On Sept. 12, Cleveland Browns rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens sat behind a microphone, and in a somber tone talked about balance, life and relationships.
He said things like, “A funny thing happens when you start playing this game of football; you think you’re just playing, you’re coaching, everything’s fine, until life hits. And then when life hits, it’s kind of a reality check.”
And things like, “If you want to get the most out of your team, you have start at some point caring about each other. And when you do that, that builds relationships.”
Kitchens said these things after a heartbreaking tragedy struck one of Cleveland’s players: in the early hours of Sept. 11, veteran defensive lineman Chris Smith and his girlfriend, Petara Cordero, were on the side of Interstate 90 in the city waiting for help after one of the tires on Smith’s sports car blew out.
A 47-year-old woman struck Smith’s car and then Cordero, and Cordero was killed. She and Smith had gone out for a night together as new parents; their daughter, Haven Harris Smith, was just 4 weeks old at the time.
The driver was not charged.
Days earlier, Smith spoke with cleveland.com about how happy he was personally, blessed and grateful to have Cordero and baby Haven in his life.
Smith was in his second season in Cleveland. A fifth-round draft pick in 2014, Smith has never been a star; heck, he’s never been a consistent starter. But he’s the kind of player every team needs: he offers depth, and by all accounts is beloved in the locker room, a stand-up man.
“Chris is one of those guys — his smile is infectious, his personality’s infectious, he’s just overall well-liked,” Kitchens said that September day. “Everybody in that locker room is hurting for him.
“If nothing else, it puts things in perspective, ok? From the standpoint of, in this thing we call life, what’s important to you? Well, Chris is important to us. Chris is important to this locker room. And everything he’s going through we feel.”
Apparently Smith the person wasn’t that important, not to Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey.
On Tuesday, the Browns waived Smith. A league source said he did not ask for his release.
Eighty-three days after Smith watched his girlfriend die, 83 days after he was thrust into the role of single father, 83 days after his unimaginable heartbreak and 82 days after Kitchens saying Smith was family, he was cut.
How would you be functioning in that situation? How should we expect someone to focus and perform when something so tragic happens, especially when you were witness to it?
Smith was in uniform on Sept. 16 for a Monday night game against the New York Jets, just days after Cordero died. He said at the time she would have wanted him to play. He played in the games that followed as well, until he was a healthy scratch for the Browns’ most recent game, the rematch against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Because Smith is a veteran, he can collect termination pay and receive his full 2019 salary. Small consolation in a time like this.
We’re not ignorant to the reality of NFL rosters but other teams have had similar situations and have taken care of the player, showing that the “football is family” commercials shown repeatedly during NFL games isn’t just a shallow idea.
When Devon Still found out his young daughter, Leah, was battling cancer and he needed to step away from football to help care for her, the Cincinnati Bengals kept Still on their practice squad, giving Still some income and more important making sure Leah had health insurance.
When Ryan Shazier suffered a life-altering spinal injury in 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers did, and continue to do, what they can to support Shazier financially and emotionally.
The Browns clearly don’t subscribe to the same level of humanity, or at minimum it had a limit of around three months.
Keep in mind that this is the same Browns team that jumped to sign Kareem Hunt earlier this year, despite knowing he’d be suspended for eight games for two documented incidents of violence toward others, including swinging at and kicking a woman on the floor in a Cleveland hotel.
The Browns trumpeted the news via social media when the NFL cleared Hunt to return to practice in October.
The day before Hunt returned to practice, Smith posted pictures of Haven on Instagram to celebrate her turning 2 months old. She’s wearing a bow on her adorable head, a white lace tunic and leggings.
“As I continue to grow each day into this single father role for my daughter Haven, I am having to get used to and be mindful of the things I know her mother would want to do, would want me to do and what she would have done for her,” he wrote. “Her mother is no longer with us physically to do the things moms do for their kids. So I thank all my family, her family and my friends who continue to support us everyday.”
And even in his new, unexpected role, Smith hasn’t turned his back on others: on Tuesday, Rowan Helping Ministries, in Smith’s native North Carolina, announced that as part of #GivingTuesday, Smith has agreed to match any donations the organization receives, up to $5,000. The organization is hoping to raise enough money to build a new storage shed for its soup kitchen.
If only the Browns weren’t so quick to turn their back on Smith in his time of need.
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