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Lee Smith is retiring after 11 NFL seasons, but this is not a sad moment. It's a point of pride for an old-school blocking tight end who carved out an excellent career. He is leaving on his own terms and transitioning well to his next act, where he'll provide young people the mentorship and guidance he desperately needed and rarely got.

By Scott Bair

Lee Smith left Mercedes-Benz Stadium after the Falcons regular-season finale knowing he would not play NFL football again.

After 11 years in the league, the tight end was going to retire. Few others knew about this major life decision, one not made in the moment. Neither the physical toll of another long season nor the anguish from missing the playoffs impacted in his choice. There was nothing impulsive about it. It was pragmatic and thought-out, made with emotion stripped and eyes wide open.

He was ready to call it a career, ready to be around his family full-time, ready to start his next act.

While excited about this new beginning, Smith still wasn't sure how he'd respond to the final moments working his dream job.

"Walking off the field [for the last time], I thought it was going to be bittersweet," Smith said. "It was just sweet."

There were no tearful goodbyes in the locker room, no outpouring of emotion over a chapter now closed.

That came two weeks later, while driving a U-Haul truck north on I-75.

Smith's family made the trek from Buford to Knoxville, Tenn., later on a Saturday night, trying to beat a rare southern snowstorm home. The clan was split between vehicles, with wife Alisha and three of four children in one car. Lee and youngest daughter Addison were in a moving truck, with enough silence between them to let the man's mind wander.

Lee and Alisha Smith have made plenty of return trips home, from Huntington, W.V., and Buffalo, N.Y., and Oakland, Calif., during their football journey, but there was always a summer trek scheduled to start another season.

Not this time. This was the last one. That fact, more than any another, made retirement feel real.

"There's something about the closure of driving home with a U-Haul, which I've done more times than I can count from more cities than I can count," Lee Smith said later on the drive he's describing. "On the final drive home, it just hit me -- this is it. And right then, the waterworks just started. My eight-year-old was sitting here beside me and I was trying to hide it from her. It wasn't like I was sad my NFL career was over. It was like, [wow], I did it."'

Lee Smith is not a crier, not even when it's common to do so, so there was some surprise when tears came in a flash flood. They lent gravity to the moment, but they did not appear out of sadness.

This was a point of pride. Lee Smith was proud of what he accomplished in the NFL. Proud of the life he created for his family. Proud of the fact he's going out on his own terms and truly excited about what comes next.

"It was a rush of emotion," Smith said. "I've been a fart in a whirlwind for 11 years, but I never took my foot off the gas. I never came up for air. I was hellbent on giving my family a life that I didn't get and I was committed to stopping the cycle of assholes. I was in the middle of Atlanta traffic when it hit me – I get chills just talking about it – I [freaking] did it, man."

Smith did it right, leaving with his head held high and an eye toward the future. He'll quickly transition away from the NFL and into a position mentoring youth from his hometown through the Triple F Elite Sports Training performance center, which he's opening this summer in Knoxville.

"I couldn't feel more blessed that I get to step away on my terms," Smith said. "It just doesn't happen that way very often. Yet here I am, a stiff-as-hell fifth-round draft pick who found himself a niche-y role and figured out a way to stay around. I always said it would be awesome to leave on my own terms, because I had a father who transitioned out of the NFL very poorly. He drank himself to death shortly thereafter."

Daryle Smith was an offensive lineman who played six NFL seasons and four more in the CFL, a journeyman who eventually ran out of football employment options. He struggled to establish a post-playing career and drank heavily because of that, becoming both neglectful and abusive to his children.

Smith had it rough at times growing up, but he refused to use that as an excuse for wrongdoing. That doesn't mean he hasn't done wrong. His teenage years were trying, despite his football gifts, and it nearly led his life down the wrong path without a chance to recover. He got kicked out of Tennessee. He got into a fight with his own teammate at Marshall. But the presence of his wife and children snapped him out of a tailspin, providing the motivation required to build a life and career to be proud of.

He hopes to prevent similar slides from those he works with at Triple F, which will be part athletic performance center and part sanctuary where those wavering can learn the valuable skills required to get on the right track and stay there.

