Even though his football career has been over since 1991, it’s been an eventful seven months for former McNeese State All-American and All-Pro defensive back Leonard Smith.
A cornerback and record setting kick blocker at McNeese State and strong safety for the St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals and Buffalo Bills in the NFL, Smith was ushered into the College Football Hall of Fame in December and now will take his place in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on June 27.
Speed, coupled with power and toughness, were characteristics that made Smith one of the best collegiate players in the nation during his time at McNeese.
“Leonard played outside linebacker in high school, was quick as a cat, strong and explosive,” said former McNeese coach Tommy Tate, Smith’s position coach in college.
“He had all the tools and he was just a natural at blocking kicks. He was a real physical player, and a lot of that came from his having played linebacker in high school.”
Three times a first-team All-Southland Conference selection, Smith holds school, conference, Louisiana and NCAA records with 17 career blocked kicks (10 field goals, three punts, four PATs), blocked field goals in a season (four), total blocked kicks in a season (six) and career blocked field goals (10).
“It was everybody working together and doing his part,” he said in giving credit to his teammates. “For me, it was coming out of the blocks fast. It was controlling my speed, aiming low and not being afraid to block it.”
A native of New Orleans and graduate of Lee High, Smith had been courted by major football powers — including LSU — during his prep career. A deep thigh bruise sidelined him for most of his senior season, opening the door for McNeese.
He became a starter as a sophomore and earned the first of three consecutive first team all-conference honors. He helped lead the Cowboys to a 10-2 record, to a conference title and to their third Independence Bowl appearance.
In his senior season, when he earned All-America honors and was the All-Louisiana defensive player of the year, pro scouts considered him to be one of the two best defensive backs in the nation. Smith was a first-round draft pick of the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals, the 17th player selected overall.
Ernie Duplechin, the Cowboys’ head coach from 1979 to 1981, remembers when Smith joined the team.
“He was a little small for linebacker,” Duplechin said. “I talked (then head coach) Jack (Doland) into letting me have him as a defensive back and that’s how he became a cornerback. He was a real talented guy who could do just about anything.”
When he was chosen by the Cardinals in 1982, Smith was the SLC’s highest-drafted player ever and he remains tied for that honor with Northwestern State running back John Stephens — picked in 1988.
Smith played nine seasons in the NFL and appeared in the 1990 and 1991 Super Bowls with Buffalo, being recognized as one of the top strong safeties in the league during his career. He started 120 of the 138 games he played in and in 1986 earned All-Pro and all-conference honors.
An injury forced him to retire in 1992. Among his NFL statistics were 14 career interceptions which he returned 253 yards, scoring two touchdowns, and collecting 14 sacks.
Smith’s talent was not only on the football field.
He was an art major at McNeese and had some of his drawings and paintings on display during his collegiate career and is a mechanic.
“I’ve always been interested in art,” he said. “I guess that I first showed some talent for it when I was young and would sketch cars … the type of cars I wanted to have some day.”
His background as a mechanic began when he was 12 years old, working in his family’s lawn mower repair shop in Baton Rouge.
“I began with lawn mowers and went on to cars,” he said, noting his uncle owned a garage and, he learned the trade there.
As a sophomore at Lee High in 1978, he began a project of restoring a 1949 Chevrolet and finished it a year later.
“Football was the only sport I played in high school,” he said, “so when the season was over, my spare time and weekends were spent in the garage working on cars.”
Now running the family business, which continues to include the lawn mower service as well as the leasing of buildings, Smith divides his time between homes in Baton Rouge and Buffalo.
He still does some drawing when he has time and is in the process of restoring an old model Pontiac.
“I’m going to modernize it a little,” he said.