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If the XFL was at all a part of your life during its brief existence in 2001, chances are you’ll never forget the name “He Hate Me.” That was running back Rod Smart’s nickname during his time with the Las Vegas Outlaws, one of the eight teams that made up the professional football league founded by the WWE’s Vince McMahon to compete during the NFL’s off-season.
Smart has a major role in the upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled “This Was the XFL,” set to debut Feb. 2, which follows the meteoric rise and rapid decline of a league focused on entertainment, big hits and huge personalities.
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Though the XFL lasted just one season, it propelled Smart to the NFL, where he found a home as a kick returner and special teams player with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-2005. He even reached the Super Bowl during the 2003 season. Now 40 years old, Smart spends his days as a motivational speaker to kids in high school and lower grades. Ahead of the 30 for 30 feature, he took some time to chat with STACK about life in the XFL, how fast he really was and that magical ride with the Panthers.
STACK: The general consensus is that you had the best nickname in the XFL. Who had the second best nickname in the league?
Rod Smart: Honestly, I can’t remember a lot of the other nicknames. I remember a few on the team I was on: there was Toro, Chuck Wagon, K2. Those are the few that I do remember. I remember the two guys from the L.A. Extreme that had “I Hate He” and “I Hate He Too,” but that’s about it outside of the Outlaws.
The XFL lasted just one season, but it was the start of your pro football career. What’s your fondest memory?
Probably the first game of the season, because it was nationally televised and we were on it. So I gotta give it to that. A nationally televised game on NBC, the [Las Vegas] Outlaws versus the [New York/New Jersey] Hitmen. That’s when He Hate Me was born.
How quickly after that first game did He Hate Me catch on?
From the fans’ perspective, apparently after that first game it blew up. I didn’t know it, but talking to my agent after the game, he acknowledged it. I didn’t know it was going to do so well, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, so of course I wasn’t going to change it at that point. It was just great to see it take off the way it did. Not only that, but even better was me being able to showcase my talent as well. I got the notoriety I was looking for, and then I was able to show the world what I could do while the eyes were on me. I think I did the things I needed to do to capitalize on that opportunity.
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You mentioned not wanting to change your nickname after that first game. Did you have a backup to He Hate Me?
I probably had a dozen nicknames in the beginning. Once I put my foot down and went with He Hate Me, that was it—especially seeing that it went off the way it did, that was pretty much it.
You ran track in high school, then made a name for yourself with your speed in both the XFL and NFL. How fast were you at your peak?
I’ll give you my slowest 40 time first. My slowest 40 was a 4.35. My fastest 40 was a 4.25. All of this was in college. I believe my fastest 100 meters was a 10.2. I was more of a 200 [meter] guy than anything. I get faster as I keep running. Some people are more so quick; they’re 40 yards and that’s it. I was fast. It’s a difference between being quick and being fast. When you’re fast, your speed keeps going. When you’re quick, after a certain amount of yardage, you don’t got no more in the tank.
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The XFL wanted to highlight the physical aspect of football. What’s the hardest hit you took in the league?
I remember a big hit in practice. I can’t remember who hit me, one of the linebackers, but I never saw him coming and he got a clean hit. It was one of those hits where you get knocked down and you get right back up. I looked [around] and was like “nice lick.” I said that to myself. I didn’t acknowledge him but I said it to myself. In my mind, I was like, “That won’t ever happen again.”
Speaking of hard hits, when you were playing, were you ever cognizant of head injuries and concussions and the damage they can do?
It wasn’t like it is today. At that time, it was a constant fight for making a team. In your mind, you’re not thinking of concussions or injury or any of that stuff. You’re just thinking of making the team and doing whatever you have to do to play. And then when you do make the team, keeping that job. On a daily basis, there’s a fight to keep that job because there’s someone always behind you that’s hungrier. If you’re not as hungry as he is, eventually he’s going to move you out of the way. So it’s a constant fight to get the job and keep the job and that’s your main focus. I’m pretty sure a lot of players can vouch for that.
Was there a time when you kept playing despite having an injury that should have prevented you from doing so?
