Willie Smith wasn’t always the 6-foot, 5-inch, 310-pound NFL offensive tackle he is today.
The 29-year-old played for the Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. He was an East Carolina University Pirate. But he started out a Panther.
Smith’s alma mater, North Johnston High, honored him on May 11 by retiring his No. 82 jersey. Smith arrived dressed in North Johnston red and with smiles for everyone.
But Smith also had strong words for the hundreds of students gathered in the gym on Wednesday. He wanted them to know success is not a foregone conclusion, but for those willing to put in the work — it’s the light at the end of a tunnel.
“There was a lot of work that went into me being where I’m at today,” he said. “You can be anything you want to be. Every one of you in here was made to be something special ... if you would only believe and dare to dream.”
Coming from a small town doesn’t matter, Smith said.
“Who cares?” he said. “It’s all about what’s in your heart. If you can believe you can be great.”
Smith said he loves the opportunity he’s had to be an NFL player, but it’s also a daily battle for him.
“Every day somebody’s coming for your spot,” he said. “You never get to relax, you never get to say ‘I made it.’ ...It’s a grind. You got to have a why, you got to have a purpose.
“If you can believe it, you can achieve it. It takes sacrifice.”
Sometimes students will have to make the choice to work hard instead of having fun to fulfill their purpose.
“Because I have a purpose. I want to get out of Johnston County, I want to be something. I want to go to school, I want to go to college.”
And while everyone should have the opportunity for success, not everyone will achieve it, Smith said.
“Success if for everyone, but everyone is not going to do it. Why? Because they’re not willing to put the hours in. They’re not willing to put the sweat in. They’re not willing to put the grind into it that it takes to be successful. If you want to succeed, you first got to believe. And once you believe, it has to become a grand desire, something you can’t get out of you. Something that drives you every day. ... If you have that, you have a chance.”
At North Johnston, Smith played a key role in one of the top seasons in school history. He led the team to a 14-1 record, a conference championship and the regional championship game in 2005 by spearheading the defense, which allowed just 11.8 points per game. He was booked in on 107 stops (92 solo), 30 tackles for lost yardage, 14 sacks, 17 quarterback pressures, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six batted passes and one interception during his senior year.
Smith became the first North Johnston football player to sign with a NCAA Division 1-A program.
The Redskins signed Smith as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and he started in his first season. During training camp in 2012, he was injured and released before being picked up by the Raiders. In 2013, Smith signed a two-year deal with the Chargers before heading back to the Redskins in 2015 and later becoming a free agent.
Smith, born in Smithfield, has a bachelor’s degree in business management and was pursuing a second undergraduate degree in family community services. He’s now a husband and father of three daughters.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett