Smith, 30, was released by the Carolina Panthers, for whom he played last year, in the final week of the preseason, and did not find another team.
“You and I both knew the game for me wouldn’t last forever. It’s the NFL circle of life, and I’m prepared for what’s next,” Smith said in the video, which was posted on Uninterrupted and addressed to the sport of football. “… Thank you for providing me with the means to provide a better life for my family, for giving me the resources to break generational curses, for helping me set up a life where my kids can become all that they want to be without the struggles that I had to face. Thank you for trusting me with the responsibility of being a leader both on and off the field. My worth as a football player was never only about numbers, and if I was able to impact just one player, one kid, one person, I served my purpose.”
Smith was drafted out of Maryland with the 58th overall pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, never missing a game during his four seasons with the Ravens while becoming one of the league’s most dynamic deep threats. He was the team’s second-leading receiver in its 2012 Super Bowl season, both during the regular season and the playoffs, and had at least 750 receiving yards in all four of his seasons in Baltimore.
He joined the San Francisco 49ers in 2015, again playing all 16 games and leading the NFL with a 20.1 average yards per catch, although he never replicated his Ravens productivity He remained with the 49ers in the 2016 season, when Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem sparked a surge in NFL player activism. Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid were at the forefront of that effort, and Smith also became a consistent voice of social activism and political criticism, even as he moved to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017 and the Panthers last year.
“If I told you that I was invited to a party by an individual I believe is sexist, or has no respect for women, or I told you that this individual has said offensive things toward many minority groups and I don’t feel comfortable about it — this individual also called my peers and my friends SOBs — you would understand why I wouldn’t want to go to that party,” Smith said. “Why is it any different when the person has the title of president of the United States? It’s really that simple to me. I don’t think it’s something that I personally feel inclined to be involved with.”
Last year, Smith urged the Panthers to give Reid — who had been out of the league — another chance. The Panthers later signed Reid, who remains with the team.
“Eric Reid is a Pro-Bowl caliber safety, 26 years old with a first-round pedigree,” Smith said last fall, before the signing. “And he’s one of the best men that I know.”
Smith also became a part of the Baltimore community, working as an intern for U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) while he played with the Ravens and remaining involved in the city after he left the team. He and his wife, for example, paid the adoption fees for 46 cats and dogs at an adoption event in Baltimore, and his foundation funded a variety of scholarship and mentorship programs. Last year, the Baltimore Sun named Smith one of 10 people “who make the Baltimore region better,” writing that “he still considers his work in Baltimore a lifelong commitment” and noting that he had been nominated for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award three times.
In the retirement video, Smith said God put football in his life for a reason, “and I’m sure it wasn’t about Xs and Os.”
“I’m looking forward to using the platform that you’ve given me to continue to serve my true purpose: changing my community for the better,” he said. “… I’m blessed to be able to walk away from this game with most of my health, a clear mind and a grateful heart. Can’t wait to begin my next phase of my life where my heart is and never left: Baltimore.”
Smith caught 319 passes for 5,141 yards and 41 touchdowns in his eight-year career.