I’ve always thought that way, where I need to keep going or I’ll lose my job. Job security to me is Tom Brady. That’s job security to me—if you have a position like that. Other than that, you’re constantly fighting for your job daily.
During its brief existence, the XFL was like the Wild West of Football. What’s the wildest story you have from your time there?
It was over 15 years ago [laughs]. It’s hard to remember back that far of individual things I’ve done. On a daily basis, I try to live life to the fullest and enjoy every moment of it. A lot of things that get behind become dissolved, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t even remember.
Was there any sort of XFL stigma surrounding you when you reached the NFL?
Going from the XFL to the Eagles, they accepted me into their brotherhood as if I was one of their guys in their draft class. They enjoyed me being the guy from the XFL to have on their team. It was something fun to play around with, especially with the media. They loved me, man, and I loved them. When I got to the Panthers, I had pretty much established myself as a core special teams guy. At that point, I was already part of the NFL circle. Right now today I stay in touch with all those guys and a lot of the guys from the Panthers as well, and I have lifelong friends because of those teams.
You went to the Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers in 2003. What do you remember about that season?
It was a fun year. We played our butts off. Our defense led all defenses that season. I think they were No. 1. Our offense put up a lot of numbers. We had top receivers in Steve Smith, Muhsin Mohammad and Ricky Proehl. Those guys were great receivers. In the backfield we had Stephen Davis toting the load and DeShaun Foster backing him up. Me and Nick Goings were the guys behind them. At that point, I was a core special teams guy. And another thing, all three phases we were great that year. Offense, we put up a lot of numbers and points, defense we led all the defenses that season, and special teams, I think we were ranked No. 1 too, as far as returns and covering. So if you put all three phases together, you could tell the season was the way it was because we dominated, and it showed.
Is the story true that Jake Delhomme actually named one of his horses “She Hate Me?” in your honor?
Yeah. That is true. He did it, thanks to me. He acknowledged me that he was going to do that too. He asked my permission, and I was like, “sure!” I didn’t think he was really going to do it. He’s pretty much a man of his word. If he says he’s going to do something, he does it. He did it. It’s not a rumor, it’s the truth.
How did you train when you played in the XFL and NFL? Did you focus on speed training?
More so, a big part of my training was packing on muscle. For the most part, in football you’re going to sustain injuries. That’s just part of the game. So if you pack on, beef yourself up—and I’m not saying in a crazy way like body builders do—but enough to where it helps you get less injuries. My biggest thing was always trying to pack on muscle so when I did get hit or hit people, I wouldn’t get injured as easily.
As far as speed goes, either you’re fast or you’re not. I’m not saying that speed training doesn’t help. It does help. But you’re either fast or you’re not. I’m from Florida, so from what I’ve heard and what I’ve known, that state breeds a lot of speed.
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What was your playing weight throughout your career?
In college, I was probably 190. Coming out of high school, I was 155, 160. I got to college and I put on 30 pounds of muscle. I got to the league and I put on another 10 or 15 pounds. By the time I got to the XFL and NFL, I was about 205.
You were a brilliant kick returner during your time in the NFL. Does that aspect of the game getting diminished because of the kickoff getting moved up to the 35-yard line—does that bum you out?
Most definitely. I’m still bummed about it. You take away one of the most important phases of the game. You take it right out of the game. You look at it, think about the name of the game. The team with the most points wins. You take away a phase of the game that scores points. So when you take that away, you take away points automatically. You never give your return guys even a chance now, because now everything is a touchback or kicked out of the end zone or whatever. It’s disappointing to see, being a former kick returner. But if that’s their answer to less concussions, then so be it. Who am I to say? As a player and a fan of the game, I believe that’s a very important phase of the game, on any level. Who knows. They may change it later, they may not.
Do you still keep up with the NFL?
Here and there. I don’t really watch TV. I’m a big fan of college football. I loved that growing up. I still try and watch it. But I get those urges wanting to play again, and the best way to get out of that is to not watch it at all. So sometimes I watch football and sometimes I don’t. But I definitely still love the game. I will always love the game.
That urge to play again—do you think you could? Are you in good enough shape to step in and return a kick?
Not even. Mentally I am. But not physically. My body is beat up, man. I’m done [laughing].