Life After Football: The Story of Antowain Smith
Photo Credit: Boston Herald - (New Orleans, LA) Patriots vs. Rams in the Superbowl. Pats RB (32) Antowain Smith runs with the ball in the first quarter as Tom Brady looks on after handing off. (Herald photo by Jim Mahoney)
Seven seconds remained in the 2001 Super Bowl as a running back who worked his way from factory worker to world champion, watched Adam Vinatieri’s kick soar through the uprights.
Running back Antowain Smith recounted his famous run onto the field and what was going through his mind as the Patriots completed one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.
“I’m looking, I’m looking and as [the field goal] went through I don’t know what something just took over me,” Smith said. “I just ran out there high-stepping, pumping my fists like ‘We are the world champs,’ and that was the greatest feeling ever.”
His journey to Super Bowl 36 starts in Millbrook, Alabama where a young Smith would play on the field with his cousin and close friends.
Smith would play four years of Pop Warner football but soon realized that he was more passionate about another sport.
“I just went to playing basketball, I kinda lost interested in playing football,” Smith said. “I played basketball from junior high all the way up to my senior year of high school.”
With his mind made up on basketball, friends of his on the football team who always saw the potential in Smith continuously taunted and told him to return to the field. Smith acquiesced.
“They was always daring me to come out there and was like ‘Yeah you was good in little league but if you come out here on the high school field we gonna bust you up,'” Smith said. “I was like ‘man if I come out there I’d be the best player y’all got out there on the field'”
The rest was history. Smith went out that same spring and made the football team and ended up sticking with it.
Smith was offered scholarships but decided to put college on the back-burner and took two years off to work in a material dyeing factory to take care of his grandparents who had fallen ill.
“It was my way of giving back to them something they had gave to me all their lives,” Smith said. “Which was to take care of me, make sure I went to school and good clothes and it was my time to give back to them, so I put my dreams on hold.”
On her deathbed, Smith’s grandmother’s final wish was for him to go back and do what he loved to do.
“That last night that has always stuck in my mind that she told me was ‘go to school so you don’t live on the streets,'” Smith said. After she passed, I had a tryout at East Mississippi where I did my 40-time and the broad jump and they offered me a scholarship right there.”
At 21 years old, Smith entered his freshman year of college chasing his dream that his grandmother wanted him to catch.
“I tell [people] my story and I tell them ‘It’s never too late to accomplish anything in life that you want to accomplish,'” Smith said. “‘You just have to stick to it and there’s going to be trials and tribulations though you know across the path that you’re going that’s for anyone, tough people last, tough times don’t.'”
Smith transferred to the University of Houston in his junior year, where he tallied 608 yards on the ground and four touchdowns in the 10 games he played that season. His statistics improved exponentially in his senior year when he racked up 1,239 rushing yards and 14 scores in 11 games.
Smith entered the draft as the oldest player on the board at 25 years of age and at pick No.23, he was selected by the Buffalo Bills.
“At first it’s exciting,” Smith said about being drafted. “You’re excited that you got drafted, here I am 25 years old, the oldest kid in the draft, pure excitement overjoy.”
The excitement was tempered after Smith looked at his new situation.
“Then it hit me, I’m going to Buffalo man it’s kinda cold up there,” Smith said. “Being from the south and never been out the south and going up to the east coast in Buffalo I was like ‘whoa man, I don’t know how to dress for this cold, I’ve never driven in snow and things like that.”
Smith was released by the Bills and signed with the Patriots with visions to take over feature running back duties from J.R. Redmond and Kevin Faulk. His name would be called upon much more as the team’s franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down.
With a young and inexperienced Tom Brady at the helm, Smith’s role was increased.
“When [Tom] Brady came in, Belichick came to me and was like ‘we’re gonna have to lean on you so we can try and take some of the pressure off of Brady,'” Smith said. “I knew I had to do my part and so my thing was so you know if he’s giving me the opportunity, I’m gonna go out there and do my part because being released by Buffalo, I had something to prove to people that I still can play this game and play it at a high level if given the opportunity.”
Smith finished the 2001 season with 1,157 yards on the ground and 13 total scores, the best season of his career, playing one of the most important roles in the Patriots’ unlikely season.
This led to the infamous “tuck rule” game against the Oakland Raiders where Smith was leaned on with the blizzard-like conditions, rushing for a hard 65 yards. But they still had to travel to Pittsburgh and beat a tough Steelers squad to get a shot at the trophy.
“From that game, I think everybody on that team believed that it was their fate for us to go out there, go on the road to Pittsburgh nobody gave us a chance to win that game,” Smith said. “Before the game, we found out that Pittsburgh had their bags already packed, had already made their hotel reservations in New Orleans, so that gave us extra motivation to go out and win that game.”
Smith and the Patriots upset the top-seeded Steelers and set their sights on the then-St. Louis Rams, nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
14-point underdogs, and faced with what seemed like an unstoppable opponent, Smith and the running back corps were given the task to manage the clock and keep Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and co. off of the field. The group, according to Smith, was confident from their last confrontation with the team.
“We had played them early on that year in Foxboro and we knew that we could play with them,” Smith said. “We just had to go out there and keep the plan which kind of fell on myself, Kevin Faulk, and J.R. Redmond to kind of run the ball, to keep the ball out of the Ram’s hands.”
Smith rushed for another 92 yards in the Patriots’ 20-17 Super Bowl upset of the Rams and would go on to play two more seasons with the team, totaling 1,624 rushing yards and nine scores in that span.
The 2003 postseason put Smith’s best on display where he totaled 252 yards and two scores with one coming in the Patriots’ second Super Bowl victory against Carolina.
The Alabama native went on to play for the Tennessee Titans, New Orleans Saints, and the Houston Texans.
Smith considers his time with the Patriots the most special and to this day, he’s regarded as a hero in New England, being embraced by fans there and his hometown of Millbrook.
“Every time I get a chance to come up to New England, [the fans] are all so thankful,” Smith said. “They’d be like ‘Antowain, thank you, thank you, you was one of the ones that started it all.'”
Today, Smith operates an import/export company in Texas. He also takes pride in his other job, coaching young kids on the football field.
“Every weekend I’m doing that,” Smith said. “It’s always just great to give back the knowledge and give them a chance to dream about something, give them a goal, set a goal for them and try to help them reach that goal so that’s always been a dream of mine to give back to the kids.”
Looking back now at his life, Smith is proud of everything he has done –– being able to just be a family man and being able to have taken care of his kids in his life after football.
“I lasted for nine years, won two Super Bowls, rushed for 1,000 yards, got a chance to take care of my family, take care of my kids,” Smith said. “[I was able] to make a whole neighborhood proud of me where I’m from where they still when I go home and say ‘we’re proud of you man, you’re the one that put Millbrook on the map’ and just to hear them say that to me. That’s gratifying.”