"That was last year, and what I got was a free-agent trial," Smith says. "What that means is that first I had to make the 45-man roster, and then I had to make it through the first three games without being cut before I could even collect my bonus for signing." He sighs. "And it was a modest bonus." And then, after an impressive rookie start, 25 kickoff returns for a 20.5-yard average, he was injured at midseason. It isn't true that he was stepped on; he merely slipped and fell on some wet grass, spraining his right knee.
All of which meant that Smith had to make the team all over again this year. Seven punt returns for 51 yards in preseason play didn't hurt. Nor did four kickoff returns for 122 yards, an average of 30.5. Nor did five pass receptions for 74 yards, an average of 14.8. But still, the Falcons kept him hanging by his tiny thumbs until the final day of cuts. Big folks do that to little people a lot.
The specter of big folks also keeps little people awake in the wee hours. "We don't sleep well during the season," Jenkins says. "We're always thinking: Is this the day someone'll pop us off?"
"I don't like to play 'fair catch' the ball," Smith says. "I like to play let's run the ball. And I don't want to run around them; I want to run under them."
Jenkins shudders delicately at the thought. "But remember, my boy, when you're small, the officials can't see the awful things those guys do to you when they catch you."
"Thing is," says Smith, "that a bigger guy can take a bigger hit. Maybe the injury puts him down for a couple of games. But with us, if we get popped just the right way, we're out for the year. That's what makes this such an exciting gamble. Every game, man."
"Isn't he cute?" says Jenkins. "He's like a little teddy bear, isn't he?"
Well, perhaps just a little bit, at that. For a small man, Smith is deceptively wide—40-inch chest, 30-inch waist and 25-inch thighs. He's the strongest of the Falcon receivers, able to bench-press 265 pounds. He's a bachelor, whose only vices seem to be junk food and the TV soap General Hospital, and much of the time he's soberly reflective. "It's ironic, I know," he says, "but now that I've made the team, it isn't quite what I expected. I had thought all of it would be somehow more glamorous. The games are great, but keeping yourself up through the week is an enormous mental strain. I figure I'll play three more years, tops, If I'm lucky, I'll go out the way I came in: no operations, no cuts on my body. The minute somebody goes to cut me, I'm gone."
It is after the opening game now, and fresh from the shower, Smith produces a silver spray bottle of cologne. He fizzes a shot behind each ear. "When I retire, I'm going to operate a halfway house for underprivileged kids," he says. "By then, I'll have my master's degree in counseling." He tugs out the front of his plum-colored shirt and blasts a burst of the cologne down across his chest. The area just around his locker starts to take on a wildly heady aroma. "It sounds corny but I particularly want to help little kids...the runts of the world. Big kids get all the attention. I want to help the little kids gain a sense of confidence."
A few lockers away, Jenkins looks urbane and worldly, as ever. He pushes his tinted glasses up on his forehead, a studied gesture. He's wearing a pair of obviously expensive brown-and-white shoes that Fred Astaire would kill for. "As for me," he says, "I'm going to take it one season at a time, as the cliché has it. I mean, look at me: Right now I feel wonderful. That's because the adrenaline of the game is still flowing. But here's what'll happen: I'll go home and take a little nap. Then I'll get up for dinner about seven o'clock. I'll pour myself a little glass of wine. And just as I raise the wineglass to my lips: Wham! The pain will strike. And it will stay with me, everything hurting, until game time next Sunday."