When he was a teenager, Andre Smith’s future looked bleak. Poor grades and no family support left him rudderless.
But rather than succumb, he fought his way uphill, performing well enough at Seneca Valley High School to earn a Virginia Tech football scholarship, play in the National Football League and now don the uniform of a Montgomery County Police officer.
Bob Plante, Clarksburg High School’s head football coach who was Smith’s coach at Seneca 10 years ago, credits the discipline and teamwork of football for the success the 30-year-old currently enjoys.
“Andre lost his mom his senior year. His father wasn’t in his life,” Plante said.
Back then, Smith enjoyed football; school, not so much.
When his coaches made it clear that good grades meant playing time, Smith rose to the challenge, Plante said.
He learned skills “you can’t learn in a textbook. There’s a lot of good in football,” said Plante, who is concerned about the decline in football participation due to negative media reports, injury concerns and preference by some youngsters for soccer.
Football can change people’s lives for the better. “It’s that powerful,” Plante said.
Smith readily agreed. He played backyard football, only joining organized football at the high-school level.
His father had long since stepped out of Smith’s life. Then, while he was a high school junior, his mother learned she had leukemia.
During her sickness, when she was in and out of the hospital, Smith found himself alone quite a bit. Then, the Wednesday before football season started, she passed away.
“I was so much of a knucklehead, I didn’t take school seriously. I got terrible grades,” he said.
Because of his grades, Smith remained on the junior varsity team even though his athletic abilities were good enough for varsity.
His coaches sat him down and told the young man that he was good enough to get a full ride to college and, regardless of whether he made it to the NFL, he at least would have a college degree. But he would have to change his ways.
Coach Plante taught him to perform at 110 percent, no matter the task, Smith said.
He “blew off steam or anger” on the field, and even showed up at school the morning after his mother died, because, he explained, “It was instilled in me; you do what you need to do.”
He moved in with his good friend, whose family earlier had moved to Frederick County, and began commuting in the car he inherited from his mom, a 40-minute trip to Seneca Valley.
He also attended summer, night and Saturday classes, eventually raising his GPA from 1.97 to 3.56 and enabling him to attend Virginia Tech at no cost. His high school coaches, one of whom who drove Smith down to visit the campus, convinced the VT football staff to accept him right after graduation so he would have a place to live.
He graduated five years later with degrees in psychology and sociology.
He went undrafted but soon became a tight end for the Chicago Bears, where he spent one year before heading to the Indianapolis Colts. Released from the Colts, Smith spent time out of football, before joining the Dallas Cowboys, where he caught passes from then-quarterback Tony Romo.
After a while, the Cowboys placed Smith on waivers. The Cleveland Browns picked him up that same day.
Smith recalled easing into the physicality at the college level but struggling somewhat with everything he had to learn.
“There is so much more you need to know,” he said. As a tight end, he learned blocking from the line and which routes to run.
A torn muscle in his calf followed by a back injury convinced Smith to hang up his cleats. His professional football career lasted nearly four years.
While he missed the game, Smith didn’t miss the traveling and nights spent in different cities. He had become a father figure to his sister’s son and wanted to be around for him. He treasures the time he now has time for bow hunting and fishing, which he said, “are like medicine for me.”
Looking for a career in which he could help others, Smith entered the police academy, spending an “intense” 30 weeks learning police work.
Now, Smith, whose heavily-tattooed arms tell the story of his life, patrols the streets of Germantown as a Montgomery County Police officer. His district station operates “literally walking distance from where I grew up.”
He enjoys his year-old career. “I like to take bad guys off the street. I like chasing guys down,” he said. “It’s more fun than I ever could have imagined, except for the paperwork,” Smith said.
He already has been cited for his good work. Along with two fellow officers, Smith helped subdue a man who was walking through a Michaels Arts and Crafts store while waving a knife. No one was injured.
“That was an intense situation,” he said.
Being an African-American police officer can be challenging in today’s environment, but Smith said he treats every person he encounters in the way he wants to be treated. He wishes more people understood all the things an officer must consider in a split second.
Looking back, Smith appreciates Coach Plante even more. “He’s taught me more about life than he ever has about football.”