Fambrough: Leonard Smith’s path to NFL All-Pro takes twists, turns _lowres


NATCHITOCHES —Leonard Smith had a vivid picture of his future.

He could see himself making the short drive from Lee High to stardom at LSU.

A broken dream can pave the route to the breakthrough of a lifetime. Smith is living proof of that.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have signed with McNeese when they first offered me,” Smith said. “It was the right thing for me.”

If Smith played high school football today, a story would list how many stars a recruiting service gave him. Back in the late 1970s, Smith’s primary concern was making opponents see stars.

Smith’s doesn’t have the glitz or hype associated with top players in 2015. He is a reminder of something we often forget — you never know who might turn into the All-Pro.

Yes, Smith was an All-Pro selection in 1986. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last fall and enshrined into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday night.

He was a hard-hitting cornerback and safety drafted in the first round by the St. Louis Cardinals and played nine NFL seasons. He helped the Buffalo Bills advance to two Super Bowls before retiring after the 1991 season.

Before all that, Smith was a kid with a dream. He also was a guy who got his share of help along the way.

“I always figured I’d go to LSU,” Smith said. “But I got injured my senior year. (The Tigers) wound up taking one of my teammates.

“I was lucky to have people who saw things in me I didn’t see in myself.”

One person who saw something in Smith was Jim Keaton, a former Lee High coach who died last week. Years after Smith graduated from Lee, he received hand-written letters of encouragement from Keaton.

There was no Twitter, no LOL or #leonardstrong in those days. Keaton’s letters were something he could hold and also were a reminder not to let opportunities slip through his hands.

Smith also singles out other Lee High coaches, including Bill Bofinger and the late Jerry Wilkerson, for their positive influences.

John McCann, a longtime administrator in East Baton Rouge Parish, recruited Smith for McNeese. McCann provided a boost for a teen whose confidence took a hit that was as painful as the thigh bruise that sidelined him.

The image people have of Lee High now involves the new state-of-the-art school under construction and not athletics. In Smith’s senior year, the Rebels had two LSU signees, Albert Richardson and Mark Modicut. Cedric Patin, Brett Wilkerson and Mike Dellacono all signed with Louisiana Tech, while Todd Christianson went to Louisiana-Lafayette. Local lawyer Locke Meredith also was on the team.

“It is what it is,” Smith said. “The thing I learned from that whole experience is don’t put your eggs in one basket. I grew because of what happened to me my senior year and my time at McNeese.

“John McCann is still an influence in my life. So is (former McNeese assistant) Johnny Suydam. And so are the guys I grew up with and went to high school with.”

McCann and his wife, Nan, who serves as principal of both Baton Rouge High and the reboot of Lee High, attended Saturday’s induction. Suydam presented Smith for induction.

Smith has homes in Baton Rouge and Buffalo. He’s likes the construction he sees at the new Lee High and has watched things come full circle in ways he never imagined, including the recent birth of his first grandchild.

A dream that wasn’t meant to be doesn’t have to be the end. Just ask Leonard Smith.