Malik Smith: Path To The NFL Draft

By Simon Carroll

First there was Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. Then there was Jimmy Graham & Julius Thomas. Today, Darren Fells, Mo Allie-Cox and Rico Gathers are all current examples of NFL Tight Ends who played basketball at college. Of the four stars from that list that never played a down of college football, only Gathers was drafted – in the sixth round by the Dallas Cowboys back in 2016.

Malik Smith is the next draft prospect hoping to make that jump. Accustomed to adversity, he isn’t fazed by the mountain he has to climb to achieve his goal. In one of the most unique interviews in The Touchdown’s history, Simon Carroll sits down with Smith to discuss his path to the NFL Draft:

"Born With A Basketball In My Hand"

Malik (right) with his father Randy and brother Tyreke. Credit: @Cleve2Cally (Twitter)

It was destiny.

Michelle and Randy Smith met at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both student athletes, Randy played for the Pioneers men’s basketball team, Michelle the women’s basketball team. They didn’t know it then, but they would go on to get married and have three children. And one of those children would go on to follow in his parents’ footsteps and be a force of nature on the basketball court.

Say hello to Malik Smith, the NFL Draft Prospect you probably have never heard of:

“Basketball has been a part of my life ever since I came out of the womb. I guess you could say I was born with the basketball in my hand; my parents actually met playing basketball at university, so just growing up I was in and around the sport on a daily basis. My grandfather also played basketball – he was six foot eleven! So we’re a big family and that obviously helped. When I wasn’t playing basketball I was watching it – it’s just who we were as a family.”

“It was strictly basketball for me – I played football when I was younger but I think the last time I played would be maybe my sixth grade. But the truth is I just kept growing, became too tall and was fascinated by basketball because I was just so good at it. So I kept playing.”


It was the smart choice. At high school, Smith was a giant amongst teammates and opponents, who were big for their age, but nowhere near the 6’7” frame that Malik possessed. Watching a YouTube video of him and his brother Tyreke playing for Cleveland Heights High School in Ohio, you lose count of the number of dunks, the effortless steals with those long arms as he takes over the game. Despite his height and the grainy video footage, his athleticism was clear to see. For a young man with that size, speed and talent on the court, it was inevitable the opportunity for an education would be provided to him via basketball:

“Yeah, honestly it was one of those things that just made sense. I was very talented at the sport, and it was almost natural that basketball was what I was doing as a high school athlete. Even then I was testing the waters a little bit with football, kinda teetering around it. But going into my sophomore summer I started getting offers and I had to make the decision. Do I want to go ahead and play football just to play it, or do I want to focus solely on my basketball craft, something almost guaranteed to provide me with a college education? It wasn’t a hard decision to dedicate my time to basketball and really hone in on it.”

At this point, Malik and Tyreke choose different paths. Whilst his younger sibling was destined for greatness on the gridiron at Ohio State, Malik embarked upon a career on the court. But for the elder brother, his college experience would be nothing like what he expected…


Credit: UNC Asheville

Athletes are often perceived to lead privileged lives. Whilst many are rewarded handsomely for their endeavours, it is easy to forget the sacrifices they have made in their pursuit of sporting greatness, and the pressure they have to endure on a daily basis. A key part of success for many is to be almost numb to emotion, to flatten the curve and never get too high or too low. There simply is no room for the peaks and troughs of life that us mere mortals are accustomed to and allowed to experience.

One of the first things you notice about Malik Smith is that he is very much in tune with his feelings. And by his own admission, his collegiate basketball career was somewhat derailed by a disregard for his own mental health. Undoubtedly in a much better place as he talks to me now, he’s able to reflect on a period of his life that did not go the way he had planned:

“Out of high school, I went to UNC Asheville. And it was there that I was dealing with some mental health things. I wasn’t too keen with what was going on with me, within myself, and I didn’t want to admit it. And it kind of affected my entire existence, but it was always something that I was deep down aware of and I knew what was going on. It became a daily thing – Monday would be good, Tuesday would be bad, and my mentality would be tested on a day to day basis. I started to question where I wanted to go in life, and go as a person, and it was because of that I decided to make that switch.”

The switch he refers to was a transfer from UNC Asheville to Bryant University in Rhode Island. It was a bold decision and one that would mean Malik had to sit out a season due to NCAA regulations. But if he thought the adversity was over, he was sadly mistaken:

“So I sat out my year, and after the season I thought everything was gonna be good. But then the coach that recruited me to come to Bryant asked me to come into his office. He told me he wasn’t going to be able to coach me because he was retiring. So there I was, finally getting over some of the mental aspects I was dealing with, getting comfortable in a new situation, a new environment, doing really good, and then the coach tells me he’s going to leave. So the new coach comes in, and we did not see eye to eye. I was totally disengaged from it. I don’t have anything bad to say about him or Bryant, it was just one of those situations. We were on different pages and I couldn’t even perform. And I ended up leaving school. I was just so tired of it, all the ups and downs, so I took a semester off. And I used that time to focus all my energy on myself.”

