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."'