In the fifth month of his football sabbatical, Rick Smith pulls his black Mercedes SUV into the parking lot of a Houston strip mall. He steers away from the pho restaurant and the crawfish spot, toward perhaps the last place on Earth one would expect to find a thriving NFL executive on a workday morning in April, three weeks before the draft: a Shaolin temple.
Inside the sanctuary waits Shi De Shan, whom Smith refers to simply as “Master,” an accurate description for a 31st-generation Shaolin monk who trained under some of the world’s most famous grandmasters. (Shan, if you believe your eyes, or YouTube, is capable of moving a parked van using only a spear wedged between the vehicle and his sternum.) Soothing instrumental ballads play over the temple’s speakers as Smith explains that he visits Master to study kung fu and tai chi. He’s gaining strength, losing weight and sleeping better; he’s becoming, he says, “more in harmony with the universe.” Smith spies Master in the back room—the one filled with tridents, monk spades and what Master describes as “big sword on stick,” which soldiers once used to cut off horses’ legs in battle—and bows. Master gestures toward the temple’s gray mat.
For the next hour the 48-year-old Smith holds cobra poses and chops his fists and learns how to leverage his elbows to flip an opponent. Sweat drips down his forehead, pooling on his workout shirt. His phone sits nearby, untouched, on silent.
“How was Tiffany this morning?” he asks.
Tiffany is Smith’s wife and, ultimately, the reason he’s twisted into a human pretzel this afternoon rather than scouring film at NRG Stadium, 15 miles to the east. Over the previous 12 seasons Smith had ascended rapidly from the youngest general manager in pro football to the architect of a Texans playoff team that had finally, after years of misfires and Brock Osweilers, found a franchise QB. From the stars he lured to the cogs he drafted, Smith’s tenure had been building toward the 2018 campaign, and that was attributable largely to his obsessive dedication to football.
Then Tiffany was diagnosed with breast cancer last September, and three months later her husband took a leave of absence to concentrate on his family and his wife’s care. Rumors began swirling immediately that the decision was not Smith’s choice, that he had been pushed out by the Texans’ coach, Bill O’Brien. But rather than concern himself with responding, Smith did not make a single football-related phone call this offseason, nor has he analyzed a minute of film. Instead, much in the way he once fixated on his draft board, he reviews Tiffany’s treatments, including the meditation sessions she does with Master each morning.
“Getting better,” Master says.
That’s all Smith needs to hear. Workout finished, he climbs back into his SUV and speeds off toward home, where he has salmon to grill and kids to retrieve. Later, there are Vitamin C treatments to attend and homework to help complete. And even if this all seems a bit regular, a tad mundane, he says he doesn’t miss the game—he hasn’t had time to. He’s too busy playing chauffeur, tutor, chef and medical student.
Those close to him wonder, though: Is that possible? And, if so, how long will it last?
Inside his office, near the walls decorated in African art and the glimmering pool out back, Smith is surrounded by reminders of the life he left behind: helmets and game balls; the medical journals he would read to better understand his players’ injuries; even the cleats Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson once employed in a contract squabble, inscribed with PAY on one heel and ME RICK on the other.
This office is a curated exhibit on Smith’s life: born in Petersburg, Va.; moved to Dayton in high school; played strong safety at Purdue and became a defensive captain while studying sociology and psychology in hopes of becoming a professor focused on the black athlete. He stayed on in West Lafayette after college, first as an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the wrestling and women’s volleyball teams, then for three years as a football assistant. He’d planned to earn a Master’s in psychology, only to be hooked by coaching instead. “I love football, man,” he says. “Love everything about football.”
Smith jumped to the NFL in 1996, hired as an assistant with the Broncos. Already, though, the lack of balance in his life concerned him. The Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls, and his response to it all surprised him. Damn, this is it? Even as he wore his Super Bowl rings around town, he had already moved on to the next season. That struck him as unhealthy. He approached his bosses about moving into the front office, where he guessed he might improve his quality of life, and the Broncos named him their director of pro personnel in 2000. One of his duties was studying changes to the rulebook, which later led Smith to a coveted slot on the NFL’s Competition Committee, where he was known for his stylish outfits and ability to procure votes.
