Like a lot of kids who grew up with skinned knees and elbows from backyard touch football games, DeMaurice Smith had his gridiron heroes.
Redskins, mostly. Players like Pat Fischer, Larry Brown, Roy Jefferson—stars he’d watch every weekend at his father’s elbow in their Washington, D.C., home.
That wide-eyed adulation is a luxury Smith (Law ’89) can no longer afford, now that he has become an NFL player of a different sort. He huddles regularly with superstars like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but they discuss business matters, not gameday heroics.
“I grew up being a huge football fan,” Smith says, “but in this job there really isn’t a lot of time—there’s neither the time nor the luxury for me to be a fan.”
The job is executive director of the NFL Players Association—1,900 elite athletes competing in the nation’s most popular sport. And though he played football in high school and ran track at Cedarville (Ohio) University, it’s his acumen in legal, business and public policy matters rather than any athletic ability that led to his election in March 2009 after the death of longstanding director Gene Upshaw.
“It’s been a very intense 19 months,” Smith, 46, said in a recent interview. “At times it feels like 19 years.”
With concussions in the headlines, wrangling over an 18-game season and heated debate over money issues, the intensity is real. Smith says it’s a near certainty that in March there will be a lockout, an event with billion-dollar implications for players, owners and cities with teams.
However, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a letter to fans earlier this month saying the league “can and will reach an agreement” with the players’ union, according to the Washington Post.
Despite the pressures of his job, Smith voices no complaints. In fact, he invokes his religious heritage—his grandfather was a preacher, as are several relatives—in referring to the job as a calling.
“I do think there are times in your life when you’re called to do something. It’s not something that you seek. It just seems to be the convergence of both a desire and an opportunity, and people around you who believe in the same mission,” Smith says.
Ironically, when Smith literally got the call—a phone call from an NFL search committee in October 2008 while he was working on President Obama’s election campaign—he didn’t return it. His path after UVA Law School had led to work as a trial lawyer and as counsel to Eric Holder, then deputy attorney general and now U.S. Attorney General. His sights were set on a prominent legal position in Washington.
A second call and later discussions changed his mind. The leadership of players like Brees, Kevin Mawae and others on the search committee impressed him, but he didn’t mince words about the challenges.
“I told them, ‘If you are looking for somebody to push this rock up the hill by himself, and if you think you’re going to hire one person who’s going to get all of this done, you should really pick someone else,’” Smith recalls.
They didn’t, and he’s now seen as a pivotal person in the NFL hierarchy. A recent article in Forbes magazine posed the question, “Is DeMaurice Smith the Most Important Man in Football?”
Though he views the players association, the owners and their interests in business terms, he preaches the value of teamwork and solidarity. Judging by the opening ceremony of the first game of the season between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints, the players are listening. The captains of each team seized the moment—it was the most-watched game in NFL history—to show unity.
“They stood at midfield, raising one finger in the air, showing solidarity with each other,” Smith says. “And for me, that was when I knew that our players had arrived and embraced where they are and what they needed to do.”
When he’s not tending to contracts, concussions and looming lockouts, Smith focuses on family matters. He met his future wife, Karen Padgett Smith (Com ’89), between semesters of UVA Law School and makes time to coach his kids’ ball teams. And he still loves the Redskins, but not in the sense that he roots against any other players.
“It’s fun when I can sit back and root for each and every one of the players,” he says. “And the best part of it is, regardless how the game comes out, players win.”