Jets safety Eric Smith during a workout earlier this year....

Jets safety Eric Smith during a workout earlier this year. (Jan. 6, 2011) Credit: Joe Epstein

The drive from Eric Smith’s parents house to the Groveport Recreational Center is a short one. He likes the suburban rec center because he’s allowed to work out there for free.

“We’re in a lockout,” he said, explaining his thriftiness with a shoulder shrug.

Smith, a defensive back who played the last four seasons with the New York Jets, spent the first few weeks of the offseason at his New Jersey home, but he’s been back in Ohio these past few months, again living with his parents.

“It got to the point where I thought, ’I’m going crazy in Jersey,’ ” Smith said. “I’d work out for a couple hours, go home, sit in the house and then what do I do? Walk around the mall? You can only do that for so long.

”Not a whole lot of nightlife around here,“ he continued. ”But I like it.“

The NFL’s lockout inspires boredom and restlessness, and the uncertainty hasn’t really helped matters. Technically, Smith is unemployed. He has no contract and doesn’t know what his future holds whenever owners and players reach a new labor agreement. He’s among a large group of players whose free agency status has been up in the air this offseason - and who began feeling the impact of the expired collective bargaining agreement in 2010.

Smith should have been able to cash in a year ago, but his free agency was essentially postponed. Because last season was uncapped and the owners and players were headed toward a labor showdown, rules required a player to have six years of service to
become an unrestricted free agent, whereas they previously needed just four. That meant any team that signed players with four or five seasons experience, such as Smith, would have to give up draft picks in compensation, a price teams considered too high to pay.

Nearly everyone in the group, including Smith, signed a one-year tender with his team, hoping he’d become unrestricted once a new labor deal was struck.

The draft classes of 2005 and ’06 were affected profoundly as about 200 players were unable to enter the open market and sign new long-term deals.

As the owners and players inch closer to a new collective bargaining agreement, Smith soon might finally get a chance to weigh his options. He’s careful not to get his hopes up, though, and tries to enjoy these quiet days around Groveport. He got a puppy a few weeks back. He hangs out at the gym most days, lifting with a couple of friends who are trying to get in beach shape. And he thinks about the future.

If there’s an upside to the lockout, it’s reminded players that football can be taken away at any time.

”It doesn’t last forever,“ said Smith, 28. ”I know I need to do something else after football, and this has given me time to explore my options.“

When Eric Smith was 12 years old, he answered the door one morning and was greeted by an FBI agent, who was tracking a fugitive he thought might’ve been in the area.

”It just seemed like the coolest thing to me,“ Smith said.

The youngster’s future was sealed. Smith knew what he wanted to do.

”It’s all he ever talked about,“ said his mother, Lori Smith. ”He had a little badge, and he’d flip it open: ’Eric Smith, FBI.’ “

He scribbled out tickets if his sister didn’t complete her chores and issue a citation if his father ran afoul of house rules.

Meantime, sports were after-school hobbies. Even when college seemed like a possibility, football was a ticket to an education, not a career path. The Division II schools said he was too small and the nearby Mid-American Conference schools thought he was too slow. Kent State and Michigan State were the only Division I offers he received.

”I always thought he had a very cerebral outlook on football,“ said Mark Dantonio, who was a position coach at Michigan State at the time. ”He was always trying to understand why and how. He always took a coach’s perspective, I felt.“

Smith attended Michigan State but was warned by Dantonio that he might never see playing time. He juggled football and academics, battling his way into the starting lineup as a defensive back and eventually earning a criminal justice degree as an undergraduate.

But Smith learned FBI work wasn’t exactly like the movies, and he began thinking about career options. He had some extra time to consider the possibilities, as the NFL became a realistic possibility.

Selected by the Jets in the third round of the 2006 draft, Smith has been an important special teams contributor who has come off the bench to help the secondary. With five years under his belt, he knows he has lasted longer than many rookies who enter an NFL training camp. The average career length for that group is only 3 1/2  years.

With the lockout looming, Smith knew he’d have some time on his hands this offseason. When the Jets were in the playoffs in January, Smith began his final semester of graduate school classes - a pair of online courses through Michigan State - and in May he’d earned his master’s degree in criminal justice. But he had no idea what he’d actually do with it.

Smith once had his plan perfectly mapped out. He’d work border patrol after college and then transfer into the FBI. But later he thought he’d be better suited as a firefighter, maybe a Secret Service agent.

”Now I have no idea what I want to do,“ he said. ”So I’m just using this offseason, trying to figure out what I really want. Maybe get my foot in a door, so when I’m done, I can just pick up the phone.“

The YouTube video has been viewed more than 369,000 times. Only 27 seconds remained in the game and the Jets led the Arizona Cardinals, 56-35. Still, the ball was going toward the end zone, and Smith wasn’t about to allow a touchdown, no matter how meaningless.

