EDITOR’S NOTE: This article initially was published in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine during the 2010 preseason. Smith recently was named the 2012 NFL Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year by the NFL Strength and Conditioning Coaches.
Whether it’s in the weight room or on the football field, Cedric Smith always has embraced his role. The Texans strength and conditioning coach prides himself on setting the tone.
He was that way at Florida when he paved running lanes for future Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, and he carried that mindset with him as a fifth-round fullback for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1990 NFL Draft.
“I enjoyed the physical part of being a fullback,” Smith said. “A lot of times, people think the defense sets the tone for the physical part of your football team. I always thought it was a chance to be physical on offense if your fullback was the guy that didn’t just get on people, but blocked people. I enjoyed that part of it.”
At 5-10, 222 pounds, Smith was a stout blocker and special teams contributor in the NFL. He described himself as a “blockhead” or “slugmouth” fullback who thrived in short-yardage situations. In 72 career games, he gained 100 yards on 40 carries (2.5 avg.) with two touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for 141 yards (7.1 avg.) and two scores.
While his stats are modest, Smith made sure he got the most out of his talent. Whatever he lacked in raw ability, he compensated for with a rigorous training regimen that tested his physical and mental toughness. He wasn’t satisfied with being the strongest fullback; he measured himself in the weight room against the offensive linemen.
“The conditioning part was my M.O.,” he said. “I honestly believe that’s what kept me around for the most part. If there’s anything that I can say it’s that I always was going to be in better shape and I was always going to work harder than the other guys. I always wanted to be the leader of the group.”
While adding muscle and building stamina played to Smith’s strengths as a fullback, his training also served another important purpose. It gave him a mental edge on the field when he stared across the line of scrimmage and knew he had outworked his opponents.
“I always felt like that gave me confidence when you have to face linebackers and you’re facing safeties and guys on defense that may be looking for a way out,” Smith said. “If you know you’re more physical and stronger, if you know you have more explosion, you feel like there’s nothing they can do to really hurt you.”
Smith participated in offseason strength and conditioning workouts before NFL teams even began instituting such programs. As a rookie, he lifted with fellow Vikings rookies John Randle and Terry Allen. Veterans like safety Joey Browner and tight end Steve Jordan decided to work out away from the facility.
One of Smith’s fondest memories as a rookie was lining up in the same backfield as his boyhood idol, running back Herschel Walker, who was the Vikings’ leading rusher in 1990.
“Herschel Walker was a genetic freak,” Smith said. “The thing that was strange to me about Herschel was that I never saw him work a whole lot in the weight room…He might go home and do 1,000 push-ups or something. That was his deal – or 1,000 sit-ups. He’d go out every day in training camp, he’d go out there and run 2-3 miles in the morning before practice. At 5 a.m. before two-a-days, he would get up and go (run).”
Smith saves his highest praise for Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Cedric earned a lot of attention for Emmitt’s video-game like rushing numbers in college. For three years (1987-89), they shared the same backfield in Gainesville.
“His vision was unbelievable,” Smith said. “I’d never seen a guy take plays and do what he did with them. Plays where we hit here, he saw something else and coaches don’t say anything to him because it’s Emmitt. Anybody else who tried that, they’d be like, ‘No, don’t do that.’ But with Emmitt, it was a different deal. He had that ability.”
In seven years in the NFL, Smith played for the Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals. His best years came in the Valley of the Sun, where he scored his only career rushing touchdowns and lined up with players like quarterback Jake Plummer, running back Larry Centers and wide receiver Rob Moore.
His career was cut short, though, after colliding with safety Pat Tillman in practice. The knee injury tore up Smith’s PCL and ACL and sidelined him the entire 1998 season, when the Cardinals reached the playoffs for the first time since 1982.
Nearly a year later, Smith returned to full speed, but he wasn’t signed by a team for training camp. After tryouts with other clubs like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he decided to retire at 29 years old. His initial thought was to find a job coaching running backs, which he pursued for a couple years before reconnecting with Rich Tuten, his former strength coach at Florida who had taken the same role with the Denver Broncos.
Smith and Tuten shared a mutual respect based on the grueling workouts that Smith endured and that Tuten developed for the Gators.
“I honestly felt that when I left Florida that there was really nothing else that anybody could do to hurt me after I left,” Smith said. “I thought guys were going to die out there. I’m being very honest with you. It was that intense.
“There were a lot of mental checks. When I say mental checks, (I mean) gut checks. There were a lot of endurance runs. Work capacity-type things, meaning there was a point where you have to figure out if you’re going to quit or not, if you really want to keep playing football.”
As assistant strength coach, Smith helped the Broncos to three playoff trips before the Kansas City Chiefs hired him in 2007 to lead their strength and conditioning program. He joined the Texans on Feb. 8, 2010.
Even though he’s more than 10 years removed from wearing pads, Smith still misses playing the game. He’s grateful for his time coaching in the NFL, but there are some parts of the game that are difficult to replace once you hang up the cleats.
“The physical part of it,” Smith said. “The thing that I realized once I got done playing football is that I’ve missed hitting people. I miss being hit. A lot of guys, when they get done, they don’t realize that. You keep looking for ways to be competitive and you don’t have it anymore. You just don’t have the ability to be physical and mix it up with somebody.
“I think that’s what football did for me. That was an outlet for me. For whatever reason, I enjoyed making blocks and hitting guys and having that be something that people always would count on me for, being able to attack a guy…Those are the things that I look at and say that I miss.”
It’s now Smith’s job to instill that same attitude and intensity with Texans players. He won’t line up with the team today, but his fingerprints will be on the field every time you see a big hit or physical block.