Akili Smith (Getty Images)
Posted: 4:50 p.m.
Akili Smith knows more anniversaries than Hallmark.
But if this week marks the 10th year of the 1999 NFL Draft and "my best day" as a professional athlete, he also realizes there is a more important milestone this month:
His 16th month sober.
"It was New Year's Eve at a Gospel concert," Smith is recalling last weekend. "It's a night where everybody is drinking or is drunk, but that concert was a pretty emotional experience for me. You can't run from God."
From the day he arrived in Cincinnati as The Savior himself, the third pick in the NFL Draft as a franchise quarterback, Smith was running from something. If it wasn't from a behemoth defensive lineman, it was from the playbook, or the crushing expectations, or the injuries.
Whatever it was, he always seemed to be running.
"I was raised in the church," he says, "but the church wasn't raised in me if you know what I mean."
After 10 years, five teams, four releases, and three countries, Smith, at 33, sounds at peace enough to slow to a walk that savors life. His oldest of four children is 12 and his youngest is one. He's dabbling in the ministry as a deacon in his father's church, United Missionary Baptist. He's been married for two years. He deals in San Diego real estate and lives in the hills about 20 miles from downtown in Rancho Bernardo.
"Like everybody else I've taken a hit in the market," he says, but maintains he didn't fritter away that signing bonus.
And, the ultimate in revenge for a guy that used to run from the pocket at the first hint of trouble, he's the quarterbacks coach for his alma mater Grossmont Junior College.
"My goal is to be a coach at the highest level," Smith says. "I think I can be an offensive coordinator in Division I. I love it. With what I've been through, I think I can teach kids what to do and what not to do."
Grossmont head coach Mike Jordan knew he was going to get passion and hard work from Smith. He had seen it when he was Smith's quarterbacks coach at Grossmont all those years ago and got him ready for his all-world season at Oregon. The one that vaulted him to the top of the draft.
"But the work ethic he's shown here is beyond me," says Jordan, who hired him last year. "Here's a guy that's been where he's been, but he's come back here and given a lot. Whatever is driving him, it's really driving him. I think he's got a great spiritual life. He's a different guy, sure. He was a young guy. He's just a more mature version of the guy we had here. He still has a lot of passion."
There is more passion than bitterness.
He will watch the draft this year with his kids around. He has to because he's still a Chargers diehard. But, he admits, he'll be thinking how special his day was when he sees the quarterbacks drafted.
"I just hope they go to a good situation," he says. "I remember getting that call from the Bengals backstage (in New York) and how good it felt, and what an honor to go that high."
For awhile, that day defined his life. The good, the bad, the ugly. Not, it seems, anymore.
"There are some guys who have been busts both in life and on the field," says Joby Branion, one of his old agents. "But you can't say that about Akili. He's worked hard since he's been out of the game, working on his college degree and taking a low-paying job at his old junior college. He's never been afraid to pay his dues. He's always been a good person. He's not one of those busts in life."
Smith, Jordan, former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and others that are relatively close to Smith insist that none of the five quarterbacks who were selected in the first 12 picks of that draft would have succeeded in the Cincinnati of 1999 and 2000.
Branion, who along with David Dunn represents the Bengals two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer, says you at least have to think about it.
"You don't know if things would have been different, but I don't think you can argue that Akili didn't have the situation that Carson had," Branion says. "He didn't have Marvin Lewis and Jon Kitna. I don't think Jeff Blake was exactly taking him under his wing, and Carson had two good tackles and three veteran receivers."
Smith agrees. The symbolic play of his career was probably against Lewis' Ravens when he got sacked under his helmet with a shot to his chinstrap on a three-step drop.
"It's not like it is now," Smith says. "Marvin Lewis has brought stability to the organization."
Only Donovan McNabb, selected right before Smith by the Eagles, at No. 2, became the perennial Pro Bowler and MVP candidate. Tim Couch, at No. 1, played just 62 games and five seasons for Cleveland and was done. Daunte Culpepper, drafted by the Vikings at No. 11, is still in the league but has bounced around since a hot start flamed out. Cade McNown, drafted by the Bears at No. 12, never surfaced again after two seasons and 25 games in Chicago.
Although Smith is still friendly with McNabb and his family, his career always seemed to intersect with Couch. The Browns pondered taking Smith first, which would have meant Couch would go to Cincy. Smith's first start and one of his three wins came in Cleveland later that year on his last-second two-point conversion pass to Carl Pickens. Couch's last start was an upset win in Cincinnati on the last day of the season that knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs in 2003, the year Smith was cut.
Smith played just 17 games in Cincinnati, only one each in 2001 and 2002, and wound up throwing more than twice as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (five) while completing just 46.6 percent of his passes for less than five yards per throw.
Ugly numbers that suggest even if he had gone to Philadelphia or Cleveland, he would have struggled. But Smith thinks things would have been different.
"When you look at what we had, we were barely fielding a college team," Smith says of the 2000 season. "We had (running back) Corey Dillon and Willie Anderson, (Rich) Braham and (Mike) Goff on the offensive line and that was it. We had rookie receivers starting (Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans) and two guys that came out with me, Damon Griffin and Craig Yeast. When Darnay (Scott) broke his leg, my agent called up there trying to get them to sign a veteran receiver, but it didn't happen."
With Smith as the starter, the Bengals started '00 at 2-10 while setting league lows in the passing game. After a 23-6 loss in Dallas marked the sixth time that year they had scored seven points or less, Smith got benched in favor of Scott Mitchell and played in only two more NFL games.