He viciously crashed head-first into Anquan Boldin. The Cardinals wide receiver left the field on a stretcher and didn’t play again for a month. Smith, who was fined $50,000 and suspended one game for the helmet-to-helmet collision, was also briefly knocked unconscious and 2 1/2 years later has no recollection of the hit. What he does know is that a football career is fragile.

”I didn’t know if I’d ever play again,“ Smith said. ”That hit, it felt like I was drunk for two weeks. It was like I was just walking through a fog. It was scary.“

Smith is a physical player and he’s endured five concussions in recent years, including three alone in 2008. He says he doesn’t feel ill effects from the concussions but thinks he’s more susceptible to head injuries. While he’s without a contract, he’s signed up for COBRA health insurance.

”As much as you love the game, you don’t want to risk long-term damage,“ he said. ”It takes a toll on you and your body. That’s kind of why I want to get what I can out of football while I can.“

Most NFL rookies don’t choose their employer, and they sign contracts that are slotted, allowing little wiggle room for salary. While some still become instant millionaires, most look to their second contract to provide the biggest financial windfall.

With five years in the league, Smith has never been able to truly negotiate a contract and never had a say in where he earned his living. As a restricted free agent, he played last season on a one-year, $1.176 million tender.

”It was kind of out of my control. I couldn’t do anything about it. I just had to remind myself to be happy that I had a job and just go with it,“ he said. ”But it sucked.“

His frustration is more about opportunity than money. Smith drives a Toyota Avalon and saves more than he spends. After five years in the league, he still feels he has to prove himself.

The coaching staff that drafted Smith was shown the door in 2009. Smith had to impress Coach Rex Ryan to earn a roster spot but has still been stuck on the depth chart behind talented defensive backs, such as Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Jim Leonhard.

For Smith, the timing of the lockout could not have been worse. He saw increased playing time last season when Leonhard was placed on injured reserve. He started all three of New York’s playoff games, racking up 26 postseason tackles.

”That stretch in the playoffs is the best I’ve played since I’ve been in the league,“ Smith said. ”I feel like that showed people that I can go somewhere and start, that I’m more than a core special teams guy who plays a little bit on D.“

Smith casually follows lockout news. He knows that if the two sides strike a new deal, they might restore the minimum number of years required for unrestricted free agency to four. That would finally give Smith a say in his immediate future.

”There’s so many ways it could go, it’s not worth it to worry about it,“ he said. ”You can’t stress because you just have no idea what’s going to happen.“

During the lockout, players have been barred from visiting team facilities. In many cities across the country, players have staged unofficial workouts, meeting at area fields to run through drills, work on playbooks and stay in football shape. The Jets have held such practices on either coast, but Smith hasn’t taken part in any.

”I don’t understand why guys are doing this stuff. You’re risking injury,“ he said. ”And you got the rookies who aren’t getting paid any money, flying in to do these workouts. So they’re putting themselves in a hole before they make any money. Basically, we’re giving the owners all these practices for free. They aren’t spending any money, but their players are still practicing. So they’re making out.“

Instead, Smith has bounced around from his parents’ house outside of Columbus to Indianapolis, where his agent is based, to his alma mater in East Lansing, Mich.

”It was great to see him around,“ said Harlon Barnett, the Spartans’ secondary coach. ”The kid has no ego at all. Just a great, humble young man who will do anything for you. It was good for our guys to be exposed to that.“

While Smith was there, he hung around the Spartan team during spring practice. He lifted weights with the players and chatted with coaches. He talked about drills and even watched some tape.
Smith conversed with several people in the athletic department about what he might do whenever football is finished.

”I told him, ’You should think about coaching,’ “ said Dantonio, who recruited Smith and returned to Michigan State as head coach in 2006. ”He’d be excellent at it because he cares about young people, he loves the game and he’s played it a high level. He’s a giver, not a taker, and I think that’s part of being a coach - you got to want to give back to people.“

The FBI is long out of the picture. But Smith now has bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He knows he has options in front of him. And ever since hanging around the Michigan State team this spring, he hasn’t been able to shake the idea of a possible coaching career.

Before that happens, he hopes the lockout ends and enables him to finally seek out an opportunity that allows him to showcase himself.

”I haven’t necessarily accomplished what I set out to do when I started playing,“ Smith said. ”Not yet at least. I know when I’m done playing football, I don’t want to work because I have to. I want to work because I want to. I want to find something that I love as much as playing football.”

More Jets