Professionally, Smith was an unqualified success; teams were eyeballing him for GM jobs. “Everybody saw him as a guy on the rise,” says Rich McKay, the Falcons’ president. But the workload felt even heavier; it all added to the time he spent away from home.
Then, in 2000, Rick met Tiffany, who was working as a producer for Judge Judy when he bumped into her at a Las Vegas nightclub. She visited him in Denver, and they married one year later in the Bahamas, in front of 50 friends and relatives. Just as Tiffany started to adjust to the demands of Rick’s schedule, the unending hours at the office and the weeks where she felt like a single mom, the Texans called. Rick had interviewed with Tampa Bay in 2004 and San Francisco in 2005, but this time he bonded with Bob McNair, the Texans owner, and secured an offer to become GM. His father, Franklin Smith Sr., wondered aloud if his son’s career was moving too fast. Maybe he ought to wait another year. Central to Franklin’s concerns: Smith is African-American in a game with a very short history of African-American leaders. You might only get one shot at being a GM, he told Rick.
“Daddy, I’m ready,” Smith responded.
He took the Texans job, and Franklin swelled with pride. Franklin’s own father had been a sharecropper and his mother’s father was a slave. In four generations, the Smiths had moved from the slave fields to become vice presidents, directors, professors. Now, at 36, Rick was an NFL general manager.
At that point Smith knew where he’d be and what he’d be doing on every day in every month of every year. He built a family and a playoff team (Houston reached the postseason four times between 2011 and 2016, putting a scare into the Patriots in the divisional round in ’16), and then he traded a future first-round pick to nab Deshaun Watson at No. 12 in last year’s draft. As Watson thrived, the pieces of a Super Bowl contender seemed to have been secured, in large part because of all the time Smith had spent away from his family, missing games and recitals, because he was a football person and that’s what football people do.
He’d lived in Houston for 12 years, but he was unfamiliar with any of the roads. He knew only one route: from his home to his office.
That path diverged on the last Tuesday of last September. Smith was overseeing a free-agent tryout inside Houston’s practice bubble while his wife went to her doctor for a routine mammogram. “I see a mass,” the doctor told her. “I’m 99% sure it’s cancer.”
At first, she worried mostly about how she would tell their three children, Robert, 15; Avery, 10; and Christian, 8. One night they saw an episode of the television hit Black-ish, where the mother on the show tackles her postpartum depression with doctor visits and medicine. The Smiths showed that to their kids, turned off the TV and said that mom was sick, that she would lose her hair and need her rest and take lots of medicine. But she would also get better.
“Mama, cancer!” Christian cried.
The Smiths told their close friends and family on a conference call in mid-October. Robert ran out of the house the night of that call and posted the news on Snapchat. The next day all his football teammates came to school wearing pink. The gesture, while heartwarming, also highlighted the Smiths’ new normal, the drastic change from their old life to their new one.
Rick felt that imbalance most acutely as the Texans prepared to play in Seattle in Week 8, on Oct. 29. Houston had already lost defensive studs J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to season-ending injuries that month; the city had been leveled by Hurricane Harvey in September; and earlier, the week of the Seahawks game, ESPN ran a story citing McNair telling his counterparts, in regard to the league’s national anthem policy: “We can’t have inmates running the prison.” Wideout DeAndre Hopkins left the Texans’ facility in protest; rumors of a boycott circulated. A year earlier—even a week earlier—the turmoil would have consumed Smith. But now. . . .
One the one hand, he was weighing a treatment plan that would require Tiffany to spend weeks at a time at a holistic treatment center in Arizona, away from her kids; on the other, he was trying to trade his left tackle, Duane Brown, to Seattle. That Sunday was the strangest of Smith’s career. He negotiated with Seahawks GM John Schneider before the game; he watched 30-some players kneel during the national anthem in protest of an owner he considered a mentor and a friend; and he watched Watson hang 38 on the Seattle D, moving squarely into the MVP conversation. Then he flew direct to Phoenix to set up Tiffany’s treatments. He finalized Brown’s trade while sitting on a bench outside the treatment facility and then, later that week, learned from afar that Watson had torn his ACL in practice, ending his season.
