Spring 2021 Magazine

Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith leans on faith in good times and bad

Titans tight end Jonnu Smith is in his third season in the NFL, all with Tennessee, and it has been his best one yet. He’s already set career-highs with 22 receptions and 287 receiving yards through 10 games.

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Yet Smith’s journey to the bright lights of the NFL has been far from smooth. He had the opportunity to tell his story of faith and perseverance through trials on the Titans’ official website last week during the team’s bye week.

For Smith, those trials started at a young age. His father passed away in a tow truck accident when Smith was 4, leaving his mom to raise him and his five older siblings on the rough streets of inner-city Philadelphia.

Smith’s mother, Karen Smith, was determined to raise her children with a foundation of faith. They went to church and prayed together often. Smith admitted he didn’t always want to get up and go on Sunday mornings, but now he is grateful his mom made him do it.

“[Faith is] the foundation of everything I do,” Smith said, “and I am so thankful for the way I was raised because I lean on the things I learned as a kid today as a grown man.”

As Smith entered high school, another trial came his way — his mother decided to send him to live with her sister in Ocala, Fla. It provided a way for Smith to escape the dangerous Philadelphia streets and pursue his dream of playing football. His school in Philadelphia didn’t even have a football program while Florida is a high school football hotbed. The transition was tough for all involved, but Smith trusted in God to lead him through it.

“I am a man of faith, and I am a man of God,” Smith said, “and I truly believe that everything is ordained for a purpose.”

Smith’s football talent shined enough in Florida to earn a scholarship to Florida International University, where he excelled at tight end for four seasons, scoring 18 touchdowns.

Smith’s greatest loss in college, however, came far from a football field, in October 2016. His best friend since the age of 5, Willie “Quasim” Jefferson, was killed in Philadelphia roughly a block from the house in which Smith grew up.

“I still remember getting a call after we’d played a game and I was told my best friend, my lifelong friend, was just killed,” Smith said. “That hurt me, and it was tough to get through. I think about Willie all the time. … It also makes me keep my buddies back home in my prayers. I try to encourage them and lead them in the right direction because I understand what they are gong through. You just have to lean on your faith to get you through everything.”

In April 2017, the Tennessee Titans drafted Smith in the third round of the NFL Draft and, finally, Smith’s winding road toward the NFL had reached its end. But his troubles still weren’t quite over.

The Titans reached the AFC divisional round in Smith’s first season with Tennessee, but fell 35-14 to the Patriots. During the game, Smith tore his MCL. Then again last season, as running back Derrick Henry rumbled for a historic 99-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville, Smith injured his MCL and missed the remainder of the season.

The recoveries were arduous, but each time, Smith was on the field in Week 1 of the following season. He’s truly living his dream of playing in the NFL, and he knows God has been with him through every twist and turn along the way.

“Before every game I take a knee, say a prayer and I point up to the sky,” Smith said. “I actually pray before every play, for many reasons. I realize each play could be your last play, so I always want to thank God for the opportunity to give me another snap and thank Him for letting me play at this level and for blessing me in so many ways. I don’t take any play for granted, and I give God thanks.”

Even as he fell to the ground during Henry’s run and heard the roar of the crowd intensify, Smith closed his eyes and again gave thanks to the God who has always been his refuge and strength.

Smith and the Titans are coming out of their bye week at 5-5 and are a game behind the Colts and Texans in the AFC South. Tennessee’s opponent on Sunday is division-rival Jacksonville. Starting tight end Delanie Walker has not suited up since Oct. 13 due to an injured ankle and is questionable for this game, so Smith could again see extensive playing time.

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