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Faith, family, football: Interviewing Sammie Smith

Discussing Bowden, bowl games, and life after football.

*This interview was conducted prior to coach Bobby Bowden's passing.

Florida State Hall of famer and first-round draft pick Sammie Smith has had an interesting journey through life and an interesting career overall.

Some would say he helped lay the foundation for FSU’s dynasty run starting in the late 80’s; he holds the seventh place on FSU's all-time rushing yards record, on a list littered with first-round talent.

We got a chance to talk with Sammie about his time at FSU, his time with coach Bowden, bowl games, mentorship, and a host of other things.

He currently serves as the director of character development for the Ole Miss Rebels and says his role in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is one of guidance.

So what was your most memorable moment, wearing the garnet and gold, both in personal achievements and as a team?

Well, you know, when I came to Florida State, signing was certainly a bonus moment. And then watching that class that we came in with get validated and solid, Deion and Odell Haggins were a part of my class—Pat Tomberlin. We had [Chip] Ferguson and Peter Tom Willis, you know, just a host of guys—my high school teammates Anthony Williams, Kenny Carr. And so that class was just, in my opinion, an amazing class. And we came here with the idea of turning Florida State into a national championship contender. I think by the time we left there, we did that.”

We weren't fortunate enough to win one, that Miami team was a thorn in our sides. But in 1987 man, we had them down 19 and I think to three at the half, in a game that—we were really, really a good football team, and should’ve won, and that’s the most hurting game I ever endured at Florida State— was to allow them to come back. I think they won that game twenty-seven, twenty-six, or something like that. There was one point we went for two at the end to try to win the game, we didn’t want to tie it, which we could have, and then to go on and win all of the rest of our games and finish the season, in the top two or three teams in the country. That was a memory. ”

“My redshirt freshman year would have been ‘86. And that was a year with the rainy games, the soak at the Doak or whatever you want to call it, man that was a heartbreaking game [1986 FSU vs UF] too, you know, had a big run called back ‘The phantom hold call’, they called a hold on Herb Gainer that - to this day we still don’t see that - for a touchdown run that would have sealed the win for us. But then after that, we started our streak. And so that’s one of the things I’m proud of, is that we turned that series around and I think we won, two or three straight while we were there against Florida. And then that continued after we left.”

Did you guys know as a team, did you have a feeling that you were going to start one of the greatest college football runs in history?

I mean, my last two years at Florida State, I felt that we were as good as any team in the country, and the players that we were getting to come there were the caliber of players that would be able to make sure we would stay a national contender and to be able to compete, you know, on a national level every year for a championship. And of course, that continued. And then finally, I guess it was ‘93, they finally got over the hump and were able to win one for coach Bowden. And it’s just the tradition of winning that started from that ‘87 team goes on for the next 14 years. It was just tremendous. It was a great time—a great time to be a Seminole.”

So back to eighty-six, to the All-American Bowl, a lot of people consider that to have been your breakout game, with 205 yards, two touchdowns. What was it like for you personally to make that achievement, MVP?

“It kinda validated the player that I could be. God granted me the help to be healthy and to get out there and play. And it took me into the next year excited about the prospects of — first and foremost being a great team — and having the chance to compete and having a chance to have a phenomenal offense and be a decent, overall great football team. That was my coming-out party. I also remember how concerned we were going there at the time, coach Bowden might be leaving and taking that Alabama job. So we had to go out there and perform. We were sure made better and had been blessed by him staying at Florida State. I don't think anyone at that time could help that team like he did and to bring Florida State to national prominence. I thank god that he stayed right where he needed to be. I was blessed to have some really good bowl games. My last bowl game would’ve been the ‘89 Sugar Bowl against Auburn. I got to win the MVP of that game. They show it on the throwback SEC channel from time to time. We took care of business that year.”

So what do you do now at Ole Miss?

I spend pretty much all my time with the football program, with the guys at staff meetings, and however I can assist in recruiting, you know where recruits come from. I spend time with those families that are interested in knowing what is offered to their kids to grow outside of football, to grow as young men.”

That’s awesome. It’s always good to have people like that. Speaking of good people, talking about Bobby Bowden, do you have a memory of him that other people might not know or that you’d like to share?

I’ve got a lot of memories, but I think one of the most profound things that Coach Bowden has shared with me and the instruction and guidance that he’s given to me, came off the field, and it came after I was in a position to consider taking this role where I’m at now, working here at Ole Miss. I called him for advice on whether I should take this opportunity that was presented to me by coach [Hugh] Freeze, at the time he was the coach here. He said,Sammie, just remember, that God is not concerned with your ability, he equips us to do whatever he calls on us to do. So he’s not concerned with your abilities, he’s concerned with your availability. So make yourself available for those young men and those coaches—if you take that role I feel like you will be phenomenal with that.’ ”

“His legacy will be left in me through that advice that he gave me.

“I’ll never forget the night I was gonna commit. Coach Bowden came to my house and was so glad [I was committing to FSU] and I had one of the alumni there that was a really good friend of mine, Ed Brooks, and I had told Brooks I was going to do this. I said, ‘I’m going to tell them that I want to go to Michigan but I’m gonna commit [to Florida State] tonight.’ And sure enough coach Bowden, he sits down and we’re sitting there, we talk and I start sharing with him how much I appreciate the job they did recruiting me to Florida State, a great school. I said, ‘You know, my heart’s telling me that I need to go to Michigan to play football’ and that that's where I decided to play at.”

“Boy, you could hear a pin drop in my house, and finally, I had to break the silence I said, ‘Coach, man I’m just kidding, I’m gonna be a Seminole. And he says, “Dadgummit, you like to have gave me a heart attack!’ So just fond memories of him. And he has certainly been an influence on my life and many other young lives.”

So has anyone on the new staff reached out and contacted you and how do you think head coach Mike Norvell is doing thus far? It’s a little hard to judge from last year being a COVID year and everything but how do you think he is doing overall?

“How do I think Mike Norvell is doing? I think he’s doing phenomenal. Being at Ole Miss [vs. Memphis], he played us man, and that team he put together was a thorn. He beat us. That last year, we went there and it was a, you know, a close game, I think it was a really low-scoring game, it wasn’t indicative of how we were capable of scoring here at all at Ole Miss, he put a defense out on the field that was heated, and they came to play and his offense was tremendous. So when he got that job [at Florida State] I was so happy because, in my heart, I felt like he competed on the highest level, competing against the SEC to be playing us here at Ole Miss. And even in the league he was in he was playing at the highest level, so I’m excited that he got the job. He’s put together a great staff there, he’s recruiting at a high level and I really expect the program to start trending the way Florida State fans are used to seeing, and that's Florida State football to compete and play. I think he absolutely will turn that program around and bring a new type of energy there, and change the culture that in some kind of way got lost.”

That’s good to hear, especially from someone like you. Honestly, that’s just about all the questions I had. What would your advice be to any young person struggling or who might have made mistakes early on in life or in their careers?

“Humility— that would be my advice to really a whole coaching staff, to the players, to everyone in the building that has a role in a program. I’d share the same thing with Florida State players and their coaches. If everyone in the building would be pursuing humility, what that means is to put other people before yourselves and focus all on ‘he’ meaning God, and more on “we”, and less on “me” as a team. That's the winning ingredient. If you can get everybody doing that and caring about the man next to him, care about being impactful to others, it influences everyone around them in an impactful way. If you can do that— then the sky is the limit.”

A huge thank you to Sammie Smith for sitting down with us!