Smith tried in vain to balance the needs of his wife and his team, but he could not find enough time for both. As the weeks progressed, he’d fly to Arizona—usually on the 2 p.m. United flight to Phoenix on Thursday, when Tiffany underwent chemotherapy—then meet the Texans wherever they played that weekend. He delegated more chores, handing off smaller tasks such as compiling the inactives list.
Still, as Smith prepared to meet his team in Los Angeles for their Week 10 game against the Rams on Nov. 12, he found Tiffany scared, crying and weak. She begged him not to leave, and he pushed his flight back from Saturday morning to later that night—and then she still asked him not to go. “Walking out that door,” he says, “was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life.”
In December, Smith met with McNair (who declined to be interviewed for this story) and his son, Cal, who acts as the team’s COO, and together they first broached the idea of a leave of absence. “We’re in uncharted territory here,” the McNairs told him. Smith knew that any announcement would reveal his wife’s cancer, and he worried about how she’d handle that unwanted attention. In turn, Tiffany agonized over how her husband might feel later, the resentment that could fester over hitting pause on his NFL career. There would be no guarantee of a job when Smith returned, only the promise to revisit the situation in 12 months, after a full season with another GM in place. “I didn’t want him to leave and then they win a Super Bowl,” Tiffany says. (Brian Gaine, the Texans director of pro personnel from 2014 to ’16 under Smith and a confidant of O'Brien’s, was brought back from Buffalo to become Houston's general manager last January.)
The Smiths ultimately decided that a year away was the right thing to do. Rick told his staff in a meeting, and several people in the room burst into tears. News of Tiffany’s cancer and Rick’s leave scrolled across news tickers, and friends from as far away as Nigeria checked in. A clerk at the local Walgreens offered sympathies.
Smith, meanwhile, cut football out of his life entirely. “I chose this,” he says, “because this was more important.”
Not everyone believes him. Rumors, whispers and warnings come from various corners of pro football, all sounding on some version of the same idea: Smith didn’t leave simply to tend to his sick wife. Several league sources suggest that he didn’t have a choice, that he was forced into a sabbatical by O’Brien, who according to reports from last December—the same month Smith took his leave—planned to demand that McNair side with either his coach or his GM, and fire the other. The implication: that Smith created an elaborate ruse to explain his exit—or at least seized on convenient timing to avoid being fired.
“Some of that stuff is cruel,” Smith says. “Like, that she’s not even sick, which is just unbelievable. I’ll tell you exactly what that is. A lot of it has to do with my relationship with Bill, coupled with the fact that, as I stepped aside, they summarily replaced most of our football operations. They fired a ton of people, so it looks like Bill got rid of me. And that’s not true.”
Smith does admit that he and O’Brien didn’t always agree on fundamental issues, starting with their organizational philosophies. He also says he approached McNair in recent years to lay out his vision for how the team should operate, and that some of his suggestions—he declines to discuss specifics—did not align with O’Brien’s vision. But Smith also describes any feud as “overblown” and characterizes his relationship with the Texans’ coach as “fine.”
None of that matters, though, Smith says. His time away has changed him, regardless of how or why he left.
Smith hovers in his kitchen, knife in hand, dicing carrots and cucumbers. He looks comfortable in Dad mode. He’s seasoning salmon, washing greens and preparing a salad when he realizes he’s forgotten something. “I need to coordinate the schedule,” he says.
This is Smith’s new job, his new team, an amalgam of relatives and neighbors and caretakers who step in and ferry Robert to track workouts and Avery to dance practices and Christian to chess matches when Rick can’t. He is still a general manager. He coordinates pickups and deliveries over group text messages, much in the same way he once synchronized his scouts. “In the beginning I was looking for signs that he was going to fall apart,” Tiffany says, laughing. “Especially around pivotal times, like the combine or the draft.”
Instead, Rick disengaged from football, totally and immediately. In February, Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, a close friend, left Smith’s usual combine seat at Lucas Oil Stadium empty, but Smith didn’t follow the league’s massive draft-prospect showcase, even casually. That weekend, which he’d spent in Indianapolis for 20-odd years, he stayed in Houston and attended Family Night and a baseball game at Christian’s school, Avery’s dance competition and Robert’s football training session. “I would have missed all of that,” he says.
Two months later he watched the first round of the draft at home with Robert, who wondered aloud whether his father felt strange leaning back on their oversized brown suede couch, rather than working away in the Texans’ draft room. Smith instead felt present and content. “A little surprising,” he says.
