When Collette V. Smith was 18, she had just moved from New York City to Alabama to attend Tuskegee University.
Her mother’s family lived in nearby Georgia and she would often visit on weekends for home-cooked meals and familiar company.
During one such visit, Smith, who later made history in 2017 as the first woman to coach for the New York Jets, was raped by a close relative.
For years, this episode from her freshman year in college would define her.
Smith, who had dreamed of becoming a veterinary doctor, abandoned college. A string of bad relationships with abusive boyfriends followed. She started doing drugs and found herself in situations with guns to her head held by drug-dealing boyfriends.
As bad as the rape and its aftermath had been, what was more devastating was her family’s reaction when she finally confided in them. They simply wanted her to move on.
“I’d go to my grandma’s house and my grandmother would say, ‘Let it alone child, just leave it alone. Ain’t no good going to come from you talking about it,’ ” Smith said on a recent Tuesday, sitting in the living room of her apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. ‘You know, I went through this for years, going there for holidays and seeing my rapist at the table when they’re passing fried chicken and cornbread and collard greens. I was very confused about what is love, what is support.
“But then the way you live your life, you don’t feel valuable and you don’t feel worthy, you know?” Smith said.
That’s a feeling Smith does not want any young girl or woman to go through life with.
It was only after she debuted as a coaching intern on the New York Jets, working with defensive backs during the summer training camp in 2017, that she realized her true calling as a motivational speaker.
Receiving letters from around the country from girls and fathers of little girls telling her how inspirational she was prompted her start her own company, Believe N You, Inc., dedicated to inspiring others.
Last week, she served as the commencement speaker at the Harvey School’s high school graduation in Katonah. On Saturday, she will be in Passaic to speak at a mentoring program for black and Hispanic girls called Bella Chanel.
The girls, ages 6 to 14, meet every Saturday and participate in educational programs, civic engagement projects and outdoor activities. The girls have gone camping, hiking and skating, and have also heard from leaders in several fields.
Kim Cottrell, the founder of the program, said she believes guidance and encouragement from mentors can go a long way in reducing teen pregnancy and gang violence and can help increase high school graduation rates.
“When I was young, I needed to talk to someone. I was afraid to talk to my mom about some things I needed to ask,” Cottrell said. “Collette V. Smith is a powerful role model for girls. She’s the first African-American female coach in the history of NFL, and her story can inspire the girls to become community leaders.”
‘Football saved my life’
Growing up, Smith adored football. She’d spend hours watching the game with her father and her brother. But when it came to actually playing the sport, she found no outlet.
“My brother played Pop Warner football. I said I want to play, too. But they told my family I couldn’t because I was a girl,” she said. “But I would play with my brother’s friends in the street.”
After dropping out of college, Smith held a variety of jobs: from working as a marketing manager for Swatch watches to working in construction for 10 years to becoming a real estate agent.
So in 2011, at age 42, when she came across an advertisement for tryouts with the New York Sharks, then New York’s only professional female football team, Smith said she was intrigued.
She’d never heard of the team.
“I knew I was not going to make the team. I used to smoke cigarettes and I was still occasionally doing drugs. There was no way I was going to make the team, but I decided I owed it to myself to be there,” she said.
She didn’t own any cleats, and not wanting to invest in a pair for one-time trial, she decided to show up at the tryouts with snow boots with traction.
Once at the field, her entire outlook changed.
She saw as many as 50 women all ready to play.
“As soon as I got out of my car and I saw 45 to 50 women all ready to play, whoever was inside of me living down here that I’d never let out, all of a sudden is like, ‘let me out,’ ” Smith said.
“I didn’t even know who the hell I was. I mean it was like the most amazing thing ever. Like, look at these strong women here. I was a rape survivor, suicide survivor, had been through abusive relationships, and I felt a sense of sisterhood,” Smith said. “It was a release. And after the tryouts, they were thanking me for pushing them.”
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SOURCE: USA Today, Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy