For prospects at the NFL combine, it’s about proving oneself mentally and physically on the road to the draft. Speed, performance and mental acuity – all carefully measured. But at the 11th Annual Meet the Future Luncheon, there was a different kind of demonstration with a different type of talent: students of the Academy of Construction and Design (ACAD) at IDEA Public Charter School.
“It reminds me of the NFL combine but it’s the construction combine right now,” said guest speaker Fred Smoot, former cornerback for the Washington Redskins, in a nod to the building industry professionals gathered to check out the up-and-comers from the ACAD program. “Y’all come here to see the youth, to see the talent and see who’s next in your field.”
In talking about the future, Smoot took the opportunity to reflect on his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, which he said is nothing like that of his own kids growing up in a big house in Ashburn, Virginia. The schools, opportunities and even games are nothing alike. “We played marbles, jacks, pogo sticks,” Smoot said. “Switch the page, and the youth [today] have touch screen phones and high-tech everything.”
Still, one difference that stood out, one that he found himself pondering with a best friend, who is also a former teammate: Why aren’t our kids good in football?
The answer: “The hunger is just not there.”
Secret to Success
To the students of the Academy, Smoot said taking steps to succeed in the future means that you must “truly, truly, truly want it.”
“If you don’t want it and you don’t believe in yourself, you don’t have a chance,” he stated firmly to the audience, which included a mix of Millennials, Generation Xers and Baby Boomers.
He pointed out that sometimes as we age, it can be challenging to look ahead.
But looking out onto the Meet the Future audience, he was seeing no signs of that. “I think that’s what y’all are doing in here. Y’all are embracing what’s next. And what’s next is these young people,” he said. “They are gonna be filling your seats one day, doing the same thing for a new generation.”
But Smoot also shared some true – albeit lighter – moments. Growing up, he remembered a friend’s father who owned a construction company and had seven sons. “He knew all of us played football,” Smoot said. “If you own a construction company and you have seven boys, it’s called free labor.”
The audience laughed appreciatively.
Passion & Purpose
The students in the Academy will ultimately pursue their own paths – some to college, others straight into the workforce. Smoot acknowledged that not everyone’s journey is the same. “College ain’t gonna be for everybody. Building ain’t gonna be for everybody,” he said, noting that passion is a key to reaching one’s goal. “But the first step is to be around people like this who can change your life.”
These changemakers at Meet the Future are industry leaders across the construction industry, from builders and landscapers to architectural design firms and a laundry list of contractors.
Smoot quipped that when he joined the Redskins, “I had the oldest football team in America.” But these were veteran players who demanded respect. Like any first job, there was an adjustment period. He recalled that rookie year didn’t look good: “You come in, you think you’re fly, you’ve done nothing.” Still, Smoot worked hard – as he urged students to do in the world – to make it because it’s a competition. His goal: “I really, really love you, but I want your job.”
After leaving the game, it was time to discover a new purpose: “I know how to talk and I love to talk.” So, he started making the rounds to TV and radio stations. “Actors, singers, sports athletes, they are temp jobs. What y’all have are permanent careers,” Smoot emphasized.
While he didn’t specifically address personal challenges faced during his career (like the high-profile “Love Boat” scandal more than a decade ago during his stint as a Minnesota Viking, and separately, he was found not guilty in 2015 on a domestic assault charge), Smoot did hint as to what he’s learned from those experiences.
He told youth to be ready for “trials and tribulations” because “they’re gonna strengthen you.”
Later during a Q&A session, Smoot was asked about people who questioned some of his off-field problems and how he reinvented himself afterwards.
Smoot responded: “I’m a grandma’s baby. My grandma told me years ago, one thing God didn’t do was make a perfect man. He made all us, flawed. He made all us to the point we gonna make mistakes, and I didn’t let my mistakes define me. I got better from my mistakes, I learned from ‘em … it’s called cheatin’ life. If you ever want to cheat life, talk to anybody … that’s old. They got a story to tell, good or bad. If you listen to it, you don’t have to go through it.”
In his final thoughts, Smoot shared that he always had a plan to get out of Mississippi, a place where he saw a lot of struggle and wanted to break away from. That’s what propelled him not only to dream for something more, but to work consistently to achieve it.
“A lot of people like to dream. But a lot of people don’t like to walk the dream during the daytime,” Smoot said. “If you live the dream, the dream will come true.”