Spend any amount of time at Redskins Park and within minutes the conversation turns to defensive back Fred Smoot. Especially if he’s within earshot. Or talking. After all, the loquacious veteran has never been short on confidence.
We caught up with the cocky cornerback after training camp to have him do what he does best – talk about himself – in an in-depth interview that focused on everything from the art of trash talking to what went wrong during his time in Minnesota and everything in between.
You’re originally from Jackson, Mississippi. What’s it like there and what was your childhood like?
It’s good. I’m not going to say it’s a small, country town because it’s the capital of Mississippi, but I was raised in the inner city in a single-parent family. Everything wasn’t always easy, that’s why I had to dig in, take school seriously and understand that I had a gift that could help us get out.
How early did you start playing football and how many other positions did you play when you were younger?
The funny part about it was that my mom found out she was pregnant playing pick-up football games with my uncle and them in the yard, so I guess I’ve been playing ever since then. She found out she was pregnant when my uncle tackled her.
In high school I was cornerback, wide receiver, and quarterback – you know, anywhere they could get the ball in my hands.
Are you naturally athletic, or did you have to work harder to get to the highest level of competition? What other sports, if any, are you good at?
I’m a natural athlete, but I’m also a worker. You put two and two together and you got a great athlete. Actually a lot of people thought I was going to play basketball. I was real good at basketball. I got a lot of game – I can take it to the rack, I can shoot the jumper and I play a lot of good defense, evidently. I’m one of those guys, I’m versatile like that. Just put me somewhere. I probably could play soccer if I ever wanted to play it, but I never tried. Could be a shortstop; I don’t know, never tried.
As we all know, you went to Mississippi State. What was your overall college experience like and what did you get out of your time there?
I loved it, man. After coming to the league, it’s nothing like being the man on campus. When you’re the man on campus you get everything because you’re the king. It was a great time for me playing SEC ball, and it was one of the best times for Mississippi State record-wise.
You were drafted in the second round, 45th overall, by the Washington Redskins. Talk to us about what it felt like to finally get drafted to play in the NFL. Were you happy to be drafted or were you disappointed you weren’t a first-round pick?
I was mad because I was supposed to be a high first-round pick, but I got in trouble. You know, you live and you learn. I got in trouble the week before the draft and it caused me to drop over 30 picks. I was just happy someone took a chance on me and believed in me.
Where should you have been drafted?
Very, very high. If you recall I was ranked the second highest defensive player on the board, so just go by that and tell me where I was supposed to be picked.
Photo by Brian Murphy
How much of a transition is it to go from the college game to the pros? And what does it take to be a top-tier cornerback in the NFL?
It’s a big jump. I’m sorry, but for a corner – especially when you’re the number one corner in the nation – you’re not used to getting beat. You probably ain’t got beat your entire career, except maybe when you were younger. But you come into the league, it’s unavoidable. Point blank.
Like the man told me “you’re going to get beat, so what you do next is the problem.” What makes a corner in the NFL good is that I just don’t get beat as much as you do. Just realize that and keep that mentality. It can make or break some corners.
You joined the Washington Redskins in 2001 and immediately made an impact – leading the team in interceptions for three consecutive seasons. A wise man once said, “Two-thirds of the world is covered by water. The other third is covered by Fred Smoot.” How historically accurate is that statement?
That is an accurate statement. I made that statement during my junior year in college. I really felt like the world was covered with Fred Smoot. You could find me everywhere – if it wasn’t water, it was me. I still feel that way now; I’m back to that same guy.
You’re such a talented trash talker that they had to create a whole new category for you, called “Smoot Smack.” Is anything off limits on gameday when you’re on the field and trying to get in someone’s head?
There’s nothing off limits. Ain’t nothing off limits when they’re talking to me, so there’s nothing off limits. Now, I’m not going to the grandmamas, none of all that, but anything else is open field. You know, I’m going to talk about whatever I can. If I can use it against you and get your mind on me instead of what you supposed to be doing, I’ll try it.
You wouldn’t do grandma jokes?
I don’t really do grandmama jokes.
What about moms?
I’ll go to mama, but I’m not gonna do grandmama. I got a little respect. (Laughs).
Excluding yourself, who in your humble opinion are the best trash talkers in the NFL?
I think my class had a lot of trash talkers. Look at Chad Johnson of 2001. You got Steve Smith of 2001. You got Joey Porter, who I think came out two years before me, but Joey’s gonna talk it and Joey’s gonna walk it. Rodney Harrison’s always been one of those guys who is gonna mouth off. There’s a lot of guys out there that’s gonna give it to you.
We’ve got to ask, who is “Silky Johnson” and what the heck is the Fred “Silky Johnson” Smoot Award?
Silky Johnson was my alter ego when I was here the first time. He’s a smooth type playa’ that don’t even play football. He’s just a regular guy; my regular Washingtonian guy. It’s something me and Shawn Springs used to play with.
Photo by Brian Murphy
You ended up signing a six-year, $34 million contract with the Vikings in 2005. While you were clearly a fan favorite during your first four years in Washington D.C., things didn’t work out the same way in Minnesota. What went wrong during your two years there?
Different people. Different people, different situation. I didn’t like it from the go. It wasn’t my type of people. It wasn’t my type of flavor. It sure wasn’t my type of defensive scheme. It just didn’t work. I think, if you look at trades and the free agent market, less than probably 30 percent of those free agents actually fit in and come represent.
