In Week 3 of his rookie year, Green Bay Packers linebacker Za’Darius Smith lined up opposite Pittsburgh Steelers QB Michael Vick. “We all grew up playing Madden with Vick when he was on the Falcons,” Smith said. “His speed was — you couldn’t stop him, man.” Smith remembers Vick trying to scramble out of the pocket in the third quarter when Smith, sensing that he had a step on the speedy QB, went after him. Smith got to him in time and notched a sack — and then did the very same thing on the next play. “I got a sack on him and then, boom, I sacked him again,” Smith said. “I think after that was when I actually started to drop all the jitters and just go out there and play football because you’re doing it to have fun out there too.”
Smith’s profile has only continued to rise since that red letter day in Pittsburgh. He signed a $66 million contract with the Packers this offseason, joining another organization with a proud history of standout linebackers. “Signing that contract felt great,” he said. “I know growing up, as kids we all have dreams and something we want to do once we make it.” Smith’s dream had always been to buy his mother a house, one big enough for the entire family. And so once he signed his new contract, that’s exactly what he did.
“My mother was looking at houses herself and just telling me what she liked about this house and what she didn’t like about that house,” Smith said. Once the ink was dry on his new deal, Smith went looking for a house that matched his mother’s preferences. “I took her to the house I bought her and I was like, ‘Ma, what you think about this house?’ And she said, ‘It’s nice. But it’s in the country,’” Smith said, laughing. When he finally told her it was her house, she was shocked and walked through the door to the whole family there to surprise her. It was a home that was finally big enough for everyone. “We’ll all be able to sit down and have our own room and have a good time and laugh and enjoy each other,” he said.
Smith’s journey to the NFL wasn’t the traditional pipeline of Pop Warner to prep to pro. Instead, his road to the NFL started on hardwood rather than turf. Smith grew up in Greenville, Alabama, a tight-knit community of just under 10,000 people south of Montgomery. Smith remembers that every Sunday after church growing up, he and his family would get together to have dinner at his mother’s house. There was never enough room for everyone to have a seat but they made it work, and the memories he made surrounded by loved ones are some of his fondest.
He focused on basketball growing up and was a star AAU center with aspirations to nab a Division I scholarship. There was only one problem: Smith was “only” 6’4”, far too short to play center on any college basketball marquee program.
Smith was at a crossroads when he realized that offer letters from blue chip basketball programs like North Carolina and UCLA weren’t coming. He had spent his entire life honing his craft, and it looked like it may all be for naught. That’s when Ben Blackmon came calling and changed Smith’s path forever.
Blackmon was the head football coach at Greenville High, and he had a track record of success in getting talented players scholarships to places like Auburn. He had been pestering Smith (who, at 6’4” and 230 pounds, was basically the prototype of a defensive end) to play football for years, so when Smith finally came to Blackmon asking if he could try out for the team, the coach welcomed Smith with open arms — on one condition.
“[Blackmon] had been trying to get me to play for so long,” Smith said. “But to tell you the truth, coach said, ‘I’m okay with it, but it wouldn’t be fair to your classmates that have been playing the whole time.’ So he told me I had to ask the other seniors if I could play on the team.” Smith went to his classmates one day, hat in hand, asking permission to step foot on the field with them. “Man, I was glad I was cool with those guys,” Smith said. “Because they could have said ‘no’ in that situation, and I wouldn’t be here today playing in the NFL.”
Smith’s late arrival to the sport meant that he wouldn’t receive any D-I offers for football either, but after a couple years spent sharpening his skills at a junior college, he eventually got an offer letter from the University of Kentucky to play football. After a pair of dominant years as a Wildcat, Smith found himself on the way to the Ravens, ready to don purple and black.
The Baltimore Ravens have a storied history of ironclad defenses with players like Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata. That tradition of defensive excellence wasn’t lost on Smith when he first stepped foot on the field in Baltimore. He knew he was there to work — and learn. “When I first got into the building, I was surrounded by guys like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, guys I had looked up to,” Smith said. “Those guys were telling me and showing me how to improve my technique and improve my game, because if you mess up one time you have someone behind you trying for your position. So you had to go to work every day and be on your Ps and Qs.”
Smith’s lunch pail approach paid off big time when he put pen to paper on his new contract with the Packers. And now that he’s taken care of his mother, Smith has his eyes on a dream home of his own, one with enough space to run around and enjoy himself. “I’m a country boy, so I want something where I can just have some dirt and go out there and go-kart and ride around,” he said. “I had my son with me when we were looking at a house and he said, ‘Dad, this is enough space to play hide-and-go-seek!’” Plus, there’s plenty of room for after-church dinners just like his mother hosted. “We’d probably be able to have the whole church over,” Smith laughed.