Bevel Code adventures usually involve a lot of driving and unexpected detours and surprises, but this latest adventure took us all over the Tri-State area and beyond on the East Coast. Bevel’s Creative Director Mari and I started early in New York City and made our way through the Holland Tunnel and New Jersey to our final destination—South Philly. I didn’t realize until later that this road trip mirrored Brad Smith’s journey with the NFL; he started out with the New York Jets and ultimately landed with the Eagles here in Philly just last year.
Everything I know about Philly boils down to three things two of my closest friends have taught me: 1) How to properly order a cheesesteak without embarrassing yourself (“whiz wit” means you want Cheez Whiz and onions , “whiz witout” means Whiz but no onions), 2) The merits of Wawa (not sure why a sub sandwich from a gas station/convenience store is so great yet but I’ll take their word for it), and 3) How to use the word “jawn,” which is a staple of Philly slang (jawns are used interchangeably for all different types of things or people, like “The whole jawn came down”). I also know a ton of random trivia about Benjamin Franklin but that’s neither here nor there.
We arrive at the original outpost of Tony Luke’s in South Philly, which looks frozen in time. It’s a classic, family-owned and operated eatery, situated in an industrial area of South Philly right on the street corner with shiny red benches and tables. It’s unpretentious, straightforward, and clearly a landmark for locals and visitors alike. The delicious smell of cheesesteaks and other grilled and fried eats makes it a no-brainer for hungry workers in the area.
For a town that’s obsessed with the eternal battle for cheesesteak supremacy between Pat’s and Geno’s, it’s nice to go somewhere not mobbed by tourists. Everyone inside seems like a regular on their lunch break. Brad shows up with his spunky nephew Jayden, who has just finished the first grade, and no one bats an eye or really looks up from their sandwiches.
Speaking of tourists, a busload of them promptly gets dropped off right as I think to myself, “Oh good, it’s not too busy today” and a long line for cheesesteaks and broccoli rabe materializes out of nowhere. Tony Luke Jr. himself shows up to personally greet Brad and shake hands with everyone in the joint. It’s a super-meta moment when I realize I’ve been looking at posters of Tony Luke Jr. trying to electrocute a fish with donuts while riding the subway all week long. He’s been making the rounds to promote his new Spike TV show, Frankenfood, and the promotional posters are plastered all over New York City and Brooklyn as well as Philly. I haven’t watched the show yet but I’ve gathered that it involves extreme food mashups like French toast stuffed with grilled shrimp.
Brad’s got a brilliantly disarming smile and it’s clear that he’s Jayden’s favorite uncle or at least in the top three (apologies in advance to all of Jayden’s other uncles). His laid-back outfit is well-edited. It comes down to the little details—a soft, heathered grey long-sleeve tee, a tailored pair of G-Star jeans, and coordinating Nike Flyknit kicks. He’s effortlessly stylish, which requires more effort than meets the eye.
The busload of tourists that just disembarked immediately swarms Tony Luke for photos because they, too, have recognized him from TV promos and posters. Everyone starts whispering, “Who’s the guy next to him?” “It’s Brad Smith,” we tell them. “He’s the wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles.” A few of the tourists who are visiting from overseas draw a blank so I add, “He’s an NFL player. Football.” They nod and whip out their cameras to snap photos of him. Who can blame them? It’s entirely possible they think he’s a soccer player, since the World Cup is going on.
Tony Luke starts mugging for the camera and insists Brad get in photos with him. They start discussing the finer points of New York versus Philly, since Tony has been taping his show there and Brad started his career there. “There’s nothing like the intensity of New York. That was a good place to start,” Brad comments. The topic switches to food and Tony confides, “I gained 28 pounds just filming the show.”
Brad takes a bite of Tony Luke’s famous sandwich while his nephew eats fries on the bench next to him. I ask him about True Foundation, the philanthropic organization he co-founded and runs with his wife, Dr. Rosalynn Smith. “It’s seven years old—we just wanted to help kids who didn’t really have direction and needed some guidance, so we put the foundation together and had the football camp first. The next year, we had a foundation established and did everything from there.” He takes another bite of his Tony Luke pork sandwich. I gotta admit, my stomach is beginning to growl.
“We have a football camp, giveaways…we feed hungry families and provide food for homeless shelters,” Brad says. “My wife eventually started a life skills class for young women, so they can learn about grooming, how to handle yourself on social media, networking, resume building, goal-setting, dressing professionally and all those types of things. Then we have CEOs and high-level execs who are female speak to them.”
His humility is striking and inspiring in an industry that’s often dominated by loudmouths, inflated egos, and media antics. It’s encouraging to hear someone so grounded in giving back to his community in an authentic way that’s clearly not just for show. Brad is known for his versatility on the football field, but it’s apparent that he’s versatile off the field, too.
His multifaceted interests are obvious when we talk about his involvement with Men’s Health Magazine. He started as an intern in the off-season during 2013, covered New York Fashion Week, and eventually became a contributor with the magazine. To hear a professional athlete go on record to say that he’s got a budding interest in fashion, design, and business is one thing. But to sees someone follow up on that passion with action is another thing entirely…which is exactly what he has done.
