about many of the topics that spring forth from his world view and the experience of being a professional athlete/celebrity in America. Only now he's the writer, and we're the audience.
In his about-to-be published 248-page autobiography (The Rest of the Iceberg: An Insider's View on the World of Sport and Celebrity available at inkwaterbooks.com), Smith commits to paper not only his life story, but his perspective on the growing cult of celebrity in America, and how society sells itself short by overemphasizing the importance of both sports and the professional athlete.
Acknowledging the inherent hypocrisy in writing a book about the ill effects of the country's love affair with sports celebrities -- when he himself wouldn't have the platform to get such a work published were it not for his fame -- Smith uses the second half of his book to challenge readers to keep their thirst for sports and athletes in the proper perspective.
"If you spend six or seven hours watching football, and you listen to sports radio, and all you read is the sports section, you're just not going to get the whole story about the things that are going on in our world,'' said Smith on Thursday, in a phone interview from South Florida, where he has a home.
"People spend too much time worrying about what these athletes and celebrities are doing and not enough time in their own lives, working on the problems that they have, and I think it's hurting our society.''
Naturally, the first thing people want to know about Smith's book is whether there's any smoking gun of an explanation for his surprising retirement from the NFL in the spring of 2001. After all, he was a 28-year-old two-time Pro Bowl pick, coming off his career-best season of more than 1,500 yards rushing, and staring at free-agency status that was expected to reward him with a long-term deal of $40 million or more. I mean, who in America passes up the big payday when their turn rolls around?
Smith did, and he says he has no regrets, citing the following reasons for walking away from the NFL after eight seasons:
While he still loved the thrill of the competition, he had grown tired of the tedium that comes with plodding through six days of preparation for the privilege of playing one game a week.
"It definitely wore on me,'' he said. "When I thought about playing another year and sitting in that locker room again, or in meetings, I'd think, 'Man, I could be really doing something right now. I could be going out and seeing the world or doing some charity work. It seemed almost a waste of time spending my week preparing to play a game. Mentally, I didn't need all week to get ready for the game. Some people do.''
Having seen the Vikings lose their second NFC title game in three years, this time 41-0 to the New York Giants in January 2001, Smith felt Minnesota's window of Super Bowl opportunity had closed. He was unenthusiastic about the prospects of a rebuilding program, or for playing for a new team or a head coach other than the Vikings' Dennis Green.
Also, he thought the risk-reward ratio in regards to his long-term health was tipping to the risky side if he extended his career any longer. After struggling with a string of injuries early in his career, Smith had overcome them to achieve the stardom that had been predicted for him since he left Ohio State in 1993.
"It just felt like a nice, clean break,'' he said. "I was a free agent. I had played eight years, become the team's career leading rusher, and 2000 was the first season I had played without missing a game. The only thing that was missing was a championship. Everything else just seemed to come together that year. It just seemed like a good time to get away. But it wasn't an isolated decision. Leaving football was something that was just a part of my life as a whole.''
Smith finds it both disturbing and telling that most football fans found it unfathomable that he would choose retirement and surrender a lucrative trip to free agency. But mirroring Jim Brown and Barry Sanders' career paths, Smith opted to go out in his prime, with virtually no fanfare. He faxed in his retirement announcement to a newspaper, a move that informed the Vikings in the process, and held no farewell news conference. He has largely eschewed all interview requests since. Until now.
"In America, that's what it's all about, getting more money and more fame,'' Smith said. "But money and fame are nothing if you don't so something with that soapbox. That's what this book is about. This is doing something with the opportunity I have to touch even more lives.''
Only 32, Smith does not flatly rule out an NFL comeback. He says he was tempted to return to the field in the days after his friend and former Ohio State/Vikings teammate Korey Stringer died of heat stroke in August 2001, and again briefly contemplated playing again when it looked like Green would land another NFL head coaching job this offseason. But Green was hired by Arizona, a team Smith felt was nowhere near competing for a Super Bowl title.
"I think a comeback would be possible, but not advisable,'' Smith said. "The reasons behind me leaving were pretty solid. And I think people only see the positive side of coming back. There are negative consequences that you can face.''
Open about how much he misses the feeling of breaking a long run on an NFL game day -- "Just that feeling of the wind racing by your helmet; that feeling like you're gliding'' -- Smith doesn't pine for the rest of his NFL experience. Especially the adulation and celebrity that came his way, many times undeservedly.
"It was odd sometimes for me to be at the hospital on a Tuesday, doing community work, and to have people come up to me and say, 'This is really fantastic,' '' Smith said. "I haven't seen my son smile like this in a long time. Thank you.'
"And I'm dealing with the fact that I'm just a person, a grown man, and a single man at that. Being a single guy, I'm out the night before at a bar or a strip club or something like that. You know all the skeletons in your closet, and you feel almost embarrassed to have people admire you so much when you know all those things about yourself.''
This much about Robert Smith we know. Even as a star running back, his world and his boundaries always extended well beyond the NFL. He left the league behind years ago, but he still knows how to cover some ground.