Smith keeps it simple for Falcons

Associated Press  |  Last updated November 24, 2011
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith worked two full-time jobs before joining his family for dinner on Thursday. The event-filled Thanksgiving was a non-stop whirlwind that included practice and meetings at the Falcons' training complex in Flowery Branch and community service 50 miles south in downtown Atlanta. Smith wouldn't have it any other way, but you would hardly know it. In his fourth season as an NFL head coach, Smith has 39 career victories, two playoff appearances and one NFC South title, yet he's a master at deflecting from himself and to his team. ''Smitty,'' as his players and fellow coaches call the 52-year-old coach, is long accustomed to putting his family, players, assistants and fans ahead of his personal agenda. A few fans approached him to say hello and take pictures Thursday as Smith mingled among 6,000 people at Atlanta's annual Hosea Feed the Hungry event at the Georgia World Congress Center. But Smith mostly blended in and worked quietly without notice. He and wife Julie stood next to Falcons owner Arthur Blank for about an hour serving Thanksgiving meals. After Blank left, the Smiths picked up plates and brought them to needy people sitting at tables throughout a big ballroom. Asked to describe the experience, Smith didn't want to give himself any credit. He was more interested in discussing those that worked with him at the event - tight end Tony Gonzalez, safety William Moore and linebacker Mike Peterson, defensive line coach Ray Hamilton, not to mention Blank's family members and other Falcons staffers. ''I believe that you want to be a humble person all the time,'' Smith said. ''And I think the thing that we want to do as an organization, it comes from the top. Mr. Blank is very involved and our team is very involved with this.'' That's the Smitty way. ''He's by far the best coach I've ever played for,'' said center Todd McClure, who played under former Atlanta coaches Dan Reeves, Jim Mora and Bobby Petrino. ''Smitty is completely genuine. You want to work as hard as you can for a guy like that.'' Smith's reputation as a players' coach took root in 1999, his first season in the NFL as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens. By the time he was promoted to linebackers coach in 2002, the word was out. His players loved him. ''He's a guy who kind of came out of nowhere to be a head coach,'' Atlanta running back Michael Turner said. ''He wasn't high on everybody's list, but the Falcons did a great job of hiring him and he did a great job of putting a staff together that works well with the players.'' During his four years as an assistant with the Ravens, Smith often spent Thanksgiving with former Baltimore head coach Brian Billick. They are married to sisters, but the holiday grew bigger when the Smiths moved to Jacksonville when Mike took over as the Jaguars' defensive coordinator in 2003. Mike Smith grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., as the oldest of eight kids. When he and Julie and their daughter moved to Atlanta in January 2008, Smith had taken his career to the highest level, but added responsibilities didn't affect the traditional holiday weekend. Julie Smith said the family was expecting 14 guests at their home in Suwanee on Thursday night. ''I've always been used to having what seems like a huge crowd at Thanksgiving,'' Mike Smith said. ''That's why I feel at home here with all these people. It's a blessing to give back. For me, this is a great time to give thanks and help those let fortunate than you are.'' By Sunday, when Atlanta (6-4) faces Minnesota (2-8) at the Georgia Dome, Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton knows Smith will have on his game face. The holiday distractions will be a distant memory. The only thing that will matter is beating the Vikings. ''If he says something he means it,'' Lofton said. ''It's not a guessing game. You don't wonder where he stands, so as players, we know Smitty's got our back and we got his back. Whatever we go through, we're going to go through as a team.'' Though Smith won't say much about himself or his accomplishments, he does acknowledge feeling his players' affection. ''I always want to be a consistent person,'' he said. ''That's something we try to do each and every day. Some days we are not able to do that, but for the most part we want to be consistent and you want to treat people the way you want to be treated. That's how I've approached coaching and how I've approached interacting with other folks.'' Smith was about to leave with Julie and drive home. He was still wearing the community service nametag he filled out with a pen a couple of hours earlier. It was simple and to the point: Coach Mike. ''It's great to get out and have an opportunity to see our fans,'' he said. ''To me, that's part of one of your duties as a head coach.''
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