Across 11 NFL seasons, Lee Smith paved the way for his teammates as a blocking tight end.
Now, Smith will focus on leading the way for youngsters in his hometown.
Smith, who played for the Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons, is retiring from the league and is now set to be a youth mentor at the Triple F Elite Sports Training performance center that he's opening in Knoxville, Tennessee.
"I couldn't feel more blessed that I get to step away on my terms," Smith said, announcing his retirement on the Falcons' team website via team writer Scott Blair. "It just doesn't happen that way very often. Yet here I am, a stiff-as-hell fifth-round draft pick who found himself a niche-y role and figured out a way to stay around. I always said it would be awesome to leave on my own terms, because I had a father who transitioned out of the NFL very poorly. He drank himself to death shortly thereafter."
As the 34-year-old Smith embarks upon on another journey in his life, he's aiming to steer troubled youth to the right path, one he struggled to find earlier in life.
His father, Daryle, was a six-year NFL veteran who battled demons in his post-playing days and died when he was only 46.
Lee originally landed at Tennessee in college, but was kicked off the team after he was charged with a DUI. He moved on to Marshall, where he got into a fight with a teammate. By Blair's account, Smith's free fall was halted due to the presence of his wife and children.
Smith aspiration is to be the presence that helps other troubled youth headed in the wrong direction.
"Listen, man. I'm lucky to be alive," Smith said. "From the way I acted when I was 15 years old through 19, when I got kicked out of Tennessee -- I didn't have a Lee Smith. I had a dad who was an alcoholic, who beat me because he was having a bad day, or beat my little brothers. I was lucky to not end up in a ditch or dead. I didn't have any guidance. I hope I can give guidance to others.
"Look, man. Some kids hit mute on their own parents. I played 11 years in the NFL and might be someone they'll listen to when they're acting up. Boys are idiots at that age. I want to help them through it. These kids will be driving to the gym from my hometown, from the same neighborhoods that I grew up in, driving the same backroads I drove on. That definitely means something to me. Every time I talk to a high school coach or team from back home, I tell them I played on the same fields. If I would've had what I'm offering these kids, it would've changed my life."
Triple F, described as equal parts athletic performance center and sanctuary for troubled youth, will offer the platform for Smith to change lives as he moves on from his playing days.
Over the course of his career, Smith played in 149 games with 79 starts, 73 receptions, 523 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns. Statistics weren't what Smith was about, though.
He was very much an old-school blocking tight end.
His 2021 campaign, his first and only with the Falcons, saw him tally nine receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown. That final touchdown came in Week 3 on a game-tying, 1-yard catch from Matt Ryan.
His final game will stand as the Falcons' 2021 finale, a loss against the rival Saints.
"Walking off the field [for the last time], I thought it was going to be bittersweet," Smith said. "It was just sweet."
Having played for three NFL teams, Smith has logged plenty of miles. Now, he's returning home, retiring from the NFL, but opening a new chapter in life in which he hopes his contributions will lead to success for others, very much like his role when he was a Bill, Raider and Falcon.