Approximately 800 people didn’t let Monday’s storm keep them from attending the Whitfield/Murray County Fellowship of Christian Athletes annual banquet, where they heard about a former NFL player’s personal storm, and how he fought through it and now spreads his message to young athletes.
Sammie Smith, a former first round draft pick out of Florida State University, was the keynote speaker at the event at the trade center. The annual fundraising event, in its 14th year, highlights the past year and also features messages from some of the athletes and coaches who are part of the group, a nonprofit, interdenominational Christian organization that uses the influence of coaches and athletes to impact the world through God. The organization has chapters in different schools across the country, and has a chapter in many local schools, including all of the high schools in Whitfield and Murray counties.
While many of the athletes’ and coaches’ testimonials focused on how the FCA has positively affected their lives, Smith’s message included a lot of his low points. After growing up in an Orlando suburb and playing in Tallahassee for the Seminoles, the running back was selected ninth overall in the 1989 draft. He said his time living in Miami and playing for the Dolphins is when his life took a turn.
“It was a city that when I left there I was happy to leave and start a new life,” he said. “That was certainly when my walk, or whatever semblance of a walk I had, turned sour.”
After he and his wife’s 2-month-old son died unexpectedly, Smith said he turned away from God and his Christian upbringing. He missed all of preseason in 1991, and in the first two games had fumbles in key moments, enduring “Sammie sucks” chants from the home crowd.
“It was a traumatic experience and was from there when things started going downhill,” Smith said.
He played one season for the Denver Broncos before his career ended and he moved back to his home area, where he became friends with drug dealers and found himself connected to a drug investigation. He was charged with intent to distribute cocaine in 1995, according to the Los Angeles Times, and received a life sentence. He spent seven years in prison.
“I fell on my knees and really had a chance to have a full overview of my life and some of the tough times I had gone through,” Smith said. “It all came full circle, and God put me in a place where I was broken and the only place I could look up to was to him.”
While in prison, he vowed to turn his life around. In 2001 he became an FCA speaker, first at a local team captain’s camp. He said initially it was difficult to openly tell his story. Now he is the area representative with the FCA chapter in Lake County, Fla. In January, he attended the Orange Bowl kickoff breakfast banquet, which he called “one of the most challenging” venues that he has spoken at.
“I was going back to a territory (Miami) that I had a lot of pain, from playing with the Dolphins,” he said. “I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back there. ... That was another time God spoke to me and said, ‘Hey, this is another challenge you have to face.’ I had some unforgiveness in my heart from that city. It was a very moving event.”
Dave Grusnick, the area FCA chapter’s director, said there are anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 local students who participate in the group through their schools. Some schools have weekly meetings before school and others have monthly meetings. Many of the students were in attendance and listened to Smith’s speech.
“He’s speaking in the context of one of our ministry tools, which is ‘One way to play — drug free,’” Grusnick said. “Drugs are high up. Kids are using them as much as they ever have. ... We have a lot of people here who have some substance abuse issues and maybe they might not have heard how faith can come to help in that situation.”
Smith transitioned from a promising college running back with dreams of becoming an NFL star to a convicted felon to someone actively trying to better lives. That adds more power to his message, Grusnick said.
“The FCA is based on people of influence,” he said. “So here you have a sports figure. Everybody knows his name. He has a credible sports platform to go from. He fell, just like anyone can. So in his testimony, you add that to his credibility and it’s a pretty powerful tool to put in front of kids.”
Smith hopes his message — and the “thunderstorm” he had to fight through — resonated with the FCA members in the audience.
“Really, it’s to put God first in whatever they do,” he said. “Understand that we work on our bodies to be in shape and get prepared to play games and do the best we can do on the field. But there’s more to that. What do we do with the inner body, the inner man? God requires us to exercise that, too, and build ourselves up so that when we run into hard times and thunderstorms that we have something to lean on and help navigate us through those tough times.”