Irv Smith was a great athlete who made it from tiny Pemberton High in New Jersey to becoming the 20th overall pick in the first round of the 1993 NFL Draft. A three-sport star in high school, Smith earned all-division, all-county and all-state accolades as a tight end, linebacker and safety in football and also starred in football, baseball and basketball. Smith originally committed to play football at Clemson, then changed his mind and decided to play football and baseball at Notre Dame. Smith was talented enough in baseball to be drafted by the Houston Astros after his junior year at Notre Dame. After three years playing two sports for the Fighting Irish, Smith focused on football as a senior and wound up reaching the NFL. Smith was drafted by the New Orleans Saints with the 20th pick of the first round and went on to play seven seasons in the NFL with the Saints, San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns. Smith finished his NFL career with 183 receptions for 1,788 yards, averaging 9.8 yards per carry, and had 15 touchdowns. He now lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his son “Little Irv.”
Q: What caught your attention and made you interested in playing football at Notre Dame?
A: “Notre Dame was actually my last choice. It was my last choice because Derrick Brown was a freshman at ND when I was a senior in high school, Notre Dame had just won the national championship, and they flat out told me that I would be Brown’s backup for my first three years. All of the other schools that I was looking at promised me a starting position. I was looking at Florida State, USC, UCLA, Clemson and Auburn. When I took my visit to FSU, it was for the FSU/Florida game and “Neon” Deion Sanders was a senior at FSU. Auburn was supposed to be my fifth and final visit. I was getting ready to commit to Auburn during my official recruiting trip when they called me the Monday prior to my visit and told me that had just signed two tight ends that weekend (one of which was Fred Baxter) and they no longer had a scholarship for me. I was getting ready to sign and they said ‘no thank you’ to me. Once Notre Dame got wind of this, they put some pressure on me to make my fifth visit there. I told them that I would take my fifth visit there, but firmly told them that it was my intention to commit to Clemson.”
“I verbally committed to Clemson the Friday that I left to make my official visit at ND. The entire weekend I was at Notre Dame I fought the fact that I really did love the place. Before I took my visit, I didn’t even know what state Notre Dame was in, and here I was falling in love with the school. The players I met that weekend not only told me about how great it was to play football at Notre Dame, but that it was a place that would literally change your life. That Notre Dame was so much more than just a football school. I went home and told my parents that I had changed my mind. I was going to Notre Dame. I was a backup tight end for three years, but it truly did change my life.”
“When I was at Notre Dame, I became that guy who convinced the visiting recruits that Notre Dame was the place they wanted to be. Some of the guys that I helped bring to Notre Dame included Jeff Burris, John Covington, Oscar McBride, Tommy Carter, Jerome Bettis, Oliver Gibson, Ray Zellars and Bryant Young. The recruits would get dropped off to me Friday night and we had them until Sunday morning when they met Coach Holtz and Coach Vinny Cerrato. We made them see all that Notre Dame had to offer, and that you were also making lifelong friends along the way.”
Q: What is your favorite Notre Dame football memory?
A: “The Indiana game (Sept. 7, 1991) when I dragged two Indiana defenders 20 yards to score a touchdown. I’m not sure anything could top that. It was a home game, the opening game of my junior year and I had worked so hard to prove that I was good enough to be out there. I played baseball and football my first two years at ND. I liked baseball, but I loved football. I eventually gave up baseball to pursue football full-time, and that play made me realize that playing Notre Dame football was exactly where I wanted to be. It gave me the motivation to work hard to get my opportunity to shine.”
“It wasn’t even so much the actual play that sticks out in my mind so much, but the moment when Derrick Brown and the guys picked me up in the end zone and tried to carry me off the field. As I was getting close to the side line I realized that Coach Holtz was screaming at me … ‘You’re on the field goal unit … get out there!’ Derrick Brown was the man, the starter, the stud, and to see him happy for me was a real turning point for me.”
Q: How do you remember being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft?
A: “That was an amazing day. I was in New York City at the draft with Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe. I was the 20th pick of the first round, chosen by the New Orleans Saints. Each team got 30 minutes to make their picks. The draft started at 9 a.m., and I was selected right around 5 p.m. I was the last guy of the guys who were in New York City, to get picked. Bledsoe went first, Jerome went 10th… it was
the longest day ever, but it was so unbelievable to walk up to the podium and get my jersey from then-(NFL Commissioner) Paul Tagliabue. I flew directly from New York City to New Orleans the next day to do my meet and greet with the team. It’s crazy how one day, someone chooses you and it determines the direction of your career.”
Q: What were the highs and lows of playing in the NFL? What was the highlight of your NFL career?
A: “Being able to play at the highest level of football was a definite high. The NFL was the crème de la crème of football. It was an honor to be there.”
