Former Spartan Hoop Player Wants A Shot At The NFL

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan State's weight room was filled with football players pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion.
Then, there was Antonio Smith.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Smith looked like the rest of the green-clad athletes.
But he's not.
More than a decade ago, Smith was the building block upon which Tom Izzo built one of the nation's best basketball programs -- helping it reach the first of four Final Fours under the coach in 1999.
After playing professional basketball in Michigan and Italy, Smith -- the brother of a current NFL player, Robaire, and a retired one, Fernando -- finally is doing what Izzo and Nick Saban wanted him to do a long time ago.
Smith is trying to make football a career despite not playing the sport since the eighth grade and being relatively old. He turns 32 a week before the NFL draft in April.
"Doing this has always been in the back of my mind, but I was focusing on basketball until I was in Las Vegas last summer working out for a Korean basketball team," Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The coaches kept saying I was too short, then I ran into Julian Peterson and that changed everything."
Peterson, who played football at Michigan State when Smith was on the basketball team, helped Smith get a workout with his current team, the Seattle Seahawks.
"I ran some routes and did some cone drills for about an hour," Smith said. "Then, I didn't hear anything from them."
Smith's better-late-than-never attempt to follow his brother's footsteps into the league is taking shape.
He has been catching passes, running routes, blocking sleds, lifting weights and going through drills in preparation for Michigan State's pro day on March 12. That's when more than 20 NFL scouts will evaluate him alongside traditional prospects such as receiver Devin Thomas.
Gil Brandt, the NFL's scouting consultant and longtime personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, said a team might invite Smith for a nothing-to-lose workout after the draft.
"If he makes it, it would be a heck of a story because it would be like the eighth wonder of the world," Brandt said Monday. "Outside of the guy they made a movie out of with the Philadelphia Eagles, I can't think of anybody that has done what he's trying to do."
That guy was Vince Papale.
Papale tried out for the Eagles in 1976 and made the team at the age of 30 after not playing college football and working as a substitute teacher and bartender, providing the inspiration for "Invincible," starring Mark Wahlberg.
Whenever Smith's athletic career ends, he wants to open an after-school program in his hometown of Flint. He plans to dedicate it to the late Frances Cleaves, who raised her son, Mateen, and others such as Smith as if he was her own.
"I really want to make it in football so that I can make some money and give back, like she used to always tell us to do," said Smith, whose daughter was born a year ago as he was trying to complete his college degree in family and community services. "There are a lot of kids in Flint that need some help."
Robaire Smith, who played for Cleveland last year in his eighth NFL season, said he will help his brother financially if necessary, though Antonio Smith said he wants to generate the funds on his own for a project he has dreamed about for years.
Smith acknowledges he will need a lot of assistance to accomplish the unlikely goal of playing in the NFL and he appreciates what Michigan State has done for him.
Strength and conditioning Mike Vorkapich started firing footballs with a JUGS machine during workout sessions last fall.
"He probably caught 96 or 97 out of 100 because he's got great mitts," Vorkapich said. "Of course, it would be different getting hit by a linebacker or hearing footsteps running a route across the middle."
Former Michigan State center John Masters has helped Smith work on blocking techniques. Coach Mark Dantonio gave him the green light to go through winter conditioning drills with the current Spartans.
Dantonio passed through the weight room when Smith was lifting weights alongside players much younger, and marveled at the phenomenal shape he is in.
The NFL's oldest rookie was John Nesser, who was a 45-year-old lineman when he played for the Columbus Panhandles in 1921. Three rookies have been at least 30 in recent seasons, but each was a punter or kicker.
"Antonio is 31, but his body doesn't look that old," Dantonio said. "He has the skills you need -- size, speed, athletic ability -- and he'll look the part of an NFL player when the scouts are here."
Dantonio pointed to another former Spartan, Antonio Gates, as a good example of a player who can successfully switch sports later in his career.
Saban, who is now coaching at Alabama, recruited Gates to Michigan State to play football. But basketball was Gates' passion and he transferred twice before landing on the court at Kent State.
In 2003 -- at the age of 23 -- Gates played football for the first time since high school and started his climb to stardom as a tight end with the San Diego Chargers.
"I think it's awesome that he's finally doing this," Izzo said about Smith. "Me and Saban wanted him to play football as a fifth-year senior. In addition to being in a football family, he has a great drive and is really tough and really intelligent.
"If he gets a shot, it won't surprise me if he makes it."
Smith hopes he simply gets an opportunity.
"Teams have nothing to lose, so I'm just praying to get a call," he said. "I know I can go out there and do something if I can just get a chance."


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