While attending Cedarville University in Ohio, DeMaurice Smith ran on the track team, served as the school’s first black student body president and had excellent grades. He also wore a bee suit. The new executive director of the National Football League Players Association went incognito as the mascot representing the Yellow Jackets.
Go ahead, make your jokes. But also consider the metaphor. During an accomplished legal career, Mr. Smith, a 45-year-old Washington native, has proved to be a hardworking, tenacious, stinging opponent in the courtroom. It’s an attribute many believe will serve him well in his new position.
“I don’t think De is the one [NFL owners] wanted to see emerge,” said his friend and fellow lawyer B. Todd Jones, calling Mr. Smith by his nickname. “I think they realize they’re gonna have their hands full.
“War is war, man,” said Mr. Jones, the U.S. attorney from Minnesota during part of the Clinton administration who has been recommended for the same position. “We know how to litigate, how to try a case. … Hats off to [commissioner] Roger Goodell and the owners in trying to get some of the things they’re trying to get.”
A trial lawyer and litigation partner at Washington law firm Patton Boggs, Mr. Smith was an outsider who beat out two former NFL players and a well-known sports attorney for the job. He won unanimous approval from the 32 player representatives on March 15 to replace Gene Upshaw, who died of cancer six months ago.
Mr. Upshaw served for 25 years, helping players realize huge financial gains as the NFL raked in billions of dollars. But these are highly challenging times for the union. Failure to quickly negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the owners might result in an end to the salary cap, a resultant financial mess and eventually a lockout. Also looming is the hot-button issue of dealing with the health benefits of retired players, many of whom believe that the NFLPA essentially abandoned them.
“When Gene took it over, we were in a totally different place,” said former Redskins defensive end Charles Mann, who was involved in union activities as a player. “There was a lot at stake, but nowhere near what’s at stake these days. It’s just at a whole another level.”
Mr. Smith, who grew up in Glenarden and graduated from Riverdale Baptist High School, sits on the board of the Good Samaritan Foundation, a youth-service organization created by Mr. Mann and Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk, among other ex-teammates. Mr. Mann said Mr. Smith refutes the popular notion that the NFLPA required a former player like Mr. Upshaw to be its leader.
“I believe he’s what we needed,” Mr. Mann said. “Somebody with a fresh perspective looking into the situations we’ve gotten ourselves in. [We need] plotting and planning from a business and legal perspective, not from an athletic position. De’s gonna look at things economically, politically, ethically, businesswise. I think he was better positioned to be the great leader the NFLPA needs.”
Don Jackson, a sports agent based in Montgomery, Ala., whose friendship with Mr. Smith goes back to law school, said, “As a litigator and corporate attorney, he has the perfect background. … You really get the impression he has prepared himself for this position.”
After Cedarville, Mr. Smith earned a law degree from the University of Virginia and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and counsel to Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., now the attorney general in the Obama administration. Mr. Smith then switched to private practice, specializing in white-collar criminal defense, tort liability trials and congressional investigations.
“He’s among, if not the, most well-prepared lawyers I’ve ever known,” said Patton Boggs managing partner Stuart Pape. “He’s a litigator who can see outside the courtroom. I’ve come to understand that De understands that complex problems also have multifaced, complex solutions. He’s really good at taking a situation that has a lot of moving parts and getting those parts to move to his music.”
Mr. Pape added that Mr. Smith is more than simply a prepared, technically sound lawyer.
“He has an engaging personality,” he said. “He can be forceful when necessary, disarming when useful. His litigator’s experience will be particularly useful. … I can’t think of anybody more well-suited, more qualified to help the players navigate through this time. He’s not a guy who shies away from a challenge.”
He apparently never has. On the Riverdale Baptist football team, Mr. Smith was a reserve running back with limited talent and virtually no experience. “Probably not the best player,” said his former coach, Jim Beckett. “But his energy and enthusiasm kind of made up the difference.”
Mr. Beckett said Mr. Smith learned well from his parents. His father is an ex-Marine who worked for the Commerce Department, his mother a nurse. Recently, Mr. Smith sent Mr. Beckett a letter via express mail. “He basically said, ‘Thank you, Coach, for a great start,’” said Mr. Beckett, clearly moved by the gesture. “You wonder what you did, what you said that made him think about that. He said every day he remembers Riverdale. … It was real classy for him to do that.”
Mr. Smith went out for track at Cedarville, a Baptist, evangelical university, even though he was relatively new at it. As a sprinter in the 100- and 200-meter events, his times were relatively slow. “He was a good kid to have on the team, but he was involved in so many other things on campus,” former track coach Elvin King said. “Track wasn’t his main thing.”
His career appeared to be further hampered when he hurt his knee playing intramural football. It wasn’t serious, but the injury required some rehabilitation. Mr. Smith hit the weight room and emerged for his senior track season “a totally different sprinter,” Mr. King said, adding that Mr. Smith shaved about a half-second off his time and won the national Christian college championship in the 100 meters.
“Once he set his mind to it, he was a very accomplished sprinter, compared to where he was when he came in,” said Mr. King. “He probably determined ahead of time he was going to make his senior year successful. … He did an incredible job.”
Cedarville’s enrollment numbered about 2,000 with only about 20 black students when Mr. Smith arrived, said David Ormsbee, the admissions director at the time. Yet Mr. Ormsbee said Mr. Smith adapted so well to unfamiliar surroundings, and was so popular, that he was elected class president. “He’s a colorblind kind of guy,” Mr. Ormsbee said. “He told me he was raised in a fully integrated environment, but that people were people.”
Mr. Smith joined a men’s organization (not a fraternity), Pi Sigma Nu. “It was a selective group,” said Mr. Ormsbee, now an associate vice president at Cedarville. “Guys who marched to a little bit of a different beat, so to speak, and were energetic.
“They wanted to get the most out of life, I would say. The theme of the group was body, mind and spirit. Each term, they worked on goals that would help them develop mentally, physically and spiritually. It was a great group to be part of.”
Now Mr. Smith is part of another group, with a difficult task ahead.
“He’s got a lot of personality,” Mr. Jones said, “But he’s very disciplined and focused. If the owners want to throw down against the players in the court of public opinion, they will lose.”