“The lows included having to deal with the politics and all of the egos. One of my coaches with the New Orleans Saints was Mike Ditka. He had been a tight end just like me and was very tough on me. He was one of the main reasons that I left the Saints. I was not a fan of his coaching style. I loved New Orleans, but we did not work well together.”
“When I became a free agent in 1997, I ended up signing with the San Francisco 49ers. I played one year at San Francisco (1998), and that year was definitely the highlight of my NFL career. I got the opportunity to play with an amazing cast: Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Stokes, Garrison Hearst. Some of my Notre Dame teammates were also there: Bryant Young, Junior Bryant, Anthony Peterson. It was an amazing group of guys. It was such a blessed season. I created such strong friendships with those guys. They are my closest friends to this day. Being in San Francisco that year was definitely my destiny. I was looking to go somewhere that I could win and have fun. We went 13-4 that year.”
Q: Where did life take you after NFL?
A: “From 1995-2007 Nick Smith and I owned some restaurants together called Smoothie King. We also owned some tanning salons. After that I became a real estate agent and then a real estate broker. Now I am a financial advisor for Primerica Financial Services and I work with NFL players, teaching them how to manage their money. Being that I was there once myself, I feel that I can help them make good decisions and protect their assets. I have been a vice president with Primerica for seven years now and I enjoy being able to help others grow their money. I also hire and train other people, which is great because there are so many players who need the services that we provide. It is our job to give them good advice and help keep them on the right path.”
“The No. 1 advice for rookies is to save your money because you’re gonna live a long life after football is over. You could have another 50 years left after you turn 40. You need to truly be smart with your investments. Make sure you are cautious about who you give your money to.”
Q: One of the best stories you’ve told in the past is how Lou Holtz actually talked to you about quitting football. What are your memories of that conversation?
A: “During my sophomore year I was playing both football and baseball. Both Coach Murphy (baseball) and Coach Holtz had signed off on this. As soon as the football season was over, and the bowl game behind us, I started working out with the baseball team. When March came around I had spring practice with the football team as well as baseball games and practice. I walked into Coach Holtz’s office and said, ‘I am currently in the middle of the baseball season, I need to figure out a way to work in spring football practice.’ I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t just skipping out on spring football practice. Coach Holtz says to me, ‘I love you Irv, but I think what is best for you is for you to focus 100 percent on baseball and skip spring football practice. In fact, when football comes around, I want you to continue to focus on baseball. With Derrick Brown going to be a senior in the fall, and now we’ve got Oscar McBride and Karmeeleyah McGill, and in addition to those three we’ve signed a few new guys. I’m not going to take your scholarship from you, but I think baseball is best for you.’”
“I looked at him and thought, ‘Are you serious?’ He’s sitting there telling me, Irv, we don’t need you anymore. I walked out of his office completely broken. I went next door to Coach Joe Moore’s office and told Coach Moore what happened and he said, ‘WHAT??’ The two of us walked into Coach Holtz’s office and Coach Moore says, ‘What do we have to do to keep Irv on the team?’ Then Coach Moore says, ‘Coach Holtz, Irv is going to be at practice today. Please give him one more chance.'”
“After Coach Holtz agreed to this, Coach Moore walks out with me and tells me, ‘Go out to practice today and show Coach Holtz that you deserve to be on this team.’ Then I go tell Coach Murphy what is going on and he gives me the OK to go to every spring football practice that week to show Coach Holtz what I’ve got.”
“I go to practice the first day and Coach Holtz has me running fourth-string. He had Oscar running second, Karmeeleyah third, and me at the bottom of the barrel. I came out that day and absolutely killed it. I finished out that baseball season, but after that experience, I made the decision that I was going to focus 100 percent on football. When I told Coach Murphy that I was no longer going to play baseball, he told me, ‘Go do your thing!’ And when I called Coach Moore with my decision, he said, ‘Irv, we’ve got ya!’ Coach Holtz wanted to motivate me. He wanted it to be my decision, to play football full time. He really knew how to push everyone’s buttons. He knew that year was a critical time for me. That it was time for me to either put up or shut up, but he had done it in a way that the decision was on me.”
Q: What do think of the current ND football program?
A: “After attending the spring game this year and getting the chance to catch up on everything that is going on, I am very optimistic. The recruiting classes right now are top-notch and Notre Dame has such a great football tradition. They kind of lost the ND tradition for a while, but they are getting back to their roots. I went to Notre Dame because of what it stood for, not because I was being forced into going there. If you recruit kids from your heart, not year head, that’s when you get the standout players. The overall good kids. When we were there, every position was four deep. The fourth string player could play at any point and not miss a beat. When they get kids coming to Notre Dame for the right reason, they are going to get stacked again and will start winning games.”
Thank you to Irv Smith for spending some time with me this week talking Notre Dame football. Next week I talk to offensive lineman, Ryan Leahy.