The right man at the right time
Stuart Pape couldn't take the endless babble streaming through his car radio a few weeks back. The managing partner at Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm, Pape couldn't believe how some local talk-show hosts were bashing DeMaurice Smith, a fellow Patton Boggs partner who had become a finalist for the job of NFL Players Association executive director. The broadcasters questioned Smith's credentials. They wondered how a long-shot lawyer could even think about winning that position.
"It's a good thing I have a 10-minute commute," Pape said. "Because I was ready to call those guys up and ask them if they actually knew what they were talking about."
What Pape knew is exactly what the rest of the general public is about to learn: Smith is the right man at the right time for the NFLPA. His friends rave about his vision and passion. His co-workers admire his energy and intelligence. Most important, the players who elected him can see that he's the ideal leader to guide them after former director Gene Upshaw died last summer.
The players deserve credit for opening their minds and giving Smith a legitimate shot. They easily could have chosen a candidate like Trace Armstrong or Troy Vincent, both former players who had served as NFLPA presidents during their playing days. But now wasn't the time for the union to find another Gene Upshaw, a man who enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with the Oakland Raiders before spending 25 productive years as union chief. There was simply too much at stake to think that playing the game gave a candidate a major advantage.
Every other professional sports league in this country has a leader who didn't put on a pro uniform. The players needed to consider what an "outsider" could do for them.
"De is the right guy," said former Washington Redskins defensive end Charles Mann, who formed a foundation with Redskins Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk that included Smith among its board of directors. "I think of De in the same way I think of the Obama campaign. We needed some change in the NFLPA. Gene Upshaw did a fantastic job of laying out a well-structured plan that helped a lot of players make money. But we're also entering into a new era where we need even more structured thinking. There are a lot of land mines out there, some we can see and some that we can't. De will give the union a valuable perspective."
There's no secret as to the major challenges facing the 45-year-old Smith, who will serve a three-year term. He has to negotiate with owners on a collective bargaining agreement that could result in a lockout if both sides can't settle on an acceptable extension before the end of the 2010 season. He also has to deal with a slew of retired players who felt that Upshaw turned his back on them and their health concerns as the union grew stronger over the last decade. Smith easily could have kept his cushy job at Patton Boggs. Instead, he jumped at the chance to compete for a tough new position.
There were no questions about his reputation. He grew up the son of a Marine and a nurse in Glenarden, Md., where he was a huge Redskins fan and a talented athlete who eventually ran track at Cedarville (Ohio) College. He has a law degree from the University of Virginia and numerous contacts from his representation of Fortune 500 companies and his defense of individuals involved in high-profile criminal and congressional investigations. At one point early in his career, Smith served as counsel to then-deputy attorney general Eric Holder, the current attorney general. Those things tend to impress people.
But Smith had more than his résumé working for him once he became a candidate for the NFLPA job. When Pape first recruited Smith to Patton Boggs a few years ago, he remembered how quickly Smith impressed him with his personality. Smith had that delicate balance of warmth and ambition, and much of his popularity stems from his vibrant nature. Said long-time friend Don Jackson, a sports agent who attended law school with Smith: "You can be going through a long, hard day, and as soon as you talk to De, it's like somebody turned on a light in a dark room."
Smith "is not a one-dimensional guy," Pape said. "He has the street smarts and he has the book smarts. He also really knows how to look at a complex issue with a lot of moving parts and put together a strategy for how to make it work. De is one of those guys who can wrap their arms around a problem and find the right solution. I think the people in the NFLPA saw that quality in him as well."
Smith certainly gave them plenty of reasons to believe in him. Shortly after receiving word of his candidacy for the job, he formulated a business plan to help sell his ideas. Jackson was stunned by the thoroughness of the strategy when he met with Smith back in January. Jackson expected his friend to be prepared for the interview. What he didn't anticipate was Smith's having firm ideas about how he would address the CBA, do more to address the retired players' needs, and handle just about every other issue that might arise during his reign.
But that's how Smith operates. Mann said he has spent many a day in meetings with his friend, only to leave the room feeling much less smart than when he first arrived.
"He's always thinking two or three steps ahead of everybody else," Mann said. "He'll have an idea and then he'll already know the ways it might not work before we ever start discussing it. So you have to play catch-up with him. He really is sharp."
That's exactly why Smith wasn't concerned about not having played football in the NFL or in college. The only thing that mattered was his vision and the way he planned to execute it.
"You're talking about a litigator who went to work in the U.S. Attorney's Office [out of school]," Jackson said. "He's handled white-collar criminal cases. In the end, it's not playing experience that matters in this position, even though it can help you do the job. It's things like knowledge of labor law and antitrust law that mean a whole lot more than knowing the intricacies of the 3-4 defense."
The players clearly came to that conclusion as well. After an election process that reportedly was filled with constant bickering and infighting, they voted unanimously for Smith during their meetings in Maui. The player representatives who traveled to Hawaii for the election confirmed that Smith made it a no-brainer.
Smith's supporters say that vote was further evidence of what he brings to the table. As a litigator, his job was to win over juries, and he thrived at it because he knew how to reach people in different ways. That proved to be the same skill that helped Smith accomplish the difficult task of pushing his way into a club in which outsiders haven't been readily accepted. Now he gets to do something that should prove to be much easier: He gets to show the union's members why they were right to choose him in the first place.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.