- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

NEW ORLEANS If not for the lack of a ride home from junior college, Antowain Smith might still be dyeing clothes for a living instead of preparing to start at halfback for the New England Patriots in Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams.
Smith didn't play football until his senior year at Stanhope Elmore High School in Millwood, Ala., but he showed enough talent to draw a scholarship offer from Auburn. However, Smith put aside the idea of college to support the aging, ailing grandparents, Clara and John Smith, who had raised him after his mother moved to Atlanta when he was 6.
"Back then, being where I am now was so far from my mind," said Smith, who has his late grandparents' names tattooed on his right arm. "My main concern was doing whatever I needed to do to take care of my grandparents. For $4.25 an hour, I would mix chemicals, dye swaths of cloth, run them through a tub, put them in a big barrel and take them out to a dryer."
Smith, who also tended his grandparents' vegetable garden before and after work, was making $5.50 per hour when his grandmother died three years later. With his uncle now on hand to take care of his grandfather, Smith headed to East Mississippi College in sleepy Scooba.
"I hadn't lifted any weights or run in three years, so after that first day of practice, I didn't walk off the field, I crawled off," Smith recalled. "I called home and said, 'Somebody has to come get me. I can't do this.' The only reason I stayed was because nobody came and I didn't have a car. I was homesick. All that town had was a convenience store/gas station. Everybody would go home on the weekends, and I'd be stuck in the dorms. But eventually I started to make friends and I would go home with them."
Smith rushed for more than 1,100 yards, earning All-American honors and a scholarship to Houston. In his second year with the Cougars, Smith ran for 1,239 yards and a school-record 14 touchdowns. Buffalo took the 25-year-old in the first round of the 1997 draft and he gained a team-high 840 yards as a rookie despite not starting a game. Smith ran for 1,124 yards in 1998, but when he slumped to 614 yards in 1999, offensive coordinator Joe Pendry grew increasingly disenchanted. Smith didn't play a down in five games last year and had rushed for just 207 yards before erupting for 147 yards and three touchdowns in the finale against Seattle. The coaching staff was fired and Smith was cut on May 18.
"Being released was the best thing that could have happened to me," Smith said. "It brought me back down to earth again. I went back to the hard work that got me to the NFL in the first place. I had to re-focus, re-dedicate myself and get hungry again."
Used to the big money that comes with being a top draft choice, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Smith signed a 1-year, $560,000 contract with the Patriots on June 7.
"We only had to look at the last game of last year to see that Antowain could still be a lead dog," Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said.
"I wanted the opportunity to fight for a starting job," Smith said. "All the respect to [Patriots holdovers] J.R. Redmond and Kevin Faulk, but I thought I was better."
Smith was out of shape when training camp started and rushed for just 301 yards (3.2-yard average) and four touchdowns during New England's 3-3 start, but he ran for 856 yards (4.4 average) and eight scores as the Patriots went 8-2 in their final 10 games.
Rams linebackers coach Mike Haluchak compared Smith to Washington's Stephen Davis as a power back with deceptive speed. Patriots left guard Mike Compton loves the power part.
"Antowain's a north-south runner," Compton said. "He's not going to stay back there and dance around. He's going to get the ball and hit that hole as fast as he can. And if there's no hole, he'll run right through you to make one."
And now seven years removed from the factory and six weeks shy of his 30th birthday, Smith has a Super Bowl and a million-dollar free agent contract in his near future.
"Overcoming everything I had to overcome to get to this point makes being here so much sweeter," Smith said. "I've got one more hurdle to overcome and if I do, that will be the sweetest feeling in the world. I do feel redeemed. I came from a team that didn't want me and now I'm playing for the ultimate prize. It's gratifying."


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