Archdeacon: Bengals’ Smith gets words of wisdom from the ‘GOAT’

CINCINNATI — The person who prepped him for this very moment — the guiding light he called the OG GOAT — was waiting for him just outside the players’ entrance at Paycor Stadium late Sunday night.

Before that reunion, though, Irv Smith Jr. stood at his locker in the Cincinnati Bengals dressing room and, for the first time all season, answered post-game questions from the media that made him smile.

He had quickly prepped for this session by throwing a jacket over his bare upper torso which was covered with a mosaic of tattoos, a needle and ink mural that especially paid homage to his family and his NFL bloodline.

The OG GOAT (Old School, Greatest Of All Time) not only had schooled him on this give-and-take with the sporting press, but also on what he’d just done on the field.

His 7-yard touchdown reception early in the first quarter set the tone for the Bengals, who stayed one step ahead of the Buffalo Bills all night in what would end up a 24-18 Cincinnati victory.

Until Sunday night, Smith — who after four seasons as a Minnesota Vikings tight end had become the Bengals’ biggest free agent signing of the offseason –— had had little to smile about this season.

Coming into the game, he’d had just 10 catches for 57 yards and no scores.

His worst moment had come the previous Sunday in San Francisco when he caught a Joe Burrow pass just before halftime and promptly fumbled inside the 49ers’ 5-yard line, just as it seemed the Bengals would put the game away early.

Although Cincinnati did win, Smith’s miscue further magnified a belief by some that he was not the answer the team had been looking for as the tight end replacement of the departed Hayden Hurst.

Social media critics clamored for the Bengals to pick up another tight end before the NFL trade deadline.

Instead, the team elevated tight end Tanner Hudson off the practice squad on Wednesday.

Smith though said he was buoyed by those closest to him: “My teammates, my coaches, my family, everybody said, ‘You can make those plays. You’ve played a lot of football.’”

They told him he was ready for this moment and that goes way back to the OG GOAT.

Sunday night, after the media throng had left and he had time to reflect on his past, that’s what he called his grandma, Patricia Smith:

" She is an Old School GOAT. She’s seen all the generations. She put both her sons in the NFL and now her grandson is there, too. She knows football.

“When I was growing up, she’d have me in her house. She’d set me up and then she’d throw me touchdown passes. I’d celebrate with something like the Lambeau Leap.

“And then she’d come over and interview me. Her microphone was her TV remote.”

No Plan B

His dad — Irv Smith Sr. — was a Notre Dame tight end who was a first-round pick on the New Orleans Saints in the 1993 draft. Playing at 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, he was two inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than his son is now.

He played five seasons with the Saints, one with San Francisco and his last season (1999) was spent with the Cleveland Browns. He ended his career with 183 receptions for 1,788 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Irv. Sr.’s brother, Ed, was an NFL tight end, as well. He had turned down football offers from Penn State and Florida to initially pursue a professional baseball career. Primarily a third baseman, he played for the farm clubs of four big league teams — including the Cleveland Indians — and made it as high as Triple-A.

Once he switched to football, he spent three seasons in the NFL with Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

From the time he was little Irv Jr. said he was captivated by pro football:

“Seeing my dad’s footballs and helmets around the house, I got the dream when I was young and kept telling myself I was gonna make it to the NFL. too

“I remember in school the teachers would ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up and I’d always say, ‘Be a professional football player!’

“And the teachers would say, ‘Well, you got to have a Plan B, too,

“They didn’t think it was possible, but when you have a dad make it and an uncle play, as well, why not?”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

He said he didn’t have a real Plan B.

Although Smith’s parents split up when he was young and as a ninth grader, he would go to New Orleans to live with his mom, Rosalie Matamoros, he visited with his dad in Arizona often.

His father had told him he couldn’t play tackle football until the ninth grade but relented a year early. It wasn’t long before Irv Jr. was a standout at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans and that led him to Alabama, where he had a breakout junior season for the Crimson Tide — 44 catches for 710 yards — and then went pro.

His dad came to almost every college game, home and away, and he’s done the same now that his son is in the NFL.

He was there Sunday night along with his mom, Irv Jr.’s grandma, the “GOAT.”

He said he and his dad are best friends, which explains the large portrait of Irv Sr., from his days as a New Orleans Saint, inked on Jr’s left upper arm.

The two vacation together and along the way, Irv. Sr. has offered some sage football advice.

He urged his son to sign a free agent deal with the Bengals, rather than the Miami Dolphins, because he saw a need at tight end and said with Burrow at quarterback and a trio of top-flight receivers to draw coverage, the scenario was set for his son to prosper.

Smith signed a one year, $1.75 million deal, but he was hampered by injury early on and the fact that he had not had any training camp work with Burrow, who missed the whole prep session with his own injury.

The Bengals tight ends struggled as a whole in the early games this season and then came that fumble against San Francisco.

Smith said his most pointed advice came from his mom: “She always said, ‘You’ve got to hold that ball like a baby!’”

You wouldn’t drop a baby.

You don’t drop a football.

‘Winning makes everything better’

Burrow showed confidence in him in the Bengals’ first possession, connecting with him on a second-and-seven situation from the Bills’ 18. That 11-yard reception took the ball to the seven.

And on the very next play, Burrow came right back to Smith, who was one-on-one with the Bills safety Jordan Poyer. Smith caught the perfectly thrown ball in the back of the end zone, and then celebrated with teammate Tee Higgins, who led Cincinnati with eight catches for 110 yards Sunday, and they both did his trademark knee-knocking dance.

“It felt great,” he said. “That’s one of my favorite touchdowns.”

In the fourth quarter he nearly scored again when Burrow targeted him on second and goal from the Bills’ 10. He tight roped the sideline for eight yards before stepping out of bounds at the two.

Two plays later, the Bengals settled for a 20-yard Evan McPherson field goal.

“I’m still sick about missing that second one,” Smith said with a shrug and then a smile.

Twice before in his NFL career he’d had two touchdown games. Both — against New Orleans and Detroit — came when he was with the Vikings in 2020.

Sunday night the tight end corps had a stellar game: Drew Sample caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Burrow in the second quarter and the newly elevated Hudson had four catches for 45 yards.

The tight ends finally coming alive bodes well for the 5-3 Bengals, who have now won four in a row.

“Winning makes everything better,” Smith said. “It gives you confidence in the week that the work you put in is paying off.”

He said he’d learned that lesson already when he was young.

And with that he excused himself to go join the people who had taught him that.

“My dad and my grandma are waiting for me to go to the house,” he said with smile.

“It’s gonna be a good ride home.”

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