During his first day at the Bengals' training facility in February 2011, shortly after being hired as offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden was approached by a strange, hulking figure who was ... hopping? He was. And he was enormous, 6'4" and 345 pounds of bulk, propelled by an orthopedic scooter on which he had propped his left leg, with its broken foot. Good God, Gruden thought. What is this?
This was Andre Smith, and at the time it seemed as if the story of his NFL career had already been written: another washout undone by apathy and greed. Smith had been a consensus All-America tackle at Alabama in 2008 and the sixth pick in the '09 draft. But even before he'd completed his first two pro seasons, in which he started just five games for Cincinnati, he was considered worse than a bust—he was a joke. At the '09 combine he had made the unfortunate decision to run the 40 without a shirt, resulting in 5.28 seconds of jouncing upper-body flesh preserved on the Internet. Then Smith left the combine early, without telling anyone. Three months later every snipe of his protracted, often nasty contract negotiations was chronicled on HBO's Hard Knocks. Finally, just days after he signed, Smith broke his left foot for the first of two times.
But not long after bumping into Gruden, during the 2011 lockout in which many players let themselves go, Smith made a decision. "I could be mediocre, a middle-of-the-pack guy," he says. "Or I could be one of the best." That summer Smith participated in a weight-loss competition with his family—his mother, his father, his three younger siblings and his fiancée, Talitta, who is now his wife. "I won," he says. "I had to."
Smith showed up at the Bengals' training camp in August 2011 having lost 25 pounds, and he quickly delivered on the potential that had been buried beneath the ripples. He started 14 games, allowed just two sacks and was rated by the analytics website Pro Football Focus as the league's 10th best right tackle. A year later he not only started each of the Bengals' 17 games—including their playoff loss at Houston—but was on the field for 1,113 of their 1,124 snaps. Entering '13, according to PFF, he is the No. 1 right tackle in the game.
In one way Smith's rise to stardom came too late for Cincinnati. The terms of his rookie contract forced the team to decide in August 2011 whether to pick up an option to extend through '14 that would pay him more than $16 million. Back then, his career résumé still consisted of five starts and a twice-broken foot, so the Bengals, understandably, declined. "I was disappointed, but I wasn't too despairing," says Smith. "I thought, It's time for you to continue what you've been doing."
And for doing that, Smith is in a position to command more than he would have earned under his rookie deal. While the Bengals are likely to pony up to keep Smith, who remained a free agent at week's end, whichever team signs him will get a fully committed, fast-improving lineman, one whose renaissance came with weight loss—he played at 335 last season—but also with a newfound joy in the game, particularly in run blocking. "In high school we ran the option, so we ran the ball every single play for four years," he says. "[Opponents] try their hardest to stop me from pushing them, but they can't. That's my bread and butter."
That team will also have a 26-year-old who accepts that his career, for many fans, will always be defined by 5.28 flapping seconds at the combine. "It was a great learning experience as far as how to handle things," he says. "I was feeling myself, you know? My teammates ran with their shirts off, and I wanted to run with mine off as well."
In a game that at once fetishizes and derides size, Smith seems to have found the elusive, extremely profitable middle ground. "I'm used to people calling me big, a large human," he says. "I don't cringe. It's who I am. It's what I do." He also—at least around friends, family and teammates—has no reservations about going topless. "I'm the guy who ran on national TV with my shirt off," he says. "Why should I put it on now?"