By rule, Chiefs rookie inside linebacker Terrance Smith can’t wear No. 24, which was his choice at Florida State. Uniform numbers in the 20s are the domain of running backs and defensive backs in the NFL.
That number belonged to his father, Terry Smith, a former all-Atlantic Coast Conference wide receiver at Clemson, to whom Terrance pays tribute with a tattoo on his right arm. The image is of his father in his Tigers jersey, his hands resting on famed Howard’s Rock, the large piece of white flint that Clemson players touch before their home games.
With wings on his back.
Terry Smith was shot to death by police officers in suburban Atlanta when Terrance was 4. Police said they fired at him after he forced his way into his estranged wife Angela’s home and held her and their 2-year-old daughter at knife point while defying orders to drop the blade. Terrance was hiding in the bathroom at the time.
Despite his college success, Terry Smith, who left Clemson as the program’s career leader in receptions, didn’t make it in the NFL and grew depressed leading to that horrible day in 1997.
But Angela didn’t want her son to forget about his father, and as Terrance Smith grew into a football standout, he sought ways to pay tribute. The tattoo. The uniform number.
That’s why Smith wears 24 twice, No. 48, for the Chiefs.
“He really was a big reason why I started to play football,” Terrance Smith said. “It’s the common ground we have. It’s the way we were able to connect after he passed.
“I can’t wear 24. This is what I could do.”
Angela Smith explained in an interview with ESPN in 2013 why she wanted her son to connect with the man who could’ve left Terrance an orphan.
“I didn’t want that to be the one bad thing that was his legacy,” she said. “I wanted all the good to be his legacy. I let my kids know he was a good person. He wasn’t a monster. He just was sad and he needed help, and nobody could give it to him.”
Terrance Smith started his first NFL game last week, when the Chiefs defeated the Broncos 33-10. Inside linebacker has been an issue for the Chiefs since the season-ending injury to Derrick Johnson. D.J. Alexander started a week earlier against the Titans. Smith got his shot against the Broncos and “did some good things,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
Smith was in on 10 defensive snaps and was credited with one tackle. It occurred on the game’s first play.
“It was dream come true to get my first NFL start,” Smith said. “Just to have this opportunity was a blessing.”
Smith learned earlier in the week that he’d cracked the starting lineup in the team’s base defense, joining first cousin and Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins as NFL family members.
Smith immediately shared the news with his mother.
“She’s been with me through this whole journey,” Smith said. “To be living my childhood dream and make my first start, she had to be the first to know.”
Despite starting for most of his final three years at Florida State and earning all-conference honors each season, Smith wasn’t selected in the NFL Draft.
He was stunned.
“That was a very disappointing experience for me,” Smith said. “I’ll live the rest of my life wondering why that happened the way it did.”
Perhaps it was the injuries. He missed four games last season with an ankle injury, two games the previous year with a neck injury and in 2011 he took a medical redshirt year. He was projected as a late-rounder, but that didn’t happen.
“I saw it as a test of your mental strength, and how much you love playing the game,” Smith said.
The Chiefs announced their signing of Smith a week after the draft. He was assigned to the practice squad after their final preseason game and made his debut against the Jaguars.
During the training camp and practice-squad months, Smith comforted himself by knowing he could play in the NFL.
“At that point, I was maintaining my focus, controlling what I could control, whether that was in workouts or the time I put in studying,” Smith said. “Whatever was going to happen, I wasn’t going to be mad at myself because I gave it everything I had.”
The diligence paid off. And now Smith looks to contribute any way he can as the Chiefs wrap up their regular season at San Diego this weekend before heading to the playoffs.
Smith will be part of it all, playing on special teams and ready for more snaps on defense.
“I feel blessed to get to this point,” Smith said. “I want to keep making the most of it and keep grinding.”