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When Smith was voted into his job in March 2009, he was viewed as an outsider, unfamiliar with the ways of the NFL, a person whose only previous ties to the league were his family's Redskins season tickets. In contrast the NFL was comfortable with Upshaw, if only because he had been around for so long. A Hall of Fame guard with the Raiders, he led the union for 25 years before dying of pancreatic cancer in August 2008. The players made gains under Upshaw, securing free agency and seeing their salaries increase exponentially. But he governed behind a veil of secrecy, centralizing power and telling the players only what he felt they needed to know. His close relationship with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue in later years allowed them to escape to a private room at the 11th hour and hammer out collective bargaining extensions that ensured labor peace.
Smith doesn't believe in secrecy. Before his election he told players he wanted them to take more control of their careers and their futures, and that if they were unwilling to educate themselves and be more involved in the process, he wasn't the man to lead them. The other candidates included Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong, two former players who'd served as union presidents, and a prominent lawyer, David Cornwell, who once worked in the league office. Smith was elected by a vote of 32--0.
The NFL owners had already decided to opt out of the existing CBA when it expired, so Smith had no time for a transition period. He brought in five colleagues from his previous jobs, all but one of them lawyers, because he knew they were talented and would support him. "In local D.C. politics, we always say when you come into office, you have to put some killers around you, people who think the way you think," says Michael Irving, a former Washington homicide detective who spent a decade working with Smith at the U.S. Attorney's office. "That's what he's got around him. Having the power and the muscle is one thing, but you've got to have the brains to go with it."
In a recent New York Times Magazine article Smith was quoted as shouting to a group of players in January, "We are at war!" Those words may not have been meant for public consumption, but they reflect Smith's approach. "A lot of the people coming through the U.S. Attorney's office, they want a perfect case," says Irving. "They're looking to build a name for themselves, and if they have 12 cases, they want to be able to say they were 12--0. De wasn't that way. He knew that even if he didn't have all the pieces, he had to do everything he could to hold people accountable. One thing I know—he hates to lose."
In this case Smith is fighting not only for better player salaries and improved safety today, but also for long-term health care and increased benefits tomorrow. And he openly admits he's playing catch-up. As Smith sees it, the league had a nine-month head start—the period between Upshaw's death and Smith's official first day in office—in preparing for the labor battle. Among the strategic moves he was confronted with early on were the NFL's hiring of outside counsel Bob Batterman, a labor lawyer who advised the NHL during the lockout that cost it the entire 2004--05 season; the extension of several TV contracts to guarantee the NFL its $4 billion in network money in 2011; and the hiring of Vincent as NFL vice president of player development. The league has also become more aggressive in its congressional lobbying efforts since Roger Goodell became commissioner in 2006; last year the NFL spent $1.45 million on lobbyists, nearly four times its 2006 outlay. Says Smith, "My guess is that if Gene were here and the league had made all these moves and told him it needed the players to take [a reduced share] of all revenue, his first reaction would not be, 'I've got to get along with the league.'"
So Smith pushes and prods. And plans. Sometime between Friday afternoon and Monday morning he spends two hours "war gaming"—assessing what strategic hits the union has suffered, how it might be attacked next and where he thinks the league is vulnerable. He calls it 3-D chess.
It is the summer before Smith's sophomore year in college. A sprinter on the track team, he shreds his knee and misses a semester of school because he cannot get around with a full-length cast on his leg. When he returns he's told he'll have to make the track team again to have a shot at a scholarship. Smith wonders how: He cries when the cast is removed and he sees his atrophied leg, looking no thicker than a walking stick. No one will question him for walking away, but doing so is not in his nature.
"He was really down," Jim Atkinson, a former college roommate, recalls. "He didn't know if he was ever going to get back to how it was. One thing about De, he's a hard worker. He would rehab at school in the morning, then work out at the pool after school. We would drive him there and stay while he worked out."
Not only does Smith win his scholarship—he also earns National Christian College Athletic Association All-America honors as a senior.
When people pat Smith on the back for his accomplishments, he thinks about the conditions his parents endured when they were children. His father, Arthur, was one of 14 siblings growing up near Danville, Va., in the Jim Crow South, the son of a sharecropper named Frederick Douglass Smith, who was a pastor on the weekends. Arthur's schooling was limited because he was required to work the fields, but his path changed when he joined the Marines and entered the Korean War. It was the first time he had his own bed, his own shoes and three square meals a day. After his discharge Arthur attended Virginia Union on the GI Bill and became an accountant with the federal government.