"After I got benched, I just felt like I never could make a mistake," Smith says. "You can't play quarterback like that."
But if Smith and friends are correct in pointing out some of the downsides, he also admits that his scattershot life off the field was also part of the problem, as well as his inability to click with offensive coordinator Ken Anderson and the Bengals scheme.
He frustrated the club with his penchant for blowing off many of Anderson's study sessions to go back home and freezing under pressure, which, some say, made his line look worse than it was.
"If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have gone back to San Diego so much and partied," he says. "I needed to get away. From the media, from the expectations. I just had to get away."
After that season, Smith was picked up for a DUI in San Diego but later acquitted. His problems grew that offseason when the Bengals hired a new offensive coordinator in Bob Bratkowski and signed Kitna, a player steeped in Bratkowski's system.
But Smith felt some life in that spring of '01. Smith took to the new playbook and the club kept trying to work with him to quicken his release with ball handling and footwork.
"Brat's system's was very close to what we ran at Oregon with the numbered passing tree," Smith says of the QB-friendly scheme run by Jeff Tedford. "I felt comfortable in it and I think I was getting better. Brat would encourage me and say I was getting better. But when Coach Lewis came in, I understood they had to go in a different direction."
In quick succession, Smith got cut in June of '03, changed agents, signed with the Packers, got cut when it turned out the advice that Brett Favre was about to retire was half a decade off, went to NFL Europe as a member of the Buccaneers, and got cut two days after he got back.
"He's not the only quarterback that came into this league with high expectations and it didn't work out," Bratkowski says. "He can be proud of what he accomplished in college. He can be proud of being a high draft pick. And he's in a large crowd of people in that position that never meet the expectations. It goes to show you how hard that position is.
"It was a combination of things, just like it is with any quarterback that doesn't meet expectations. Sometimes it's the speed of the game, it's the reads, it's the accuracy under fire. There is just a large laundry list that goes into being a great quarterback. If a couple of the things aren't working well for you, you're going to struggle."
After Smith signed a two-year deal with the CFL's Calgary club as a backup in 2007, he got pulled at the half in his first start following three picks. Later in the season, two days after he went 4-for-12 for 37 yards, he was cut.
"I think if he went to Philly, he'd still be playing. And if Donovan went to Cincinnati, he wouldn't have had the same career he's had," Houshmandzadeh says. "Look at it. Their athleticism is a wash. Their ability to run is a wash. Akili was a better passer coming out. Quarterback is a cerebral position. Who knows? But Akili wasn't a dumb guy and he's not a dumb guy."
Smart enough to know he didn't help himself and smart enough to mature. Smart enough to know he's got enough experiences to be a wealth of knowledge for any young quarterback.
"Cut the field in half and go to where the coverage isn't," says Smith of what he's trying to pass on to the kids. "My problem in Cincinnati was I wouldn't get to my checkdowns. I'd look at my first option, then my second option, and then take off running. I'm teaching getting to the checkdowns and I'm using the drills I've picked up everywhere. From guys like Coach Tedford and Brat, I'm using them all."
Grossmont's Jordan has been so impressed that he's let him run with it. Last year the No. 1 QB got hurt and they had to go with the No. 3, and they went 5-5.
"He's very detailed. His guys are very well prepared," Jordan says. "He's never late to a meeting, always on time, and ready to go."
If he has any advice for Georgia's Matthew Stafford, the one quarterback on stage in New York 10 years later, Smith says if the money is close, get a deal and get into camp.
Another of the infinite reasons it all blew up is that Smith held out for 27 practices, a responsibility he puts at the feet of his agents at the time, Jeff Moorad and Leigh Steinberg. From what Smith understands, the $10.8 million signing bonus had been in place early in the negotiations and he feels that should have gotten him in even though there was haggling over a voidable year.
"The Brown family was sincere in trying to get something done. They were there with that $10.8 million," Smith says. "I feel that they were fair with me. My advice is to get into camp as soon as possible. I was behind from the start and you're losing confidence right away."
He also says it's best for a quarterback to sit and learn, like Palmer did with Kitna in 2003.
"There are very few guys like (Dan) Marino or Peyton Manning that can just come in and play," he says. "We would have been a lot better off in 2000 if I'd sat behind Jeff Blake and watched him the year before. Getting a start in the (fifth) game of my rookie year with a long holdout, that was tough."
But an injury did bench him for the rest of his rookie year three weeks later when he severely hurt his toe. The problem was, he couldn't practice.
Yet there is no venom when it comes to Palmer.
"I think Carson's great. I follow him and pull for him," Smith says. "He's a southern California guy. He's a Pac 10 guy. I'm with him all the way. He's a baller."
Another L.A. guy is with Smith, too.
"Akili's going to be a good coach, you watch," Houshmandzadeh says. "Anybody who has played at that level knows what it takes and he can relate to kids. He knows technique and what you need to do fundamentally because he's been through it on so many times with so many coaches."
How long ago was that draft?
April 17, 1999. Long enough that even cable TV is starting to show its age.
"Whenever it's on TV, I get texts and it looks so old," Smith says. "ESPN's graphics look really old compared to now. I've got the tapes from the Jim Rome Show."
His best day in sports?
"Yeah. My best day," he says, and the voice is bereft of bitterness and sadness.
Because that's still a heck of a day.