No Redskins player was more brash than Fred Smoot during his first tenure in Washington. If he wasn't talking trash to opposing receivers on the field, he was talking smack to anyone in the locker room who would listen.
But battered physically and mentally the past two years with the Minnesota Vikings, Smoot desperately wanted a safe haven. Somewhere he could be Fred Smoot.
The choice was obvious. Now that he's back in Washington, Smoot, somewhat chastened, feels he can open up about all that went wrong in Minnesota.
It's a long list for such a short period. The death of his half-brother in a car crash. The first serious injury of his career. The loss of his job as a starting cornerback because of poor play and for failing to be on time. And, most famously, pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in the "Love Boat" scandal.
"Nothing happened on that boat," Smoot said of the October 2005 cruise on Lake Minnetonka on which Smoot and other Vikings players were accused of engaging in sexual acts with prostitutes. "I wasn't the organizer. I was the new guy. I was along for the ride. The media took the four guys with the biggest contracts -- me, Daunte Culpepper, Bryant McKinnie and Moe Williams -- and blew the story out of proportion."
Smoot pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, was fined $1,000 and performed 48 hours of community service. He also was fined one game check -- about $82,000 -- by the NFL.
"Look at the criminal charges: Disturbing the peace. A $1,000 fine," Smoot said. "Do you think that's what it would've been if anything had happened?"
Smoot said that, in fact, nothing did happen.
"No one touched a woman," he said. "There were no DUIs. We were driven home in limos. As soon as we were accused, it was like, 'They're football players. They must be guilty.' Yes, we drank, but we were all old enough to drink. There were women on the boat, but no one touched them. There was no sex party. We're smarter than that.
"Believe me, it was hard talking to my mother after the story broke. But after I explained to her what really happened, she understood."
Still, almost six months after he last wore a Vikings uniform, Smoot can't quite understand how things went so wrong in Minnesota.
"It was one thing after another," said Smoot, who accepted a six-year, $34 million offer to leave the Redskins and join the Vikings in March 2005. "Picture me depressed. I was hating going to work. I didn't want to talk to the media. I just wanted to play the games."
Not that the games were much fun, either. The Redskins ended a five-year playoff drought the season after Smoot left, but the Vikings posted just a 10-15 record in the games in which he played the past two years.
Smoot, who missed only four games in four years with the Redskins, broke his collarbone midway through the 2005 season -- "the first injury where they looked me in the face and said point-blank, 'You can't play for [four] weeks,' " he said.
Then-coach Mike Tice benched Smoot for the 2005 regular-season finale for oversleeping and missing the pregame bus. Smoot played so poorly last season in the cover-2 scheme of new defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, now with Pittsburgh, that he was benched in November.
"I'm a man-to-man corner," Smoot said. "That's how I played so well my first three years with Champ [Bailey] and the year after that with Shawn [Springs]. I love Mike Tomlin. He's the only one in Minnesota who came to me and said that he understood I was going through a tough time. He benched me, but he said that was because he wasn't getting the best out of me. He was right. I knew at the end of last year I was going to the front office and ask to be released."
Four other teams proposed visits by Smoot in March, but he knew he had to return to Washington.
"[Vikings safety] Darren Sharper told me that he knew I would [return] because I was always talking about Washington when I was in Minnesota," Smoot said. "I had always been, 'Just put me out there and let me play and I'll make plays for you.' Football had always come easy. So what happened in Minnesota humbled Fred Smoot a lot. I learned I can't play not being myself. I'm not saying I have to be happy-go-lucky every day, but I have to be comfortable with my surroundings."
That was evident throughout this spring's organized team activities and this weekend's minicamp. Receiver Antwaan Randle El rivals Smoot for the loudest voice in the building, but there's no comparison when it comes to the biggest and most frequent laughs.
Assistant head coach/defense Gregg Williams said Smoot had him laughing so hard the other day that he almost had to take a break from practice. Williams added that Smoot had a strong spring on the field, too.
"Fred hasn't changed," said cornerback Ade Jimoh, who has played longer with Smoot than any other Redskins defensive back. "He's still Fred. If you didn't know what he went through in Minnesota, you wouldn't know that anything happened. He's supremely confident, which you have to be play corner."
"There were never any hard feelings with me and the Redskins," Smoot said. "I realized the situation they were in monetarily [during contract negotiations in 2004-05]. It wasn't as close as everybody thinks it was. Most of their offer was on the back end. I wanted a contract to make me secure. That was a decision I had to live with. I most definitely regret leaving. I missed the playoff year, and I know I could've been a big help last year, too."
At 28, Smoot is also looking to redeem himself.
"I want to prove to people that I'm the same Fred Smoot who left here," he said. "Some people doubt I'm a good corner anymore. I like being doubted. People doubted I could be a starter when I was a 150-pound 10th grader, but I started, and I've started ever since. People wondered how I would do when I was drafted. They said that I would see 50 balls a game with Champ on the other side, but I did fine."
Springs and Carlos Rogers are expected to remain the starting corners with Smoot the nickel back. At least for now, however, Smoot is too happy to be with the Redskins again to complain about being a backup.
"I'll play my role," said the Jackson, Miss., native, who bought a house not far from Redskin Park after signing a five-year contract that included $7 million up front. "This is home. This is where I want to be. I can see living here for a long time after I'm done with football.
"Last time, I followed the money, but this time, I followed my heart."
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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