He watched the press conference in which Cardinals coach Bruce Arians retired from a distinguished career and took note of how Arians cried as he lamented all the family moments he’d missed out on. That could have been Smith. That was him—at least until the sabbatical. “I don’t begrudge or regret the time I put into my craft,” he says. “I’m equally grateful, now, for this opportunity and this awareness.”
He chaperoned a trip to the King Ranch for Avery’s class, taught Christian compound sentences and schooled Robert on how to drive. He evaluated homework and mood swings the same way that he once assessed his roster. He began to operate, he says, at an optimal level: balanced in mind, body, spirit and family life.
Above all, though, Tiffany’s treatments took priority. She and Rick had watched Wonder Woman the night before her first chemo session, and she admitted to Rick afterward that the traditional approach to cancer treatment terrified her. So he researched other options, calling holistic medicine practitioners all over the world, hiring a medical liaison, traveling the U.S. to procure medicines and reading dozens of books and medical journals.
Based on all that research, the Smiths scaled back Tiffany’s chemo sessions to once per week and added acupuncture, Vitamin C treatments, meditation, supplements, a Keto diet, intermittent fasting, Reiki, colonics, lymphatic massages and coffee enemas to her routine. Bucking traditional approaches, she says, was the hardest part. “Conventional medicine was saying that was a death sentence.” (At one point she felt compelled to email a group of close friends, explaining that she was seeking their support in these decisions, not their approval.) But then her tumor decreased in size by one half, and her doctors said she had made significant progress in her recovery. Tiffany slept and felt better than she had in years.
Smith’s complete integration back into real life is evident as he picks up Robert from school one afternoon in the offseason. Ignoring the day’s NFL news that Brandin Cooks has been traded from the Patriots to the Rams, Smith grills his son about his homework, upcoming tests in history and biology, and a technology paper that’s due later in the week. “Let’s stay on top of that,” he says, shifting his attention to Christian, who scored a run in a recent baseball game by moonwalking across home plate. “Can’t do that,” he says. “Bad sportsmanship.”
In many respects, life in the Smith household feels more normal now than it did a year ago. Smith knows he made the right decision. For now, anyway.
Rick Smith reclines on a park bench in early June, his eyes wandering from his oldest son’s private football workout with the trainer Justin Allen toward a book he has just cracked open: Becoming Supernatural. The volume, Smith says, explains that people who are happy, positive and mindful vibrate at higher natural frequencies than those who are overworked, angry and fighting with coworkers. It’s the difference, basically, between Smith’s old life and his new one.
Robert sweats through agility drills and hill sprints while his dad talks philosophy, not watching all that closely, detached from football even when the game is right in front of him. In the time he spent away, Smith says, he looked inward and wasn’t always pleased with what he saw. “I view the world differently now,” he says. “I see it for what it is and who I was—and that’s not who I am. It’s the norms that were programmed in me from before. It started with my ego.”
The cancer, Smith says, changed his life, although not always how he expected it to. Sure, he spent more time with his family, watching his children develop in ways he would normally have missed. He started journaling every morning and sketched out an outline for a book. But the changes went deeper than baseball games and dance recitals. Smith realized he’d been focused on the wrong things, he says, like wealth and finding the right quarterback. “So much of our lives had been so meticulously planned,” he says. “This is the first time I’m not having to do that. And there’s some freedom in that. There’s freedom in just kind of being.”
Smith sounds content, like he could spend the rest of his life meditating and working on his Zen. But he’s also, deep down, a football person, and while he likely won’t return to the Texans, he does want to run another team in the future. What’s counterintuitive here is that his time away from football led him not further away from the game but back toward it. He believes that his leave—the books read and trips taken and perspectives gleaned—will make him a better executive. He’s still learning, processing, growing; he’s defining what a more holistic approach to sports might look like. “This,” he says, “is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Smith kicks his feet up on his bench and opens his book, only to be interrupted by Robert, who’s clutching his stomach after a set of hill sprints. Father tells son that one day he’ll need to change his diet. “It takes years to de-program,” Smith says. “Years!”
Then he flips a page and resumes reading. He’s got six months of sabbatical left.
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