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Catching Fire Jaguars wideout Jimmy Smith, having rekindled a career that was near extinction, has developed into a receiver nonpareil

March 27, 2000
March 27, 2000

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March 27, 2000

Baseball Preview 2000

Catching Fire Jaguars wideout Jimmy Smith, having rekindled a career that was near extinction, has developed into a receiver nonpareil

A great athlete is said to make his game look easy, but
Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Jimmy Smith takes that truism to
another level. Known at different points of his life as Silk and
J-Smooth, Smith plays defensive backs like suckers, loafing
through routes to lull them to sleep before bursting into the
clear, which he did often enough last season to lead the NFL with
116 catches.

This is an article from the March 27, 2000 issue Original Layout

Yet Smith's path off the field has been anything but easy. He
came so close to having his football dreams dashed--and, for a few
scary days, to losing his life--that he vows he never performs on
cruise control, even though at times he may appear to. "I'm a
scrapper at heart because of all I've been through, but you might
not pick up on that from watching me," Smith says. "I make it
look like I'm not putting much effort into what I'm doing. Then,
before the guy covering me realizes it, I'm in and out of my
route, and he's trying to recover."

For two months Smith has been doing some recovering of his own.
He's still smarting from his subpar performance in the Jaguars'
33-14 AFC Championship Game loss to the Tennessee Titans. Though
the favored Jaguars held a four-point lead at halftime of that
game, they had squandered one scoring opportunity and fumbled a
late second-quarter punt that set up a Titans field goal. During
the intermission their locker room degenerated into a salty swirl
of teammate bashing, with the normally genial Smith doing his
share of squawking. "I remember Coach [Tom] Coughlin screaming,
'Hey, keep your poise. Stop yelling at each other, because we're
losing it here,'" Smith says. "He was right. We'd blown our
chance to put them away, and they're too dangerous to mess with.
After that I was pressing, trying to carry the team."

Hampered by constant double coverage ordered up by Tennessee
coach Jeff Fisher, who calls the 31-year-old Smith "the best
receiver in football," Smith had a disastrous second half. He
misjudged and pulled up short on a long pass from Mark Brunell
and dropped two other balls, and the Titans ran off 23 unanswered
points to earn their first trip to the Super Bowl. Smith says he
"cried for a week. It was like a bad nightmare that spilled over
into real life."

He quickly snapped out of it, buoyed in part by the next trip he
took--to Hawaii, for the Pro Bowl, where he caught eight passes
for 119 yards and three touchdowns--and by a resilience developed
during his jagged journey to NFL prominence. After starring at
Jackson State, the 6'1", 200-pound Smith was selected in the
second round of the 1992 draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He figured
he would fit in perfectly opposite star wideout Michael Irvin,
but life for J-Smooth, as he is known by his Jaguars teammates,
was anything but. Smith was burdened by injury and illness, first
suffering a broken leg that limited him to seven uneventful games
during his rookie year and then, in the summer of '93, enduring a
life-threatening infection that stemmed from appendicitis.

After complaining of abdominal pain, Smith was rushed to a Dallas
hospital, where his appendix was removed. He went home the next
day, but when the pain returned and his fever shot up, he
returned to the hospital two days later. Doctors determined that
Smith's appendix may have leaked and that he had pockets of pus
in his stomach. The abscesses were treated with drugs, and
surgery was performed to repair a tear in his intestines. Jimmy's
parents--his mother, Etta, a retired Jackson, Miss., school
administrator who used to sprint jubilantly down the sideline
alongside her son during his Pop Warner touchdown runs, and his
father, also named Jimmy, the owner of a trucking company who had
a brief stint as a tight end with the Cincinnati Bengals in
1968--feared the worst. "He was just melting away," Etta says.
"The night before the second surgery, a medical technician came
into the room after seeing the lab work and gave me a Bible
scripture. He said, 'Mrs. Smith, I want you to read this because
I think God will hear a mother's prayer.'"

The son pulled through, but his saga was far from over. After
more than three weeks in the hospital, he returned to his town
house wearing a colostomy bag, and one doctor told him, "There's
a chance you could have this the rest of your life." Smith needed
the bag for only three months, during which he suffered blood
clots, bed sores and a 30-pound weight loss.

Soon thereafter Smith made one heck of an enemy: his boss. At the
start of the 1993 season Cowboys owner Jerry Jones placed Smith
on the reserve/nonfootball-injury list, meaning Dallas wasn't
obligated to pay his $350,000 salary. Smith filed a grievance
through the NFL Players Association, which claimed a hit he had
taken in an exhibition game had contributed to the appendicitis
and that he hadn't received adequate treatment from the team when
the symptoms of the condition appeared. In December of that year
an arbitrator ruled that the appendicitis was football-related,
and Smith received his salary and a playoff share.

"I understood it from Jerry's point of view as a businessman, but
I felt it was adding insult to injury," Smith says. "What's
$350,000 to him? He had a team of lawyers, some of the best in
the country, and I'm sure he spent more than $350,000 in legal
fees. You don't beat Jerry Jones and get away with it."