Brad Smith may not be known as a man of many words, but he has a wicked sense of humor. A recent Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session with him had a user posing the question, “How does it feel to be one of the few NFL players to have an exceptionally normal/common full name?” Brad slyly replied, “Weird. I thought of changing it to Hingle McCringleberry,” alluding to an epically hilarious sketch by comedian duo Key & Peele. There are lesser-known stories like how Brad was born with severely clubbed feet and doctors told his parents he would never walk, let alone run. He never brings this up unless someone asks him directly about the most difficult challenge he’s overcome in life.
We discuss how sports science is changing the game for professional athletes in the NFL. Eagles’ coach Chip Kelly has drawn a lot of media and fan attention for introducing sports science to his players, which involves incorporating physiology, biometrics, diet/nutrition, and psychology into sports medicine and preventing injury and optimizing performance. The result so far? The team got through the season with few injuries as a whole and ran fast, long-distance plays that were notable and impressive. Everyone has taken note of the Eagles’ regimen and resulting performance on the field.
“I did a lot of that stuff anyway, but before it was kinda like you were doing it extra on your own and now everybody is doing it, ” Brad comments. It’s part of the program. I think it’s great. All the measurements they do, the hydration gets measured every day, how your body is recovering…you have to check in every day just to make sure you’re where you need to be. Some things you can’t control since your body is recovering internally and they monitor all of that, which is interesting.”
It’s time for a change of scenery. Brad needs a quick haircut and a shave, so he suggests visiting his local barber.
We follow (and promptly lose) Brad as he drives to his local barbershop on South 20th Street, Faheem’s Hands of Precision. Everyone’s here on a Monday afternoon at the shop—men, women, and even babies snoozing in their carriers. A young kid assisting the barbers carefully sweeps the floor and diligently makes sure the door is closed to keep the warm, muggy air out of the shop. Faheem gives Brad a warm welcome; we learn that Faheem happens to be the go-to barber for The Roots as well as Tracy Morgan.
Like Brad, Faheem the barber is extremely humble, especially when it comes to his famous clientele and his accomplishments. Faheem proudly tells me that he’s had his shop for 14 years; he’s seen kids grow up in this neighborhood after they get their first job from him. Brad gets a quick clean-up from the barber with a straight razor. It’s a tight-knit community that looks out for each other. They believe in paying it forward, because it really does take a whole community to raise these kids and set a good example. Brad reflects on what fatherhood has meant to him so far.
“My son is three now. I was super excited when he was born and now that we’re past the stage where he only needed Mommy, it’s now all Daddy this, Daddy that, ‘Daddy, I wanna go with you,’ which has been a lot of fun. He really helped me to open my heart up and he has someone to rely on, emotionally and spiritually. He’s learning everything from me.”
As his barber carefully dusts him off and removes the cape, I ask Brad what words of advice he has for his son Alex and his toddler daughter Brea.
“Just always believe in yourself. Have that confidence and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to fail—that’s all it is; it’s just a word and you can always bounce back and have a chance to be successful. Never be afraid.”
Brad lucked out and met his wife Rosalynn during their college years at Missouri. They met at church, he says. “It was real cool. I saw her and didn’t say anything to her; I just kept trying to get closer to say something and then I used my own tactics to get her to talk to me.” His eyes twinkle. “Once I got her to talk to me, she didn’t have a chance. Just talking and spending time with her, I realized she’s so smart…and she’s a doctor.”
We talk a little more about how his faith has shaped his journey. Brad smiles and says, “It’s everything. It shaped every aspect of my life and my family’s life. How we view the world is because of our faith. Like I was saying, there’s nothing to be afraid of, because God makes the final decision, but everyone else is on the same level. That’s the most important thing to me.”
“I just think faith is a progression,” Brad continues. “With anything in life experiences, things either go deeper or you go away from it. For me, it’s gone deeper.” He sees everything as a blessing, even the challenges that are blessings in disguise. Whether you’re religious or spiritual or not at all, there is something to be said about having perspective and believing that things will work out in the end. You just have to keep going.
Six Really Random Questions with Brad Smith
1. If you could go back in time and play any game for any sport, which one would it be?
I would play Jordan’s last championship game (in Utah against the Jazz) and I would take the game-winning shot. I mean, I wouldn’t take it from him, but duh, it’s my dream.
2. Who would you want to meet, if you could meet anyone from history?
I’d want to meet Jesus. He’s a pretty big deal.
3. You’re the only player in NFL history to score touchdowns on a kickoff return, reception, rush, blocked punt return and pass. What would you rather do, catch a touchdown or throw one? Which is more satisfying?
It doesn’t matter—they’re all great.
4. Say you are only allowed five articles of clothing for the next year, which will magically not fall apart. What are they?
I’d have a real simple long-sleeve t-shirt, one pair of jeans (medium wash, not slim-fit), a light jacket, a heavy jacket, and a white dress shirt. Classic.
5. Your coach, Chip Kelly, is known for playing songs during practice to simulate crowd noise. What’s your favorite song? What’s a song you’d request if you could?
My favorite song that Chip plays now is called “Nice To Know You” or something; it’s a Caribbean-Hawaiian type song. [Editor’s Note: It’s “Let’s Do It Again” by J Boog. Thanks, Google.]
If I had my choice, it would be an artist named Lecrae and any of his songs, like “I’m Turnt.”
6. Your Eagles’ teammate Evan Mathis is known for pranking the media with stunts like tweeting fake dinner receipts for $64,000. How is he in the locker room? Still a prankster?
Not blatant ones that I’ve seen—he’s pretty mellow, and doesn’t say a whole lot. That’s what makes it pretty funny, because you never expect it from him.