HOUSTON — Like most kids growing up on Long Island, Derek Smith dreamed about being a pro athlete.
“Centerfielder for the New York Yankees,” he said. “The idea of being a professional athlete of any kind is something that motivates you. It’s a dream, it’s energizing and exciting and interesting. I was probably no different than any other young athlete with great hopes and aspirations.”
Nor was he much different from others whose hopes and aspirations eventually expired.
For some, it ends before high school; for others, on the bridge between high school and college.
Smith, an All-Long Island wide receiver for Sayville’s Rutgers Cup-winning team in 1972, realized it wasn’t going to happen for him when he was a seldom-used wide receiver at Penn State, a career he describes as “anything but illustrious” that ended in 1976. That was that. Another nice run, one that went further than most ever do, ending short of the ultimate dream.
“Until,” he said, “about eight years ago.”
That’s when Smith got back into football, not as a player or coach but in a way that so few can afford to: as an owner. And this weekend, he has a chance to become a Super Bowl winner.
Smith was part of a group of investors that bought a minority piece of the Atlanta Falcons in 2009. He’d been the chairman and CEO of a company called ChoicePoint, an identification and credential verification services provider in Atlanta, and became friends with Falcons majority owner Arthur Blank. In 2008, ChoicePoint was sold for close to $4 billion, and Blank was vetting potential partners.
“When you wake up every day in business, you are competing,” Smith said. “Suddenly I wasn’t competing at anything, so this was a great opportunity to get back into the competitive game. And there is nothing more competitive than the National Football League. It’s been a great outlet for me to channel my competitive energy.”
“I wasn’t looking for it,” he said. “It just happened to be an opportunity that presented itself by good friends.”
Relationships have been something Smith has relied upon all his life. Raised in Sayville, he said he learned the value of hard work while dredging for clams in the Great South Bay for his grandfather’s seafood company. He learned the benefits of teamwork while playing sports at Sayville High, Georgia Tech for one season and then Penn State. He learned the bonds of community from the suburb of his childhood.
“I don’t know if I knew it at the time, but in the end, when you look back and realize what framed you and formed you, it really was a lot about the great qualities of being part of the Sayville community,” he said.
That’s one of the things he likes most about being part of the Falcons. “It’s the relationships that you build within the organization,” he said. “They are really substantial because this is a highly emotional business. The highs are high, but the lows are really, really tough. We never won the big one — hopefully that will change on Sunday — so I don’t know what it is to have that feeling of ultimately winning it all.”
In a way he does. In 1972, Smith was the star receiver for Sayville. His quarterback, the recently deceased Chad Smith, won the Hansen Award as Suffolk County’s top player. Sayville finished undefeated. That was the last time Smith said he felt the joy of being a champion on an athletic field.
On Sunday, more than 44 years later, at the age of 62, he might get another opportunity.
“This is a whole different situation,” he said.
It’s also different from his perspective.
“When you are playing on the field, you have an impact on what happens,” he said. “When you are in the stands or wherever you happen to be watching, it’s hard because you can’t influence anything while the game is going on. You have all this competitive energy and all this desire to see success and everything else, and yet you can’t do anything. You think you can, right? You’re yelling and screaming and doing all that, but the truth of the matter is you’re at the mercy of the football gods or the players or whatever the case may be. And that’s a very, very different place to be at.”
Minority owners don’t have much control over anything, really. Blank runs the day-to-day operation of the franchise. Smith said he is free to offer suggestions and voice concerns, but that’s all they are. There is no decision-making power behind them. “The input you get is kind of whatever they care to take from it,” he said.
He hasn’t even given Julio Jones any pointers from his All-Long Island wide receiver days. “I’m not sure I’m qualified,” he said with a laugh.
He does get to be in Houston for the Super Bowl, though. He’ll be in a suite with other minority owners, plus his son Tanner and daughter Hanley. And he does get to think about what it might be like if the Falcons win this thing.
“You do imagine it, and then you get back to reality pretty quickly,” he said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, right? But I don’t think any of us have dreamed about what it will be like to have that moment happen. We’ve seen it happen for so many other people, and always, whether it was during other Super Bowls or thinking about this one, the idea that you could be part of that ultimate achievement in professional football would be a dream come true.”