By David Howell
WATER VALLEY – While this year’s football athletic awards banquet held Feb. 9 was obviously about honoring individual players for their achievements during the 2016, Coach Brad Embry had strong words for the entire team.
“These young men went through some tough times. They made it through some tough times that hadn’t been seen here,” Embry said about the 2-9 season. “That tells you what they are made of. It would have been much easier for them to turn around and run away, but they didn’t.”
Embry’s comments followed the guest speaker for the night, former NFL player Sammie Smith. Last year Smith joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) staff at Ole Miss, serving as FCA Director of Character Development and football team chaplain.
Smith told the team he readily accepted the offer to speak at the banquet when Embry first approached him.
“I said right away, coach we have something in common, because Ole Miss had a difficult season too,” Smith told the young players before sharing his testimony.
Smith told the group that he moved to Oxford from his lifelong home state of Florida last year when he took a job with Ole Miss.
“I saw it as an opportunity to take me out of my comfort zone, to move me to a state that I didn’t know anything about,” Smith said about his initial interest in the job.
Even when he first visited the Ole Miss campus, Smith said he was undecided about moving his family to Mississippi. That changed when he saw allegations last year during draft day involving former Ole Miss players’ conduct.
“God spoke to me at that moment and said that is why I want you here,” Smith said.
Smith shared the highlights of his football career, starting in Apopka, Fla., where he was a standout 230-pound running back with sprinter’s speed. His talents earned him a scholarship to play at Florida State from 1985-89 where he set school records.
His success continued at the next level, playing four NFL seasons from 1989 to 1992 for the Dolphins and Denver Broncos..
Smith also shared the lows, including losing a child and serving seven years in federal prison after he was convicted on drug charges.
During his first night in jail Smith said he trusted Jesus to forgive him, and surrendered his lift to Christ.
“My life changed,” Smith said. After serving his time, Smith said he got out of jail and “doors just opened” as he shared his love for Christ, a passion that led him to Ole Miss last year.
It’s a journey that will be over before you know it,” Smith said about football, as he encouraged the players to be great men of God.
Awards were handed out following Smith’s comments. Top honors included the Larry Harris Leadership Award, presented to Sam Dunn; and the E.J. Mayes Determination Award presented to Payden Surrette.
“Leadership is not easy, everything he does is 110 MPH and I am not just talking athletics,” Embry said about Dunn, adding his dedication is extended to school work, school clubs and academics. “Sam Dunn does things right, all the time. None of us are perfect, but he does things right. He has shown you guys the way,” Embry added.
Embry also had praise for Surrette.
“He signed up to go to Parris Island in a few months. This man is serious. I have the upmost respect for him,” Embry said. He added that Surrette played left tackle, defensive end, just about every special team position, running up and down the field wide open all year long.
“I had to call a recruiter and tell him to quit running Payden 10 miles on the weekend during the season,” Embry added. Other honors handed out at the banquet, held at the First Baptist Church are included in photos accompanying this article.