It's all part of a lifelong commitment to "breaking the cycle," to do better for his family and those in and around Knoxville than he experienced during his teenage years.

"Listen, man. I'm lucky to be alive," Smith said. "From the way I acted when I was 15 years old through 19, when I got kicked out of [the University of] Tennessee -- I didn't have a Lee Smith. I had a dad who was an alcoholic, who beat me because he was having a bad day, or beat my little brothers. I was lucky to not end up in a ditch or dead. I didn't have any guidance. I hope I can give guidance to others.

"Look, man. Some kids hit mute on their own parents. I played 11 years in the NFL and might be someone they'll listen to when they're acting up. Boys are idiots at that age. I want to help them through it. These kids will be driving to the gym from my hometown, from the same neighborhoods that I grew up in, driving the same backroads I drove on. That definitely means something to me. Every time I talk to a high school coach or team from back home, I tell them I played on the same fields. If I would've had what I'm offering these kids, it would've changed my life."

Mentoring is not something new Smith would like to try. Assisting others became his primary reason for playing in recent years. Smith found himself prioritizing opportunities to help younger players like Dawson Knox in Buffalo, then Kyle Pitts in Atlanta, become true pros. He reveled in their success, more than willing to cede the spotlight.

Take his only touchdown last season as an example of that. He scored from a yard out against the New York Giants, then handed the ball to right guard Chris Lindstrom and let him spike it. That's usually a move from guys who score all the time, but Smith sharing in glory wasn't a singular event. Go back at look at photos capturing Pitts' first NFL touchdown. Smith is in all of them, maybe happier than the rookie himself, after sprinting in to celebrate.

Here's another tale from his Raiders days, further proof Smith would lie down in traffic for his own. Quarterback Derek Carr's leadership was being attacked during the 2018 season, with pundits saying he had lost the locker room and even his own offensive line. Smith called beat reporters to his locker during that difficult period – that's the only time in 15 years I've seen a player request a media scrum – and defended Carr until questions about the beleaguered quarterback had run dry.

Those natural impulses are public examples of how and why Smith has long been regarded as a good teammate. Taking greater joys in the success of others than individual efforts was also a sign.

"When I was younger and I put my hand in the dirt, I had this burning desire to whip the guy's ass across from me so bad that his parents were embarrassed," Smith said. "Now, all I had was a burning desire to make sure Matt Ryan or [Cordarrelle Patterson] didn't get hit, and I couldn't wait for Kyle to make a big play so I could go hug him.

"What brought me joy was being around the younger guys. The Monday through Saturday mentoring of those players brought more joy than Sundays did. That's a definite shift and the exact opposite of what I used to love, which was the thrill and adrenaline and intoxication I got from Sundays the first 10 years. It was at that point I heard God loud and clear."

Smith was teammates with Charles Woodson in 2015, when the legendary defensive back called it quits. Woodson said at his retirement press conference that he knew it was time to hang 'em up when he wouldn't have cared if a road game in Detroit got cancelled.

Smith felt something similar when he missed his son Brody's football tournament while prepping for a Falcons game. A massive part of him wanted to be with his family in Naples, Fla., that weekend, further evidence it was time to turn the page.

"The phase of life my kids are at played a factor," Smith said. "So did the fact I couldn't quite figure out in my brain what else I had to accomplish. I'm just ready, man. I'm ready for the next thing."

Triple F Elite Sports Training is that next thing. It's not there to fill an NFL-sized void. It's about a new and different focus within the athletic space, about finding ways to connect with young people to improve their lives.

That's why Smith is sharing his story in-depth for this retirement announcement, hoping it connects with people and attracts those who could benefit from his life experience. If that happens, then being vulnerable, sharing his emotional moments and the highs and lows of an incredible journey is all worth it.

"All this 'Let's promote Lee Smith' stuff is driving me insane," Smith said. "But, if God will allow me to connect with these kids and do something I'm passionate about doing, if I have to slap my picture and a Falcons jersey on the wall in order to get that kid into the gym and then walking up to me years down the line at Target at age 25, with a wife and newborn son he's proud of, telling me I made an impact on him, then, damn it, that's what I'll do."

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