A local wide receiver’s inspiring rise from public housing to the NFL
Tre’Quan Smith remembers the moment, in April 2018, when his life changed.
He was watching the NFL Draft, with friends and family, in the house of his mentor, Mark Sauer. A call came in to Sauer’s cell phone with a 504 area code—New Orleans, Louisiana. Sauer knew before picking up the phone that Smith, a Delray native and a star wide receiver for the University of Central Florida, would soon become a Saint.
Sauer, not wishing to spoil the surprise, said nothing to Smith before handing him the phone. “It was [Saints Head Coach] Sean Payton,” Smith recalls. “He says, ‘we think you’ll be a great asset, and we’ll pick you with our next pick.’ They called my name, and it was all so surreal.”
As Sauer remembers it, “[Smith] handled it professionally. A few minutes later we saw it on television. It was pandemonium. His buddies all jumped on him. You couldn’t even see him—he was covered with people.”
Smith’s ascent to the ranks of professional football has been especially life-affirming considering the obstacles he’s had to overcome. His father, who died when Smith was 12, spent the boy’s formative years in and out of prison. Smith had a transient childhood, bouncing between temporary homes in Boynton Beach, Deerfield Beach and Delray Beach, many of them in public housing. Gunshots and wailing sirens were the soundtrack of his nights, and he overheard fights every day. “You didn’t know if you would live to the next day,” he says, adding, “there was little to no hope you’d make it out of Delray.”
As a result, Smith’s high-school grades, at Village Academy Center, suffered. He needed a father figure, and he found it in Sauer, a former baseball executive and then-athletic director of Village Academy, who now runs the tutoring nonprofit Bound for College. Sauer saw the potential in Smith straightaway.
“He impressed me with two things: how smart he was, and how kind he was,” Sauer says. “Even to this day, I’ve never seen him make fun of anyone or be mean-spirited. I took those elements plus the athletic ability, and said, ‘Let’s really get involved with this kid.’”
At the time, Smith’s sport of choice was basketball; football was never a career track until Sauer steered him in that direction. In fact, he left Village Academy’s varsity football team after his freshman year. To keep Smith invested in the sport, Sauer hired him to keep stats for the football team during his sophomore year, paying him $20 a game plus a meal at Longhorn Steakhouse. Smith has been playing football ever since.
With invaluable assistance from fellow-instructors at Village Academy, Smith raised his GPA and his SAT/ACT scores, and he made it into UCF on a football scholarship. In his freshman year, the school’s Fighting Knights endured a winless season; two years later, the Knights soared through a 12-0 season, culminating in a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn, and Smith played a significant role in the turnaround.
In his first year with the Saints, Smith scored five touchdowns from 28 receptions. “He’s tall [and] lean, so he looks like a receiver, kind of like a gazelle that can just get out there and run,” says Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “Talking about just picking up the offense, for a rookie receiver, [is] not easy. … He has playmaking ability to go up and get the ball on those challenged catches, and we just keep opening up the offense for a guy like him.”
For Smith, the pressure of performing in a professional sport was worlds away from his time at Village Academy, or even UCF. “As a rookie, I had to constantly remind myself that it’s a business,” he says. “Even though I’m having fun and the season we had was amazing … every time at the end of the year it’s their job to go out and recruit new people.”
But, he adds, “As a young player, I don’t try to live up to the hype. If you play off of everybody’s expectations, it’s not going to end well. You have to know yourself and build confidence in the type of player you are.”
Smith now has the financial security to move his family into better residences, and to finally live out of plenty instead of scarcity. He says he couldn’t have made it where he is today were it not for the community support he received in Delray, and he hopes to pay it forward by hosting a back-to-school bash and a youth football camp before he rejoins the Saints for his second season. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have that kind of opportunity,” he says. I don’t know when my time is going to end. I’m going to do as much as I can while I’m at this platform.”
Strangers have already taken inspiration from his success. As an NFL player, you know you’ve made it when replica jerseys with your name on them are sold in sports shops. Smith remembers a video from the NFL’s Instagram page of a girl receiving a Tre’Quan Smith jersey for Christmas.
“She went crazy,” he says. “That just filled up my heart with joy. It was such an amazing feeling, knowing that my name could bring so much joy to someone. That’s what it’s all about—changing people’s lives.”
This story comes from the summer 2019 issue of Delray magazine. Read more stories like this in our archives.