Turning It Around

Smith (far left) with his Fisk teammates and coaches. Credit: Tamara Reynolds (The Undefeated)

Self-reflection isn’t easy. But Malik Smith used the time away to find awareness for what he truly wanted to achieve in the next stage of his life. The number one priority was to finish his education, and if he could do that and still play the sport he loved then it would be the perfect situation:

“So one day I just ended up going on Google, searching for HBCU’s, and Fisk University popped up. I emailed the Athletic Director, and had an offer the next day. And I just committed! I had done my research on Fisk; it was a small school, a HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in the south, a new area, a new everything for me. I just jumped on it. My credits transferred over smooth and it was just perfect. I didn’t have to worry about the politics of basketball, I could just play my game.”

People may mistake Smith’s understanding of his own happiness as a weakness. But it absolutely says something about the dedication to his education and the sport he loves that a young man from Cleveland, Ohio would move to North Carolina, then to Rhode Island, and finally to Tennessee to achieve his ambition. Despite all the bumps in the road, Malik would not be deterred. As it turned out, his new home allowed him to be taught by an NBA legend:

“At the time I committed, Kenny Anderson was being named as the basketball head coach. Anderson had a fifteen year career in the NBA, and there I was playing for him in his first year. It was just fun again! I was in a happy place; a school I loved, a coach I loved, awesome teammates – I was blessed.”

An Advocate For Change

Tyreke Smith wearing the t-shirt his brother made. Credit: @T_23_Baller (Twitter)

As his willingness to discuss his mental health shows, Malik Smith isn’t afraid to talk about issues that others may be. With a lot on the line, NFL Draft prospects can be forgiven for portraying themselves in the least contentious light they possibly can. But that’s not Malik. If it’s important to him, he’s more than willing to get into it.

Back in 2017, at the beginning of the recent backlash in America against racial injustice, social inequality and police brutality, Smith made a t-shirt that had the slogan “I hope I don’t die for being black today” emblazoned on it. This t-shirt went viral when his brother Tyreke wore it to an Ohio State one-day training camp when he was an unsigned recruit. Malik was proud to tell me about how the t-shirt came about:

“I’m definitely an advocate for fairness and equality in society. ‘I hope I don’t get killed for being black today’, I mean, being a black man in America, it’s almost like you have a target on your back, and by that I mean in every aspect of life. We’re a target in the streets, a target in sports. And it’s important to try and get people to understand that. We have to do things differently, approach situations differently. We have to behave very carefully because, the reality of it is, they don’t care about us. So I made the t-shirt, and Tyreke wanted to wear it for the Ohio State day, which I was really proud of him for”.

As a white British male it’s hard for me to comprehend the fear that black families must live with on a daily basis, and it’s sobering to hear from Malik what we truly already know; that parents are compelled to teach their children how to avoid situations that, if their skin was a different colour, would not be considered dangerous. For Smith, this meant more than sports, and still does. And for his brother to stand with him against such terrible injustices when there was a lot on the line for his own personal future shows the solidarity that this family has. That bond would bring about an opportunity that has led Malik to the next stage in his life: aspiring to become a professional football player.

Football Focus

As mentioned, Malik’s younger brother Tyreke chose football as his path, and accepted a scholarship offer to go to Ohio State University. The Buckeyes are one of the nation’s biggest and most successful football programs, with eight national titles and forty-one division titles to their name. Something of a talent factory, Ohio State has produced seven Heisman Trophy winners and ninety consensus All-Americans. In Tyreke Smith’s four years there, this team made the College Football Playoffs twice. Following on from an excellent collegiate career the edge rusher declared for the 2022 NFL Draft, and is regarded as a highly touted prospect. In a roundabout way, Tyreke’s Buckeye career helped Malik begin the journey he is on today:

“I’ve always had a high respect for the game of football. I’ve watched it my whole life, played it when I was younger, and followed my brothers career. About six or seven months ago I was visiting Tyreke at Ohio State, and they have a basketball court inside the football facility. So I was working out on the court, and my brother was on the other side of the glass door working out on the football field, and the Tight End coach walks through. He turns to me and says ‘man, you’ve got some size, you can move – looks like you should be on a football field catching passes!’ This wasn’t the first time I’d heard that; Ty has always been in my ear telling me ‘bro, you should play football, I really think you could be a tight end’, but the opportunity had never presented itself before. It was such a long shot, I’d never considered it. But after the coach also mentioned it, literally I just got into the car one day and told Tyreke; ‘let’s do it’.

