When Collette V. Smith was 18, she had just moved from New York City to Alabama to attend Tuskegee University.
Her mother’s family lived in nearby Georgia and she would often visit on weekends for home-cooked meals and familiar company.
During one such visit, Smith, who later made history in 2017 as the first woman to coach the New York Jets, was raped by a close relative.
For years, this episode from her freshman year in college would define her.
Smith, who had dreamed of becoming a veterinary doctor, abandoned college. A string of bad relationships with abusive boyfriends followed. She started doing drugs and found herself in situations with guns to her head held by drug-dealing boyfriends.
As bad as the rape and its aftermath had been, what was more devastating was her family’s reaction when she finally confided in them. They simply wanted her to move on.
“I’d go to my grandma’s house and my grandmother would say, ‘let it alone child, just leave it alone. Ain’t no good going to come from you talking about it,’ ” Smith said on a recent Tuesday, sitting in the living room of her apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. ‘You know, I went through this for years, going there for holidays and seeing my rapist at the table when they’re passing fried chicken and corn bread and collard greens. I was very confused about what is love, what is support
“But then the way you live your life, you don’t feel valuable and you don’t feel worthy, you know?” Smith said.
That’s a feeling Smith does not want any young girl or woman to go through life with.
It was only after she debuted as a coaching intern on the New York Jets team working with defensive backs during the summer training camp in 2017 that she realized her true calling as a motivational speaker.
Receiving letters from around the country from girls and fathers of little girls telling her how inspirational she was prompted her start her own company, Believe N You, Inc., dedicated to inspiring others.
Last week, she served as the commencement speaker at The Harvey School’s high school graduation in Katonah. On Saturday, she will be in Passaic to speak at a mentoring program for black and Hispanic girls called Bella Chanel.
The girls, ages 6 to 14, meet every Saturday and participate in educational programs, civic engagement projects and outdoor activities. The girls have gone camping, hiking and skating, and have also heard from leaders in several fields.
Kim Cottrell, the founder of the program, said she believes guidance and encouragement from mentors can go a long way in reducing teen pregnancy, gang violence and help increase high school graduation rates.
“When I was young, I needed to talk to someone. I was afraid to talk to my mom about some things I needed to ask,” Cottrell said. “Collette V. Smith is a powerful role model for girls. She’s the first African American female coach in the history of NFL, and her story can inspire the girls to become community leaders.”
‘Football saved my life’
Growing up, Smith adored football. She’d spend hours watching the game with her father and her brother. But when it came to actually playing the sport, she found no outlet.
“My brother played Pop Warner football. I said I want to play too. But they told my family I couldn’t because I was a girl,” she said. “But I would play with my brother’s friends in the street.”
After dropping out from college, Smith held a variety of jobs: from working as a marketing manager from Swatch watches to working in construction for 10 years to becoming a real estate agent.
So in 2011, at age 42, when she came across an advertisement for tryouts with the New York Sharks, then New York’s only professional female football team, Smith said she was intrigued.
She’d never heard of the team.
“I knew I was not going to make the team. I used to smoke cigarettes and I was still occasionally doing drugs. There was no way I was going to make the team, but I decided I owed it to myself to be there,” she said.
She didn’t own any cleats and not wanting to invest in a pair for one-time trial, she decided to show up at the try outs with snow boots with traction.
Once at the field, her entire outlook changed.
She saw as many as 50 women all ready to play.
“As soon as I got out of my car and I saw 45 to 50 women all ready to play, whoever was inside of me living down here that I’d never let out, all of a sudden is like, ‘let me out’,” said Smith.
“I didn’t even know who the hell I was. I mean it was like the most amazing thing ever. Like, look at these strong women here. I was a rape survivor, suicide survivor, had been through abusive relationships, and I felt a sense of sisterhood,” Smith said. “It was a release. And after the try outs, they were thanking me for pushing them.”
The next day she got a phone call informing her she’d made the team.
“And that changed the whole trajectory of my life. I started working out, eating healthy and calling up people to say they shouldn’t come around anymore because they weren’t good for my life,” Smith said. “I needed people who would lift me up and help me be better. Football saved my life.”
From player to coach
At the time, she was selling real estate in Manhattan but she had practice three days a week. So, she’d go to work in her business suit and high heels and on practice nights, she’d take her helmet, shoulder pads and cleats and leave them in a corner while showing luxury properties.
“Some of the clients would be like, ‘Oh, you have a son?” Smith said. “I’d say, ‘I’m a pro football player. And then it became, ‘Oh my God, tell us more.’ But I’m like, ‘get back on track here. Are you buying this property or not? I need the commission today. ‘”
After playing for three seasons with the Sharks, a knee injury kept her off the field. But she stayed on as a coach and as director of marketing.
Soon she was bombarding the New York Jets Facebook pages and fan group pages with news about the Sharks, describing them as the “sister” team of the New York Jets.
Her tactics worked. Fans and the executives at the New York Jets took notice. The franchise agreed to donate gear to the team and Smith received practice field access and a chance to shadow the Jets’ defensive backfield. There, she met head coach Todd Bowles, who immediately recognized her passion for the sport.
Nine months later, he offered her an internship for the summer training camp.
“So I think I was being interviewed the whole time. Every time I went to the field,” said Smith. “Todd Bowles has been an amazing figure in my life for mentorship, coaching skills. He is a father figure to me. He is a mentor to me. He’s someone that took a chance on me.”
At a press conference, soon after the historic appointment, Bowles spoke glowingly about Smith.
“Just talking to her over the course of time, her football knowledge is outstanding,” Bowles said. “It’s all male interns so far, and I thought it would be a good idea to bring in a female intern. And that’s strictly off her skill set, not because she’s female or anything else. She’s a good football coach and she fits in with the guys.”
Smith, who currently serves as the director of government and community relations for the Women’s National Football Conference, a league that launched its inaugural season in April with 16 teams.
The WNFC championship game will be held on June 29 in Denver, Colorado.
“None of the women in this league are getting paid yet but they are participating because they are passionate about the sport,” she said.
Silence not an option
Smith’s talk at the Harvey School came about when Vanessa Williams, who lives in Chappaqua and whose daughter graduated from the school last year, recommended her to the administration.
Bill Knauer, the head of school, said Smith’s talk was compelling.
“She spoke about arguing against your own limits of what you think you are capable of,” he said. “Her life story represents the themes of believing in yourself, being inspired and perseverance.”
Smith feels like she’s found her purpose trying to help others, but she worries about not reaching students who might need her the most. Last year, she took on so many pro bono speaking engagements that she ended up in the red. While she works with organizations and groups based on their budgets, doing most of the speeches for free is not an option any more, she said.
“There are schools that can afford to have me come out and speak. And quite frankly, those schools don’t really need me. It’s the schools that can’t afford me, that I need to be at,” said Smith. “And I can’t be at all of those schools because I can’t keep doing pro bono work. There’s a problem in this world and people have got to start noticing that. It’s on all of us.”
While making motivational speeches has been “cathartic” for her, she hasn’t made peace with her family for asking her “to sweep things under the rug.”
She said the #MeToo movement had given her the courage to speak up, and through her journey, help others.
“I felt so alone and despondent back then,” said Smith. “But staying silent is not an option.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy covers women in power for the USA Today Network Northeast. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org