By Anthony Olivieri
Former Oregon quarterback Akili Smith isn’t where anyone thought he would be 13 years after he was selected with the third overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft: Slogging toward the finish line en route to his college degree.
“I gotta do a Spanish or a math (classes), so I’m thinking that’s going to take about a year and a half. So I should be done here in the next couple years,” Smith said by phone earlier this week of earning his diploma.
Smith, now 36, never finished his degree as a senior at the University of Oregon when he realized he would make millions as a high NFL draft pick. He’s now finishing what he started, taking classes last semester and planning to chip away over the summer at the 20 remaining credits he needs at a junior college in his native San Diego. In order to receive his diploma, Smith will eventually move back to Eugene to finish his requirements now over a decade removed from his exploits on the gridiron.
In the meantime, Smith is the quarterbacks coach at St. Augustine High School in his hometown. He is also setting up a football company called Akili Smith Training in the area.
Of course, this isn’t the path scouts foresaw for Smith prior to the 1999 draft. A junior college transfer that dominated as a senior for the Ducks, draft pundits drooled over Smith’s cannon arm and athleticism leading up to the draft despite the fact Smith had just 11 starts for Oregon.
But Smith wasn’t ready for the fame, fortune and attention afforded to high draft picks. He flamed out of the NFL after just four seasons and five career touchdown passes with the Cincinnati Bengals and has admitted he partied and drank too hard to succeed. His football career finally came to a close in 2007 after stints in NFL Europe and the CFL.
Smith has vowed to work hard toward a degree that will help him become more attractive for significant college or NFL coaching jobs and appears at ease with the label of an “NFL draft bust.”
“(Being called a bust) used to really bother me about three, four years ago. But now when I look back on it, it doesn’t really bother me no more. I know that it was me that did it,” Smith said.
“Now, was the (Bengals) organization where it needed to be at that time? No. Marvin Lewis and the Browns (ownership) have done a great job getting it where it’s supposed to be, getting it in the right direction, where it needs to be.
“But it’s still my fault for the off-the-field shenanigans that I was doing. I can hold my head up high now and deal with it.”
The ex-quarterback said that he ran away from the pressures in Cincinnati, where he was deemed a savior for a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1990 with Boomer Esiason under center.
“You have to run towards your problems, address them and get them fixed,” Smith said.
At this point in his life, Smith said he wants to relay that message to young football players and help them avoid the pitfalls that led to him falling short of his advanced billing. Smith has some advice for the young quarterbacks that will be selected in this month’s NFL draft – and he speaks from experience.
“I think these guys need to stay in their respective (NFL) cities, stay at the facility, stay in their community, stay at the local YMCA and things of that nature to try to build that brand depending on what team you play for,” Smith said.
“Then obviously you can pop on home or head down to South Beach or something like that, then get back … because you are now part of that NFL team, that corporation. That’s the biggest thing that I didn’t understand.”
According to Sports Illustrated in 2009, Smith would fly back and forth between Cincinnati and San Diego answering calls from “multiple women, my boys, club promoters” and living a life on the party scene. He called himself an “embarrassment.”
As for Smith’s future after graduation, he said he will reach back out to Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, his former college offensive coordinator for whom he was an administrative assistant in 2010, and Oregon, a program he heaped praise upon for its success under coach Chip Kelly. Smith certainly offers a unique perspective to young players.
“I can show you how to get there and I can show you how to get yourself out of there,” Smith said.
And he might be able to do it in more than one language.
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