Once an NFL player, Vero Beach native Eric Smith found himself addicted to drugs and homeless in Vero Beach. Now, he’s helping others at The Source.
Patrick Dove, firstname.lastname@example.org
There used to be a sometimes raggedly dressed, homeless black man in his mid-40s frequenting the main road leading from Interstate 95 to Vero Beach. He’d often hang out in an open-air laundromat, hitting people up for change.
You could find him catching ZZZs in the woods, on a bench near the laundromat or the steps of a church, where one night a pastor gave him a pillow.
Almost 20 years earlier, the man’s autograph was sought around the globe.
“Once you’ve lost everything and all of your possessions, you really don’t care,” said Eric Smith, whose miracle-like rise to the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 1997 was matched by a disastrous turn to depression and addiction, then homelessness. “You do the best you can to survive. I just didn’t want to be around nobody. When you have an addiction you become isolated.”
Eric Smith, a standout football player at Vero Beach High School, later at LSU, talks with Floyd Millner before the doors open for lunch at The Source, a Christian ministry outreach program serving the poor and homeless in Vero Beach. Smith, who eventually made it to the NFL, suffered from a series of injuries and bad decisions that eventually brought him back home and living on the streets. “If it hadn’t been for The Source and the people there investing time in me, who knows where I’d be right now,” Smith said. (Photo: PATRICK DOVE/TCPALM)
Smith, 47, gets around town easier now. He traded in a bicycle for a car. He’s paying rent again.
Best of all, he said, he loves his life.
“I used to think football was the biggest thing I’d ever do, but I’ll tell you, where I’m at today I love that I had to go through that struggle,” said Smith, who is in recovery and works for The Source, which ministers to the homeless in Indian River County. “Because now I’m able to get out and just give testimony to let other people know that no matter how hard you fall you have a choice to get back up. And through Christ, all things are possible.”
Smith said he was baptized as a child at St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist Church in Gifford, where his single mom took him while struggling to make ends meet.
As a sixth-grader in the early 1980s, Smith met Matt Parris. Parris, a white student from Vero Beach whose father played in the NFL, said he was “schooling” Smith on the basketball court in front of his black friends when Smith fouled him hard. Smith’s friends stood up for the white kid.
Smith apologized and the two became friends, Parris said.
Smith knew sports was his calling and a way out of Gifford, but his mother wouldn’t let him play organized football until 10th grade because she could not afford the cost of possible injuries. By junior year, when he was on the receiving end of Parris’ passes, Smith was a major college prospect
The quarterback and wide receiver became all but family. As athletes who went on to play college football and won state track championships for Vero Beach in 1989 and 1990, the boys refrained from alcohol and drugs, Parris said.
“I don’t remember him dropping a pass in a game or practice — ever,” Parris, a chiropractor, said recently, adding Smith not only had speed, but a knack for getting open.
Smith’s only limitation to playing in the NFL, Parris thought, was the fact he was shorter than 6 feet.
Smith, however, could not get into a major college because of his studies. Instead, he went to Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he won a national championship and still holds multiple receiving records. He had a promising junior year at Louisiana State University, but quit the team mid-season senior year after a bar fight he said was started by someone who attacked him.
While Smith’s LSU wide receiver teammate, Eddie Kennison, was drafted in the first round (and played 13 years in the NFL), Smith had to catch on as a free agent.
Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer assigned Smith to the spring 1997 Edinburgh-based Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe. Smith’s highlight was a 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return in Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium
Wide receiver Eric Smith, right, of the Scottish Claymores and Vero Beach, Florida, runs May 25, 1997, while playing against the Rhein Fire in a World League of American Football game in Duesseldorf Rhein-Stadium in Germany. Also shown is the Fire’s John Anderson. (Photo: EDGAR SCHOEPAL/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
That summer he signed with the Bears. On Sept. 28, 1997, Smith caught his first NFL pass in front of 64,082 fans at the Dallas Cowboys’ Texas Stadium, playing against legends such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders.
In 1998, at age 26, Smith was one of the Bears’ final cuts after an injury and ramifications of the fight at LSU. Smith hadn’t finished his education, so he returned to Gifford and began working in landscaping.
Smith’s father and brother subsequently died of cancer and in a car accident, respectively. Smith started hanging out with friends who liked to try new things. He said he never thought he’d be drinking and smoking crack cocaine.
From 2007 to early 2017, Smith was arrested on a variety of drug-related and other minor charges. Several were dismissed. He fed his substance abuse by detailing boats.
His boss, Vinny Magliula, knew Smith had issues and was homeless, but liked his hard work. Magliula lost his patience in January 2017.
“It was one of those days and I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Magliula said, noting he told Smith that for safety reasons he couldn’t return to work unless he got clean. “It killed me to do that.”
The incident jolted Smith.
“That moment right there turned things around for me,” said Smith, appreciative of Magliula who, more than two years later, remains surprised at his impact and how Smith has changed.
“He’s a whole different person,” Magliula said. “I’m just so happy for him.”
Magliula’s decision pushed Smith to The Source, where he used to ride his bike for a shower or meal.
Smith spent 26 weeks in a Source program that helped him kick his habit by early 2018 and find his calling in life — to help people recover from the same problems he had: depression, addiction and homelessness.
In the process, The Source trained Smith in “Dining with Dignity,” a program that teaches the homeless culinary skills they take into the workplace. It also feeds the hungry.
Parris ran into Smith serving at a catered affair in 2017 and was impressed.
“He’s a man with nine lives,” Parris said. “A lot of people are rooting for him.”
Including Vero Beach High School football coach Lenny Jankowski, who, through alumni and one of his players, Michael Smith (a wide receiver at the University of Pittsburgh and cousin of Smith’s) had heard about Eric Smith’s legendary athleticism.
One night in fall 2016, Jankowski’s washing machine broke. He headed to the laundromat to do the family’s wash and design a plan for his next game.
“I’m hogging most of the machines in the place, this guy approaches me and asks me for money,” Jankowski said, adding the man claimed he wanted something to eat.
“I offered to drive him to Burger King,” Jankowski said, but the man refused.
The man then asked Jankowski if he was a coach at Vero Beach. Jankowski ended up chatting with Smith for about 90 minutes until the laundry was done.
“I told him, ‘I’ve heard all about you’,” Jankowski said. “ ‘You have a lot of people who think a lot about you.’
“Everything about him to me seemed sincere and genuine … it was almost like a brotherhood.”
So much so Jankowski told Smith if he ever got his life together he might have a good lesson for the team.
And Jankowski agreed to give him $20 if Smith promised to spend it on food.
Months later, Smith was on the road to recovery. Last fall, Smith was back on the Fighting Indians’ sideline and spoke to Jankowski’s young men.
His message: Academics must take precedence over sports:
“Everybody’s not going to make the league or get to the next level,” he said. “Sports, they can take that from you at any time. They can’t take education from you.”
Hanging around with the right people in the right places is essential.
Smith’s years of addiction and poverty have become a source of motivation.
“My main objective is to let others know there is hope: Your life can change,” he said. “I like what I’m doing now. It’s better than any football. I can just be a light.”
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him via email at email@example.com, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman
Read or Share this story: https://www.tcpalm.com/story/opinion/columnists/laurence-reisman/2019/05/15/ex-vero-beach-high-school-nfl-receiver-eric-smith-fights-addiction-homelessness-source-chicago-bears/3396994002/