He has to go back 10 years for his last fond memory of pro football. That was the day Akili Smith's agent, Leigh Steinberg, posed the question, "Would you take $12 million to be the first pick in the NFL draft?" Short answer from Smith: "Heck, yes."
A day later in New York City the Oregon quarterback found himself in an elevator with the exuberant family of Kentucky QB Tim Couch. "What are you guys celebrating?" Smith asked. They'd just gotten word: The Browns were taking Couch with the No. 1 choice. Smith was heartbroken.
The Bengals wound up drafting Smith third in 1999, after the Eagles chose Donovan McNabb. Things did not go well from there. "My [NFL] off-seasons were horrific," says Smith, whose rookie contract included a $10.8 million signing bonus. "We had a 16-week program, and I would be in Cincy four days at a time; then I'd jet back to San Diego [his hometown] and party. I'd constantly get calls from multiple women, my boys, club promoters ... and I gave in to temptation. I was a complete embarrassment off the field." On the field he wasn't much better. Smith lost nine of his first 10 starts and was out of the league after four seasons. His career stats: 22 games, five touchdowns, 13 interceptions.
Short stints in NFL Europe and the CFL followed before he retired in 2007. "I continually felt like, one mistake and it would be my undoing," Smith says, "and you just can't play like that."
Returning to his old stomping grounds in San Diego, Smith called his former coordinator at Grossmont Junior College, Mike Jordan, to inquire about a job; he was hired as quarterbacks coach on the spot. This fall Smith will be back in the classroom too. He's finishing up two semesters' worth of coursework ("stuff I should have done 11 years ago when I was goofing off, playing PlayStation") before he digs into a masters in theology and divinity. He'll be following in the footsteps of his father, Ray, who's a pastor at the United Missionary Baptist Church in San Diego, where Akili is already a deacon.
Smith, 33, is also quarterbacking again, on a flag football team called God's House, which won its league this season. "I was definitely recognized—attacked, actually," Smith says. "Teams would find out who I was and start taking the game too seriously. There were some discussions and heated arguments. It was funny, in a way."
Smith dreams of an NFL coaching job but says, "Really, I'd love to be the team chaplain on whatever team God puts me on. If it takes me to the other side of the world, fine. I know I've burned some bridges, and that word gets around."