Look at Randy Moss. You’re not going to tell me that Randy can go from being one of the most dominating receivers in the NFL, and then goes to Oakland and becomes a non-factor. Your surroundings have a lot to do with how you play and you being happy. Anybody can play better when they’re happy. When you’ve got a lot of stuff on your mind it can kill your performance, no doubt.
We understand that there’s a business side to it, but how did you ever leave Washington to begin with?
Like you said, it was the business side. And obviously, we didn’t break on bad terms. Both sides knew what was going on and because of cap problems and this and that, things happened.
For better or for worse, people will forever link your time in Minnesota with the infamous “Love Boat scandal” for which you pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and being a public nuisance on a watercraft. What did you learn from that entire ordeal?
(Laughs). Just to stay away from people. The thing about it was; it wasn’t so much that it happened. It was how people perceived it, and that they blew it up and what they tried to make it look like. That’s what really got me mad about things. I just learned to leave stuff alone and to watch where you’re at and who you’re around.
As if you weren’t already dealing with enough adversity, you lost your half brother, Matthew Taylor, last November and had your season ended prematurely one month later when you broke your jaw in a car accident. Looking back, how tough was 2006 for you and how important was it for you to get a fresh start?
Like I said, Minnesota was a dark cloud. During those two years I don’t remember a good thing happening. It was one thing after another, almost like a snowball effect. Then, when I first got to camp, I ended up hurting my knee and we all thought I was going to have to have surgery. Then my brother died, and I don’t think I got right from that the rest of the season when it came to me being focused enough to play the game. Then, I go home for Christmas and break my jaw. You know, if Fred Smoot can’t talk because he’s wired up for a month and a half – I don’t know what was more painful, my jaw being broke or me not being able to talk.
Obviously you remained close with many of your Redskins teammates even after you left Washington, but did you honestly think you would be able to return to D.C. once the Vikings let you go?
Photo by Brian Murphy
Most definitely. I had talked to my agent and told him I wanted out of Minnesota, so he talked to them and told me I had to go in and talk to the owner and talk to the head coach, Brad Childress. I let them know that it wasn’t anything against them, but that this place was not for me. So we had to break my deal to get out of there, and once I was released Gregg [Williams] hit me up on the phone about an hour later like “What’cha gonna do?”
I didn’t really need to talk to anybody else. I had the Saints and a lot of other people calling, but I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be happy doing what I do. This is where I’m happy doing what I do.
What is it like coming back home to the Redskins after these last two years? Watching you during minicamp, it’s clear you’ve got your smile and your swagger back, how great is it going to feel the first time you make a play and the FedEx Field crowd screams “SMOOOOOOT!”
I feel good because I know that play is coming. I’m happy as a person, I’m happy as a player. I’m happy with the decision I made to come back. I’m just ready to step out at FedEx Field again because the last time I was there I had on the wrong colored jersey.
What can the fans expect from Fred Smoot and the Washington Redskins in 2007?
They can expect a lot because we’ve been quiet this offseason. I’ve never been a Redskin when we had a quiet offseason. Coach made sure to bring in people that not only can play this game, but can relate to the people that are on this team. The people that played here last year are real salty because of the way the year went. So you bring in two more guys like me and London [Fletcher] and we’ve got guys here who are ready to come in right now and do what we gotta do. He and I have played for Gregg before, so we know his expectations. They feel like they’ve brought in the right pieces to fit in with what they already have.
I think we’re gonna be good because we have no buzz. Everybody thinks they Redskins are just gonna be alright, but we’ve got Clinton [Portis] coming back. Ladell [Betts] is gonna help run the ball and we’ve got three or four wide receivers and five or six corners. We’re ready to play, man.
You’re still a young guy, how much longer do you see yourself playing professional football and what will your life be like once you decide to hang it up?
(Laughs). Until [Redskins owner Dan] Snyder says I can’t play no more. If Darrell [Green] can play for 30 years I can at least get me 18.
Could you see yourself ever getting into coaching or do you think your brash style would be better suited for a role in the media?
Media is probably more my style right off point, but as I get older I’ll get into coaching.
Which current player would you pay money to see play, and which offensive player gives you the biggest challenge when you line up against them on Sundays?
I’ve played with so many great players – being a Redskin you’re gonna play with a lot of good players – probably my guy that came out with me, LaDainian Tomlinson. Every time he gets the ball there’s a chance he can score.
Talk to us about gameday. Are your superstitious? Do you have a set routine – you know, a certain meal or music to get you in the right frame of mind?
Yeah, I’m superstitious and I do some stuff the same. I’m always listening to down south music, no doubt. But how I do my stretching – I come out before the team and do the same stretches, listen to my music and go talk to some fans.
What’s in your iPod right now?
Man, I got like 5,000 songs in my iPod. I’m a guy who likes old school stuff, I like new school stuff, so basically I put it on shuffle and go off on that.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
Photo by Brian Murphy
That I’m humble. I think that everybody thinks that because I talk a lot that I’m cocky and brash, but I’m a humble guy.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into football?
I’d probably be broadcasting. I’d probably would have went and tried to play basketball. If not sports, I’m also a business man. I’m part owner of a construction company in Mississippi and I love the side of business too.
If they were to make a movie based on your life who would play you and what would the name of the movie be?
I’d probably get T.I. to play me, and it would probably be called From Savage to Lavish: The Story of Fred Smoot.
Interviewed by Brian Murphy, August 2007.