GREEN BAY, WIS. — For years, they tried to get him to play football. They even got him to spring workouts a couple of times. But when it came time to put the pads on and play for real, Za’Darius Smith always bailed.
And for his mom.
But Ben Blackmon and Josh McClendon never closed the door to the football offices in Greenville (Alabama) High School on Smith.
“We tried to get him to come out for football for years, and he just would never bite,” said McClendon, then Greenville’s middle school basketball and football coach. “He was just bound and determined to be a basketball guy. He wasn’t a guard, and he was 6-4 or 6-5 playing down low. We tried to convince him if you’ve got any chance of going anywhere, it would be through football. He would come out, show a little interest and then just give up.”
Said Blackmon, then the varsity football coach at Greenville High: “I’d see him and his mom in the basketball gym and I’d say, ‘You’ve got to let me get him out there.’ And his mom, Miss Sharon, is such a sweet lady, she was always like, ‘I don’t want my baby to get hurt.’ I’m like, ‘Ma’am, have you seen your baby? He’s bigger than everybody.’”
Then one day in late July, before his senior year, Smith walked into Blackmon’s office. The AAU basketball season had just ended, and the scholarship offers weren’t exactly pouring in.
“We were finishing up our summer workouts and getting ready to head into the season and he knocks on my door and says, ‘Coach, do you got a minute?’” Blackmon recalled. “I had no idea where this was going and he sat down and said, ‘Coach, I’ve been thinking, football might be my only ticket. This AAU stuff isn’t really working out for me. I’m 6-5, and everybody I’m playing against is 7-foot tall. I really want to give football a try.’”
It was the beginning of a football journey that last week brought him to the Green Bay Packers on a four-year, $66 million contract. It’s what some players dream of their whole lives, from the minute they strap on a helmet in a Pop Warner league. Yet for Smith, his entrance to the NFL as a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens came just five years after he played his first down of football. And just four years after that, he became the highest-paid member of the Packers’ free-agent class and one of the richest outside linebackers in the NFL.
Even Smith, 26, can appreciate his unusual path.
On his first day with the Packers, he offered a “shout-out to my high school coach, Ben Blackmon.”
“If he would’ve said no to me coming out, then I wouldn’t be here today,” Smith said.
It wasn’t that simple.
First, Smith needed the approval from the rest of the team, which had spent all offseason in the weight room and running drills. Blackmon called together his senior class to discuss whether to take Smith. They voted in favor.
“I knew in my right mind I wasn’t going to let him walk out the door,” Blackmon said. “But I drew up a contract where he had to come in at 6:30 in the morning, meet me at school to make up workouts and he had to stay and help clean the locker room and keep his grades up. And he had no problem doing that.
“So he came out and we tried in a short period of time to teach him as much as we could about just getting in a stance and playing defensive end. We were a four-man front, and we put him on the left tackle. I don’t remember how many sacks he had, but I remember one game all he knew was to bull rush, and he was so strong and he took the left tackle and threw him into the quarterback and got a sack. I knew right then that this kid was going to be special if he ever figured it out.”
To hear Smith tell it, he had 11 sacks that season.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
He was so raw that he barely understood the game.
“One game, it’s right at the end of the half and the quarterback is going to kneel just to run the clock out, and he comes off the edge and he just nails the quarterback, just nails him,” said McClendon, now the head coach at Greenville. “The quarterback takes a knee and he just tackles him. He comes to the sideline and he says, ‘What was he doing?’
“We said, ‘You can’t do that.’ He had no clue what the rules were — what he was supposed to do, what he was not supposed to do. He was obviously very athletic, but just as far as the concept of the game and understanding what he was supposed to do, that first year he played, it was not very pretty.”
Still, Blackmon and McClendon knew Smith had a future in the game.
When college coaches — mostly from two-year schools — came around, they implored them to look at Smith. One in particular, Freddie Roach from East Mississippi Community College, came away impressed.
“I told Freddie that I’ve got to show you this one kid,” Blackmon said of Smith. “We pulled the kid out of the classroom and Freddie looked up at him and said, ‘Holy moly.’ I said, ‘Freddie, the kid’s played six months of football and this kid needs a shot.’ The rest is Za’Darius’ path that he’s paved for himself.”
Two years at East Mississippi preceded two years at the University of Kentucky, and by then he was NFL ready.
In four years in Baltimore, he recorded 18.5 sacks, five passes defensed and three forced fumbles. Last season, for the NFL’s top-ranked defense, he posted career highs in tackles (45) and a team high in sacks (8.5). According to Sportsradar, Smith ranked second last season among all NFL linebackers in quarterback hits (25) and tied for sixth in total pressures (combined sacks, hurries and knockdowns) with 35.
Which brought him to Green Bay, but not before a trip back to Alabama to surprise his mother. There was Sharon, at her job as a deputy at the Butler County Correctional Facility.
“When I got the phone call [from the Packers], I actually drove into Alabama from Baltimore, 14 hours, and sat down at my mom’s job,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Mom, you ready to quit working?’ And one thing she did was, she said, ‘My bag is already packed.’ So that was pretty cool to do that.
“She’s been there for like 22 years, and she worked with a lot of inmates, so sometimes that can be a headache. To get there and see her, bags packed, it was a wonderful feeling to tell Mom she can quit working.”