In a sport where size and ability increasingly go hand in hand, its refreshing to meet someone whose talent shines at any size. Known as "Super Gnat" due to his small stature (5-foot-7-inches and 154 pounds), Noland Smith proved he had the fight, drive and passion to play pro football. The Kansas City Chiefs picked the Jackson native up in the sixth round of the 1967 American Football League draft.
"That was the first time in the history of the AFL that they drafted a player solely as a punt-kick return specialist," Smith says.
At the time, Smith was the smallest player in the league. However, he had proved during his tenure as a receiver at Tennessee State University—then called Tennessee A&I University.
"I had an outstanding year my senior year there, which also enhanced my chances of making it in pro football," Smith says.
Smith led the AFL in kickoff return yardage with 1,360 yards while with the Chiefs. Smith is 18th on the NFL's all-time kick-return average list with 26.06 yards per return.
For Smith, football was a way to learn about life. "The summation of organized sports is that you learn to deal with different personalities while working for one common goal, and that's to win," he says. "You learn to agree to disagree and still work toward the same goal."
These days Smith, 69, works as the center coordinator at the Medgar Evers Community Center for the City of Jackson's Parks and Recreation Department. He's been at the center for 21 years and with the City of Jackson for a total of 43 years. He manages the gymnasium, community activities, a freestyle basketball program, community meetings and an after-school tutorial program for school-age kids.
"There are a percentage of my kids—sometimes it's pretty high—that are being raised by their grandparents," Smith says. "We want to make sure their homework is done here before they go home because sometimes the grandparents aren't able to help them."
Family is important to Smith, and a major reason he returned to his home state after leaving pro football. "My parents were getting up in age and I really wanted to be around them. ... And the atmosphere in the South was a lot more conducive to raising my kids," he says. "I decided that I wanted to come back home."
Smith and his wife, Gloria, celebrated their 50th anniversary last year. They have three children: Noland Jr., Tonya and Kevin; and three grandchildren: Jade, Noland III and Nikey.
As Smith prepares to retire from the City of Jackson at the end of September, he leaves with a positive view of his many years of service. "It's been a labor of love, (and) I'm going to miss it," he says.
He is also happy to see the revitalization efforts happening throughout Jackson. "Jackson holds a vast amount of potential," Smith says. "Some of the resources have not been tapped, yet."