Collette V. Smith has always loved football—she grew up watching games with her dad—but never thought there was opportunity for women in the space.
Smith attended Tuskegee University, a historically Black university, to become a doctor of veterinary medicine, but a tragic incident had rerouted her life. She had been raped by a family member twice.
Her career path changed over the course of her life, but she found her way back to football at a tryout for the New York Sharks, a professional women’s tackle football team, when she was 42 years old.
Smith played defensive back for the Sharks for three years until a knee injury ended her playing career, and then she transitioned to become a defensive backs coach while also working in front office capacities for the team. In 2017, she joined the New York Jets as a coaching intern, making her the league’s first African-American female coach and the franchise’s first-ever female coach.
Smith also launched her own company, “Believe N You, Inc.” in October 2017. The organization focuses on building confidence in others and helping people live their best lives. Smith visits public schools in low-income and underserved communities, colleges, corporations, organizations, and events to share her story of triumph and inspire women and children to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams.
ONYX host Monica McNutt recently had the opportunity to sit down with Collette V. Smith to discuss her journey in football, being a survivor, and using her experiences to empower other women.
On being a Black woman in sports
I just love being a Black woman period. I’m proud to be a woman, but I’m more proud to be a Black woman. I love the power of it. I love everything about it. (I’m most challenged by being a Black woman in sports) the same way any woman is challenged, to be quite honest. I don’t think men give us the due respect that we deserve. We got to fight a little harder, but I have no problem with that.
On overcoming sexual violence
Life has never been the same for me, and I believe I was a warrior. Did it hurt me? Absolutely. Does it bother me to this very day? It does. But I’m human, and all I can do is be here to support other women who have gone through the same things. The beautiful thing about football, and how I talk about how football saved her life because I was dating the wrong men after that. I didn’t finish college. I was hanging out in the streets. I was doing things I shouldn’t be doing, and then football came into my life on a professional level. That team is my new family. That team is my support. That team breathed new life into me. As a Black woman that didn’t have a lot of support when it came to unspoken rapes, I needed that. I needed that and I found so much growth that it is now my innate duty to pay it forward to everyone else. To speak up. Use your voice. Find that right person to associate yourself with because football did that for me.
On the importance of women speaking out when they’ve been wronged
It is freeing to, number one, talk about this; I know it’s helped me. It’s cathartic. I see that it’s from pain to power. How are you going to wake up? If I knock you down, are you going to just lay there, are you going to stay on the ground, or are you going to get up and make moves and better decisions, better choices. Because through failure and through pain, you grow. I use all my pain. I use all my hard knocks to empower me today so I can help empower other people. … I’m grateful for the experiences which I’ve had. I don’t wish rape on myself or anybody else for that matter, but it happened, and it’s how I deal with it to progress my life and others is what I’m talking about.
On jumping back into football at 42 years old
When I got out there on that field, I drove up and I saw these women out there. Every time I think about it, it still amazes me. I was wearing my little snow boots because I didn’t have any cleats. They asked you to wear cleats, and I’m thinking I’m 42 years old. I’m not going to make the team. I’m damn sure not going to buy cleats, so I wore snow boots. I pull up in my car and I see these women out there on the field and it’s December. It’s freezing outside. All these women in helmets and shoulder pads and cleats and coaches yelling at them. I’m thinking, ‘What the—are you serious?!” That was the highlight of my day, of my life, and all of a sudden I was wearing a superhero cape. I felt like I was standing there with the wind and the cape was blowing. It was amazing and I went from saying ‘You’re probably not going to make the team’ to ‘You’re making this team today. You’re making this team. I didn’t know who I was. Apparently I never let out that strong Black woman. I kept her pushed down, but this day she came out and she was like ‘What’s up, Collette!’ and I’m like, ‘It’s nice to meet ya.’