By Billy Watkins
It hit him like a sucker punch.
He had just been announced as a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s 2024 class at a press conference Wednesday. When I congratulated him, he thanked me and said: “Man, I needed this.”
Former NFL receiver Jimmy Smith Jr. certainly deserved it. He made five Pro Bowls with the Jacksonville Jaguars, owned 31 franchise records when he retired in 2006, and finished his 14-year career with 862 catches for 12,287 yards and 67 touchdowns. He won Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys his first two years in the league.
It struck me when he used the words “needed this.” I asked him what he meant.
The emotions of the day finally showed. His voice cracked. HIs eyes filled with tears.
“I look at the ups and downs that I had throughout my career,” he explained. “I had depression problems, addiction problems when I was playing — and afterward. Now that I’m older, I realize that the pressure I was going through while I was playing … it left me looking for something to grab and hold onto to fill that hole.
“When I retired and lost that NFL structure —meetings early in the morning, then practice — that’s when the drugs and depression really got out of control.
“So to be acknowledged, especially here in Mississippi and by the Miss. Sports Hall of Fame, it just means a lot to me.”
Smith earned the nickname “silk” at Callaway High School because he made football look so easy. He was a star at Jackson State and is a member of the Tigers’ Hall of Fame.
“All I ever wanted was to play football,” Smith said. “I wanted to grow up and play on Monday Night Football. And I did a handful of times. But some of my earliest memories was throwing a ball up, diving on my bed and making the catch. And in the back of my mind I heard the voice of Howard Cosell describing the play.”
But life proved more complicated than his childhood eyes could envision.
In 2001, just two years after leading the league in receptions with 116, Smith was charged with driving under the influence and tested positive for cocaine. The charges were dropped.
In 2003, the NFL suspended Smith for four games due to violating the league’s drug policy. He eventually entered a rehabilitation facility.
“I remember that scrolling across the bottom of the screen (on ESPN),” he said. “I was humiliated on national TV.
“But you know what it took to finally get my attention, to make me realize that I had to change my life?” he asked. “Being thrown in jail for six months in 2013. Man, six months in jail is an eternity. I was in the Madison (County) jail for a while. They moved me to Rankin County, Yazoo City, Fayette.”
During a traffic stop, police found drugs and a .22 rifle in his vehicle. Police said his speech was slurred.
“I come from a wonderful two-parent home,” he said. “My mom (Etta) was an educator. My dad (Jimmy Sr.) played in the NFL with the Bengals. They were successful people. I had a great upbringing.
“But to see my mom have to go through it with me … man, that was hard.”
Smith says he’s been clean since that stint in jail.
“I’m still in the mode of trying to forget about it and erase it,” he said, “but things like doing this interview with you, it helps. It helps me own it.
“And the one thing I tell people who are struggling is to keep in mind that you can make it back. But you have to own it and stop running away from it.”
Smith became more involved in the lives of his seven children. “That was a lot of therapy for me,” he said. “Everybody has to find a purpose in life. I’d had football for all those years. Suddenly, I’m going ‘what now?’ ”
He’s working with young athletes who one day hope to play college and pro football.
“But it’s become more than just that,” Smith said. “I start out talking to them about football, but it always ends up talking about life. Every time.
“I have kids who will call me and say, ‘This is going on. How do I handle it?’ Hopefully, I’m making a difference with these kids.”
The class will be enshrined next summer during the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Induction Weekend August 2-3. Tickets will go on sale in January.
The class includes:
Walter “Red” Barber – Born in Columbus, MS, Red Barber first started working in radio while at the University of Florida. He caught the eye of Cincinnati Reds General Manager Larry MacPhail who was looking to broadcast his team’s games.
The first big league game he watched was his first MLB broadcast. Barber went on to broadcast for the Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Yankees. He and his partner with the Yankees, Mel Allen, were the first two broadcasters honored with Induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Richard Duease – Born and raised in Indianola, Richard Duease played many sports throughout his high school and junior college years. He attended Mississippi State and then began his coaching career at Manchester Academy in Yazoo City.
He moved to Lee Academy in Clarksdale to coach boys and girls basketball. In 1982, he was hired at Madison-Ridgeland Academy, where he still coaches today. While at MRA, Coach Duease has averaged over 30 wins per season. His teams have won 33 State Championships and 15 Overall MAIS Championships. Now in his 49th season, he has a boys record of 1209-433 and a girls record of 592-271.
Paul Elias – A native of Laurel, Paul Elias is the first Professional Bass Fisherman to be selected for the Hall of Fame. Perhaps the greatest fisherman the state has produced, Elias began tournament fishing as a pro in 1979 and still competes today. In 1982, Paul won the Bassmaster’s Classic Championship in Montgomery, AL.
In 2008, he set a record that still stands today for the largest four-day five-bass limit in one tournament of 132 pounds 8 ounce on Lake Falcon in Texas. Over his career, he has won six tournaments and had over 50 top-ten finishes. Paul is considered one of the top innovators and technicians in bass fishing.
Eli Manning – The youngest of the Manning sons, Eli began making his mark in football at an early age. He excelled as a quarterback in high school before following in his father’s footsteps to the University of Mississippi. During his time in Oxford, he set or tied 47 records to become the most honored offensive player in school history.
He was the first player drafted in the 2004 NFL Draft. He enjoyed a 16-year career with the New York Giants, winning two Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVP Awards. His #10 jersey has been retired by both Ole Miss and the NY Giants. He is in the Giants Ring of Honor, Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame, Louisiana High School Sports Hall of Fame, and has been selected as an SEC Legend. In 2016, Eli was chosen as the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Jimmy Smith – He started his football career at Callaway High School as a wide-receiver and played at Jackson State. He retired as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ all-time leading receiver.
Savanté Stringfellow – A native of Jackson, Savanté Stringfellow attended Provine High School where he was a track and field star. He competed in the long jump, ran hurdles, and had a high jump of 6’11”. He went to Ole Miss where he was coached by Hall of Famer Joe Walker.
Long Jump was his specialty and he claimed three NCAA Titles, as well as six All-American titles. In 2000, he earned a spot on the US Olympic team, where he won a Silver Medal in the long jump. He has won titles all around the world in the US, Canada, Australia, France, Monaco, and Hungary. He is a member of the Ole Miss Athletic Hall of Fame.
Becky Vest – Becky Vest grew up in Jackson and attended Provine High School. While in junior high, she won two State Championships in tennis. In high school, she won three more State Championships. Becky chose to attend Odessa Junior College and then Trinity University in Texas because they offered women’s tennis programs at the time.
After college, Becky turned professional and played on the European Tour. She played in the French Open, U.S. Open, and Wimbledon. She has taught tennis in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In 1998, she was inducted into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame. Her mother, Dorothy Vest, is also an inductee of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, making them the first mother-daughter duo to be inducted.
Jimmy Webb – Webb grew up on a cattle farm near Florence. He was an outstanding student and athlete at Florence High and went on to Mississippi State University. While at MSU, Jimmy attained All-American status, All-SEC honors, and All-Academic Status. He also studied veterinarian science.
He was a first-round draft choice by the San Francisco 49ers and played for six season. Webb and his wife settled in Turlock, CA where he worked in embryo transfer and ran his family farm. He has been inducted into the MSU Athletic Hall of Fame, selected as an SEC Legend, and selected to the 75th Anniversary Sun Bowl Team in 2008.