Smith called it ‘an epiphany’. From that moment on, football became his sole focus. If he wasn’t training or working out, he was watching it, learning about it, researching it. The passion with which he speaks about his new ambition tells me that this is anything but a fleeting interest – Malik is all in.

Learning From The Best

Malik training with Jermichael Finley (far right). Credit: @MalikSmith7_ (Twitter)

As we run through the list of all the examples of basketball players becoming tight ends, Malik Smith admits to being optimistic about the transition. Knowing that it’s a path that has been travelled on numerous occasions before gives him confidence he can be the next one to walk it:

“The more I researched it, especially at the tight end position, guys who took the same journey as me. Guys who played basketball all the way through high school and college and never stepped foot on a football field before they went to the NFL. I’ve studied all of those guys, and it has definitely given me inspiration for sure. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s one that can be done. And pretty successfully too. There are certain things that are very interchangeable when it comes to basketball and football; high pointing a ball for instance is just like grabbing a rebound. Boxing people out is the same in basketball – I’ve been doing that for years! Some of those things are second nature to me. Now it’s about getting to know the stuff I don’t know – how to move as a football player, the technique, the sticking and planting, the cutting and blocking, are all things I have to key in on. And the physicality, I mean that’s the biggest thing so far. The weightlifting alone has been crazy!”

To that end, Malik hasn’t only watched YouTube videos in his desire to improve. He started his football education working out with former Ohio State star Raheem Shabazz in Memphis, who focused on his technique and introduced him to combine drills. He’s also enlisted the help of former NFL tight end Jermichael Finley, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Green Bay Packers back in 2010. Smith is grateful to have worked with two guys who have been there, done that:

“Raheem helped me understand the approach I needed to take to this transition, and then being able to head over to Dallas to work with Jermichael – once the highest paid tight end in the NFL – it was such a blessing. Not many people can say they’ve worked with a guy like that. And Jermichael had the final say. He told me straight up from the get go; ‘I’m gonna tell you after this first session whether you have what it takes or if you’re wasting your time’. And of course I was a bit nervous but I just showed what I can do, put it into God’s hands and he was like ‘yeah you can do this. Now we’re on go time’. And that felt good!”

All Eyes On The Draft

Working with Jermichael Finley has opened up some doors to NFL teams that perhaps Smith wouldn’t have had otherwise. That validation from his trainer obviously gave him confidence, and similarly if a former Super Bowl winning tight end is singing your praises, then scouts will begin to take notice too. It also helps that Malik is represented by KLUTCH Sports Group and super agent Nicole Lynn, the same group that represents his brother too. The exposure his inner circle can provide will be critical to how his journey ends, and there’s no doubt he’s in good hands on that front. At 6’7” and 270lbs, he has the size to get people’s attention. Now he just needs an opportunity to showcase his athleticism, demonstrated perfectly by the one-handed catch above.

Malik tells me the next step for him and his team is to find a pro day he can attend. And whilst his sole focus is on making it as an NFL tight end, his previous life experience keeps him grounded. He knows that it’s a big hill to climb, and refreshingly he seems in a good place to handle the challenges ahead. He has other interests that act as a respite to the incessant training regime, the biggest being aviation; Smith has logged 47 hours of flight time as a pilot, a passion he developed during his time out of education, and has ambitions to open up a flight school once any football career has ended. In classic compassionate fashion, he explains that there aren’t that many pilots from ethnic minorities, and he’d love to give kids an opportunity to fly that they may otherwise never have had. Aside from the dedication involved, it’s just another example of the kind of conscientious, thoughtful person an NFL team might want to invest in.

But for now, it’s all football. And outside of the fresh body that Malik reminds me he brings to a football field, he’s leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of his new goal:

“I just wanna get better. Be a sponge, and soak up as much as I possibly can. I’m training with the best, as if I’m the best; attacking the film room, working as hard off the field as I am on it. Any team that takes a chance on me is gonna get a guy who is active in the community, because as you know I’m big on that. I feel like my curve to get better is through the roof. I started six months ago and I already made it this far – someone would be smart to take a chance on me and mould me into the football player that I know I can be.”

For a future pilot, the sky really is the limit for Malik Smith. Let’s hope we see him flying around an NFL field very soon.

Mock Draft





A huge thank you to Malik Smith for taking the time to talk to us, and a special thank you to Shakeemah Simmons-Winter for making it happen. Everyone at The Touchown wishes Malik well in his future career.