Andre Smith has already realized two dreams. First he played in the NFL. Now he’s a Montgomery County police officer.
At 6 feet 5 inches, 265 pounds, wearing a bulletproof vest, radio, body camera and other equipment, Officer Andre Smith doesn’t need to announce his presence when he enters a room. But it is the former NFL tight end’s speed, not his size, that has often surprised both criminals and linebackers.
Although he traded in his football uniform for the one issued by the Montgomery County Police Department, Smith still needs to sprint every now and then. On a recent patrol, he spotted a teenager who matched the description of a robbery suspect. The boy, about 15, at first seemed to be cooperating with Smith, who recognized the odor of marijuana as he approached. But then the kid took off running.
“He was a pretty athletic kid,” says Smith, who still was able to catch him. He cracks a smile. “I think he was a little bit surprised he didn’t outrun me.”
Smith, 30, joined the department in January 2017, the realization of one lifelong dream after another had ended. The streets he now patrols are the same ones he grew up on after moving to Germantown from Silver Spring as a young child. In 2006, he graduated from Seneca Valley High School as a star player for one of the area’s most successful football programs. He went on to play at Virginia Tech, and then signed with the Chicago Bears.
Smith spent much of his time in the NFL on practice squads or as a backup, doing stints with the Bears, Indianapolis Colts and Dallas Cowboys before landing in Cleveland in 2013. He injured his back that season, and though he fully intended to return to the NFL, he eventually decided he was tired of living out of suitcases and risking further injury.
Making the decision to leave professional football wasn’t easy, but choosing a career as a police officer was. As a child, Smith looked up to the police and was always concerned for his family’s safety. When his mom got annoyed and asked him why he kept turning on the outside lights, he replied, “Because having the lights on keeps the bad guys away.”
Smith’s mother, whom he calls his “superhero,” died of leukemia when he was 16, days before the start of his senior year at Seneca Valley. He spent the next year focusing on school and football, and relying on a network of friends and coaches he still considers his family. One of those coaches was Bob Plante, now the head coach at Clarksburg High School. Plante says Smith was “one of the best I’ve ever coached” in three decades.
“What set him apart was not only his athleticism, but his power and size, and his ability to block,” says Plante, a former assistant coach at Seneca Valley. “That is a selfless act, but also a protective act.”
Despite his imposing physical presence, Smith possesses a gentle and soft-spoken manner. As a teenager, he was so shy that Plante refused to coach him until Smith would look him in the eye.
Smith no longer struggles to make eye contact, but he does appreciate spending time in nature’s peace and quiet. He finds solitude fishing at a local pond or bowhunting in the woods near his home in Frederick County, though his love of his job stops him from taking many days off. “Every time you put on the uniform, you get to interact with people,” he says. “You can relay a message, you can spread light, you can spread joy in ways you never would’ve imagined just because of that platform that gives you.”