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DeMaurice's mother, Mildred, grew up in Savannah and did not know her father for the first 15 years of her life. At 12, while living with her grandmother, she went outside on a chilly winter's night to start a small fire to keep the family dog warm. Her nightgown caught fire, and she suffered third-degree burns over 85% of her body. She had to relearn how to walk, and doctors later told her she most likely would never have children because of the scarring.
Mildred, 76, and Arthur, 81 and now retired, still live in the Glenarden, Md., home where DeMaurice grew up. Mildred has streaks of gray amid her black shoulder-length hair and moves in a manner as gentle as her spirit. "I'd like to tell you there was some hokey speeches about overcoming adversity and all those things in my parents' house growing up, but there weren't," says Smith. "It was a very quiet confidence that you could talk about anything, you could do anything, and regardless of what happens this family will stick together."
When DeMaurice was 14, Maryland's Prince George's County was splitting along racial lines over the trial of Terrence Johnson, a 16-year-old African-American accused of shooting and killing two white police officers. The county's school system had been integrated five years earlier by federal mandate; Johnson's trial reopened the wound.
Smith was struck not only by the polarization within the community but also by the lawyers' efforts to make their cases before the public. After watching them on television one day, he thought to himself: This, I can do. At that time he joined Common Cause, a grassroots community organizing and government watchdog group. Though surrounded by much older colleagues and working on issues of little interest to most teenagers, Smith did not feel out of place. "I remember walking in thinking, This is where you're supposed to be," he says.
It is 1998, and Smith is prosecuting a gang-related case for the U.S. Attorney's office, when he receives a death threat. Smith is placed under protection of U.S. marshals and continues with the prosecution, eventually securing a conviction. Later a Virginia prosecutor informs him that the defendant's associate, who was jailed for the threat against Smith, was being charged with putting out hits on two police officers who were shot but not killed.
As much as Smith relishes a fight, he also knows he'll have to make concessions to strike a deal. He has presented the league with a proposal for a rookie wage scale and made a counteroffer regarding the league's proposal to reduce the players' share of revenues. "De is a very intense guy, but he's also a realist," says All-Pro center Jeff Saturday, the Colts' player-representative. "He's not just a hype man. He's telling you there are going to be things we're going to have to compromise on, and here's why. You have to be up front and honest. Not everything is going to go the players' way. He's done a good job of balancing that, so the guys understand that we're in this to get this thing finished and to get a new agreement in place."
These negotiations mark the first time that Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell are leading the talks. As with Upshaw and Tagliabue, the relationship between the current heads of the NFLPA and NFL did not get off to a good start. Observers on both sides describe the initial contacts as icy. Smith was stung by what he believes was a confidentiality breach by Goodell regarding their talks over an 18-game season, and Goodell was put off by Smith's failure to show more respect toward his office and the league in general.
One of the ways Smith tries to determine the power players in the league is by "poking the elephant" to see the reaction he'll get. He has filed multiple legal challenges, including a complaint that the NFL left money on the table in its TV contract extensions in exchange for guarantees that the owners would be paid in 2011. (The special master in the case ruled that the league would have to compensate the players but did not nullify the agreements; the NFLPA is appealing that decision.) Smith has also charged the owners with colluding to limit player movement and earnings during the 2010 free-agency period. (That complaint is pending.)
"The union has so many legal people who aren't business-oriented, in my opinion, that I hope it doesn't prevent us from being able to get a deal done before March 4," says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "I've had some sense that De is a dealmaker. I understand there's a lot of posturing going on, but in the end I hope his strong business instincts come out. He seems professional, intelligent and personable. But we're all going to be judged on whether we get it done."
Smith's willingness to challenge the NFL publicly and keep the sides in litigation is considered a breach of protocol within league circles. But while some wonder if he's simply trying to make a name for himself on the way to political office—Smith says he has no such plans—others say he should not be taken lightly. Consider the collusion case. When the union leaked word that it would be filing suit, Smith received a call from Goodell urging him not to go forward. At that point Smith asked if the owners would make certain concessions during the lockout if he dropped the claim. Goodell asked for 30 days to consult the owners. Eventually he came back and said there would be no concessions. Those close to Smith say the endgame was not necessarily to get the concessions but to determine whether Goodell had the influence to get the owners to budge.