It’s just what they do.
As the youngest of five football-playing brothers, De’Veon Smith took his licks. Lance Smith played at Wisconsin, and Maurice Smith played at Michigan State, so the brotherly battles featured some high-caliber athletes.
De’Veon used to watch VHS tapes of his older brothers’ high school games over and over, dreaming of duplicating their success. Keeping the football-obsessed household together was the job of Audreanna Smith, who raised the children largely by herself. She worked two jobs—days as a bus driver and nights as a nurse’s aid—to provide for her family.
Smith’s sibling rivalries instilled in him a blue-collar toughness that helped him earn a football scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he blossomed into one of the best running backs in the Big 10. Now he’s taking his talents to the NFL with dreams of rewarding his mother for the decades of sacrifice she made for himself and his siblings.
STACK caught up with Smith at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he’s been training to prepare himself for the next level.
STACK: What are some of your earliest football memories?
De’Veon Smith: I remember my first game when I was 4 years old. We were playing against LaBrae. I got the ball and I almost scored but I stopped right at the end zone—right like 1 yard away from the end zone. I don’t know why I stopped, I guess I thought I scored.
Growing up in Warren, Ohio, a town with a rich football history, did you always know that football was a big deal there?
Warren is a football town. A lot of great athletes have come out of there—Maurice Clarett, Mario Manningham, Korey Stringer. Going around that town, really all there is to do is play football. It’s something I got into at a very early age.
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Your mom’s a hard-working lady. What’s your relationship like with her?
That’s my rock. I go to my mom about anything. That’s really the only person I can go talk to about literally anything and I know I won’t be judged. She’s the backbone of the family. She stays strong whenever we need her. I think it’s time for her to relax and enjoy herself.
Is paying her back for all of her sacrifices extra motivation for you as you head to the NFL?
Definitely. That’s something I definitely want to do. I want to take care of my mom. Hopefully, she won’t have to work another day in her life if I make enough money.
Your older brothers all played football. What was it like growing up as the youngest, and how competitive were you guys?
I grew up with four older brothers. I was always the youngest one, the smallest one. But growing up, we competed at everything—jumping on the trampoline, racing down the street, playing basketball and football in the front yard. We all grew up competitive and none of us liked to lose. Those guys are really the reason I play football, the reason I started. I wanted to be just like them.
Do you have any training memories from your teenage years, getting up early to run stairs or anything like that?
I remember waking up early when I was at Howland High School. Coach Manny [Domininic Menendez], our strength and conditioning coach and offensive coordinator at the time, was big on that. I can remember our whole entire schedule for conditioning. First day, 110s. Second day, cut 300s. Third day, tempo runs. I feel like my coaches kinda got me ready for college and even this process I’m going through now.
Was there a coach or an older teammate at Michigan who played a key role in your development?
Coach Wheat [former NFL running back Tyrone Wheatley]. He helped the most out of anybody. He just came in and explained to me, made me understand what I was doing wrong or what I wasn’t seeing on a certain play. He just really slowed the game down a lot. He’s really like a big brother to me, honestly. I’m thankful for him. He’s made a great improvement in my life, a great impact on my life and I’d like to thank him.
What’s your favorite Jim Harbaugh memory?
He was showing the running backs how to run a route. He goes into the route, makes the cut, and pulls his hamstring. Anybody who knows Coach Harbaugh, knows he’s not going to show that he’s hurt. So he tries to walk it off and jog it off and jump up and down. But we all knew he was hurt. We all thought it was funny, probably one of the funniest days at practice during my junior year.
You played in every game your senior year, played in the Orange Bowl, played in two all-star games. Now you’re logging long days training at IMG. You have every right to be exhausted. What keeps you going?
The one thing that’s keeping me motivated is knowing that I have a mom who’s working two jobs. That’s all the motivation I need right there.
What’s the experience at IMG been like for you so far?
It’s kind of similar to Michigan. I came down here for spring ball last year, and I kinda knew what to expect because they showed us around campus and told us what a normal day would be like for someone training. It’s a strict schedule. The good thing about IMG is that if you want to sleep in or skip something, they just won’t let you do that. They’ll blow your phone up, knock on your door, knock on your window until you get up. The people here, the trainers, the strength and conditioning coaches, the nutritionists, everyone’s here for you. I feel like they develop players well for the Combine.
One of your coaches here is Earnest Byner, a former Pro Bowl running back who spent 14 seasons in the NFL. What’s it like working with Coach Byner?
He knows when to joke around and when to get serious. He’s training our bodies. He’s teaching us the right things to do, how to slow the game down. He’s really taken all of our games to the next level, a level where we need to be at for the NFL. He says he’s better than 98 percent of the guys in the league coaching, and I believe it. The way he coaches is very effective and we all understand it.
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How competitive are you with the other running backs you’re training alongside?
We compete at every little thing. We were just competing at the bowling alley to be honest. But on the field, doing drills and stuff, we compete about everything. You drop a ball or your footwork is wrong, we’re going to get on you. That’s the way it is. You gotta compete. You know the man training alongside you is going for the same job you are, and it makes you work even harder.
Have you given any thought to where you’ll be on draft day and whom you’ll be with?
Yeah. I’ll be at my house. Family, friends, that’s it. No big parties. Sit next to my mom, my grandma, my brothers, my aunt, my cousins, that’s it. When I hear my name called, I think the whole entire room is going to start crying. I think so, at least. I know me and my mom will be.
If you were to compare yourself to an animal, what animal would you be?
A wolf. Because I know I’m strong, I know I’m powerful, I know I won’t let anybody beat me. But at the same time, I know I need my brothers with me.