In July 1994 Jones, who declined comment about the episode,
called Smith into his office and told him he'd be released if he
didn't take a pay cut. Smith, figuring he was doomed in Dallas
anyway, refused, ending his Cowboys career with two Super Bowl
rings and no catches. Also at that meeting was coach Barry
Switzer, who had taken over four months earlier. Recalls Smith,
"Barry said, 'I hear they call you Silk [a nickname from high
school]. I haven't seen that yet.' Half of me wanted to punch
him, and the other half wanted to bust out laughing."

There were more slights to come. The Philadelphia Eagles signed
Smith eight days after his release, and though he was a special
teams standout in the preseason, he was waived a day after the
final roster cutdown. Veteran cornerback Mark McMillian, who was
with the Eagles then, was one of many players stunned by the
move. "Jimmy was a raw talent, but he was by far the best pure
athlete we had," McMillian says.

Smith became angry, then depressed. He dreaded returning home to
Jackson and having to answer questions about his future. Says
Isaac Morehouse, Smith's friend and college teammate, "Even
people in Jackson who were supposed to be cool with him started
acting like he was done."

Instead, Smith returned to Dallas and moved in with Sandra
Coverson, whom he had begun dating the previous fall. While
Coverson spent her days working at a bank, Smith sat around
watching TV and hoping to get picked up by one of the teams that
had expressed interest in him. But none of those teams--the
Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs or New
England Patriots--called, and Smith sat out the '94 season. In the
meantime Sandra, whom Smith has since married, gave him household
chores to do. "She'd point to two baskets in the corner of the
room and say, 'This is hot, and this is cold. Wash and fold them
before I get home,'" Smith says, recalling his least favorite
task. "That motivated me to get off my butt as much as anything."

Smith's parents pushed him off the couch for good, demanding that
he work out in February 1995 for the Jaguars, who were preparing
for their inaugural season. Smith, who had resisted playing in
Canada or Europe, wasn't keen about suiting up for an NFL
expansion team, either. But Etta and the elder Jimmy were swayed
by the persistence of Jaguars director of pro personnel Ron Hill,
who for two months placed daily calls to their house, and Jimmy
agreed to participate in a crowded workout. The day before Jimmy
left for Jacksonville, Etta purchased a spiral-ring notebook. She
filled it with articles and predraft newsletters that talked him
up and wrote on the cover: All I Need Is a Chance.

Jimmy promised Etta he'd give the notebook to Coughlin, but when
he walked into his first team meeting, he lost his nerve. "I
slipped it to the receivers coach, Pete Carmichael, without
anyone noticing," he says. "I don't think Tom Coughlin had a clue
who I was, so I think the binder was instrumental in the Jaguars'
deciding to sign me."

During the '95 season Smith backed up Andre Rison, who gave him
much needed encouragement. "He instilled in me the belief that I
can't be covered," says Smith. After Rison was cut 11 games into
the '96 season, Smith became a starter. He has since proved Rison
right. He has played in three Pro Bowls and over the past four
years leads the NFL in receiving yards (5,386) and is second in
receptions with 359, six fewer than the Oakland Raiders' Tim
Brown.

"Jimmy's a lot like [Minnesota Vikings All-Pro wideout] Cris
Carter, because he can do so much," says McMillian, who finished
last season with the Washington Redskins. "He has very deceptive
speed, and he has learned how to use his body and set up
defensive backs." Smith has also evolved into a punishing
blocker, twice clearing the path for touchdown runs in the
Jaguars' 62-7 playoff torture of the Miami Dolphins on Jan. 15,
and has shown grit under fire. "There are players on that team we
feel we can intimidate, but Jimmy Smith has taken some of our
best hits, and he doesn't complain," says Titans defensive
coordinator Gregg Williams. "The guy is always calm."

Well, not always. When he presses, those around him feel the
stress. Sandra says Jimmy was cold and distant during the first
part of the 1999 season. "That was when all the tension was going
on between Coughlin and Mark [Brunell], and our offense was
struggling," Jimmy says. "I took on a lot of the burden to carry
the team, and she's right--I'd come home, get into bed and give
one-word answers."

On a recent visit to Dallas, the Smiths were far more animated
while sipping fruity drinks at a popular restaurant and
recounting their courtship. "The first time I saw her," said
Jimmy, "she came out of the bank wearing a long sweater-dress.
She looked great from behind, and she had a nice hairstyle, but I
never saw her face. I asked a friend to hook me up with her
anyway. For all I knew she had acne all over."

"Oh, please," Sandra said sarcastically. "You're so romantic."

They laughed as their four-year-old son, Jimmy Lee III, ran up to
the table and hugged his father. Jimmy Jr. ducked to protect his
right eye, having undergone surgery on the eye several days
earlier to remove a cataract and to correct nearsightedness. "I
basically played the season with one eye, but I didn't tell
anyone--not even Sandra," he says. "I figure I dropped about 12
passes last year, and my vision might have been responsible for
six of them. Now that I can see again, I should be that much
better."

He makes it sound easy.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER/SABA HEARTWARMING Smith, in his backyard in Jacksonville, found happiness with the Jaguars after a star-crossed start with the Cowboys.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO INCOMPLETE FEELING Smith hauled in this pass in the playoff loss to the Titans but also dropped two balls and misjudged another.
Prepared by his mom, the spiral-ring binder that sang his
praises was, Jimmy says, "instrumental in the Jaguars' deciding
to sign em."