Mike Vrabel spoke in his common never-too-high, never-too-low tone after his team defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 33-30 at Nissan Stadium five days ago.
At the podium, the Tennessee Titans coach fielded reporters’ usual postgame questions via Zoom. In the middle of it all, the third-year head coach answered one about tight end Jonnu Smith, who had just set single game-highs in receiving yards (84), touchdown receptions (two) and recorded the longest reception of his career (64 yards).
Vrabel could have easily stopped with, “I think he's just focused on being able to go and attack the football, use his speed. He drew a huge penalty, so he continues to improve.”
Instead, he continued, speaking with great pride about Smith and the person he has become -- the person he has gotten to know on and off of the football field since he met the 25-year-old tight end when he took over as head coach in 2018.
“He's an unbelievable player to coach and be around every day,” Vrabel said. “You know, I've always admired his upbringing. I know that his mom has done a fantastic job raising him and he's just a great teammate. Works hard. You're always happy to see good things happen to those types of people.”
Vrabel has always been one to admire a blue-collar effort, a hard worker who earns everything. Smith, whose upbringing was presented obstacles and tragedies, may be his best example.
When he was four years old, Smith lost his father, Wayne Smith, in a tow truck accident. The youngest of six children said his unwavering faith and a strong, unbreakable bond with his mother, Karen Smith, have guided him through the best and worst of times ever since.
“... As a kid, going to church isn't always No.1 on your list because when you're young,” Smith recalled in a first-person account of his journey to the NFL, which was published last season, “you'd rather be doing other things, like hanging out with your friends, or just do things kids do.
“... As you get older you can understand why that's important and I'm so thankful for the path those days put me on. I realize now just how much love that spread in my family and how much peace and joy it gave me during tough times.”
From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith grew up in a neighborhood filled with bad influences and violence. To set her son up with greater opportunities he wouldn’t have had in Philadelphia, Smith’s mother sent him to live with her sister in Ocala, Florida, at the age of 14.
“It was a harsh environment to grow up in,” Smith said. “We weren't financially fortunate, and she was afraid I would get lured into some things that could mess up my life and send me down the wrong path.”
While a tough decision, Smith, like his mother, knew the move to Florida was exactly what he needed at that point of his life. As a young boy, Smith said he could not play football because his mother wanted him to focus on education.
Smith said he often thinks about how different his life would be if he had stayed in Philadelphia. While he explained in his first-person story that he believes he would have made it to where he was today through a different path, his move to Florida made everything all the more possible.
“Playing football in Florida?” Smith wrote. “Are you kidding me? I knew even then that was the hotbed for high school football. Florida, Texas and California, those are the schools that produce the most pros in the world and even then, I knew what I wanted to do, and this was my chance to pursue my dream.”
The dream Smith envisioned for himself before he arrived in Florida turned into a reality rather quickly.
As a junior at West Port High School in Ocala, Smith had nine receptions for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Before his senior year of high school, Smith, then a three-star recruit and a top 100 tight end in the nation, signed to play at Florida International University. Then, as a senior, he led West Port with 34 catches for 517 yards and two touchdowns, earning Ocala Star Banner All-County First Team and Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-District 7 Football Team honors.
THE COLLEGE YEARS
Smith’s storybook path continued at FIU.
After four years, he led all tight ends in program history in receptions (178) and yards (2,001). He currently ranks third among all receivers in program history with 18 touchdown receptions, fourth in receptions and fifth in receiving yards. He earned all-conference recognition as a freshman (All-Freshman team), sophomore (All-CUSA first team) and a senior (All-CUSA second team).
During his senior season, tragedy found its way back into Smith’s life when his childhood best friend, Wille 'Quasim' Jefferson, was killed on the streets of Philadelphia. While at FIU, Smith said Jefferson would often “stay for months at a time with me because Philadelphia was so bad.”
The last time Jefferson went back to Philadelphia, Smith said, he never returned. After playing a game, Smith learned of Jefferson’s passing.
“I think about Willie [Jefferson] all the time,” Smith wrote. “And when I think about my life and my path and my opportunities, it makes me realize even more I was more fortunate. And it also makes me keep my buddies back home in my prayers.
“I try to encourage them and lead them in the right direction because I understand what they are going through.”
A third-round selection by the Titans in the 2017 NFL Draft, Smith has gotten to where he stands now because he has leaned on his faith and has stayed true to the vision he had for himself at a young age.
That exact mindset has helped him navigate the demanding life of an NFL player.
Smith has dealt with a few different challenges over the course of three seasons with Titans thus far. The biggest of them all: a season-ending ACL tear in 2018.
“I just started praying, and I started getting mentally prepared for what I knew I'd be faced with,” Smith recalled. “I ended up having surgery a few weeks later, and the road to recovery was a long one. I just had to keep the faith and be positive to get through it.”
In his first two seasons combined (2017, 2018), he primarily served as a backup to Delanie Walker, the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions. In those two seasons, he caught 38 passes for 415 yards and five touchdowns.
Last season, Smith took the most significant step of his NFL career. In 19 contests (16 in the regular season, three postseason), he hauled in 41 passes for 498 yards and four touchdowns.
Smith especially stood out when Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota at quarterback in Week 6. Smith and Tannehill connected 36 times for 409 yards and four touchdowns.
Through two games this season, Smith and Tannehill have already connected eight times for 120 yards. Smith’s three touchdowns already tie his previous season high (2018, 2019).
In the final season of his rookie contract, Smith knew this season would be his best opportunity to prove he is a long-term option for the Titans at tight end. While contract talk is for later, Vrabel cherishes watching good things happen to people like Smith.
And by all indications, Smith wouldn’t want any other coach to watch those “good things” unfold for him.
“I played this game for a long time, man, and to me, the best coaches that I've been around were those who were more than coaches, and that's what you've got in Coach Vrabel,” Smith said on Sunday. “He's more than a coach. You don't just see the football side of him. You see genuine love and care for all of his players. I respect the heck out of him for that. To come here every day and actually care what's going on in our lives outside of football.
“So, to be around a man like that for the past three years, it's been great for me. I'm blessed to have the opportunity to be coached by a man like him.”