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HERE'S A CHALLENGE: Imagine what it feels like to be 21 years old, extremely successful, famously wealthy, wildly stressed and unbearably miserable. How, you might wonder, can all those conditions exist simultaneously?
Start here, with Cowboys All-Pro offensive tackle Tyron Smith, talking to his mother on the phone one day in 2012, his second year in the NFL, during a time of growing tension between him and his family over money issues.
"We've found a house," Frankie Pinkney told her son.
By this stage, wariness had become as intrinsic to Smith's identity as his brown eyes and bookcase shoulders. Silently, he awaited details. He had agreed to purchase a home in Southern California for his mother and stepfather. They would live in it; he would own it as an investment. The agreed-upon budget was roughly $300,000, but over the course of the conversation, Frankie dropped the bomb. List price: more like $800,000.
Smith, now 23, is sitting at a polished wood table in the conference room of his lawyer's Dallas office. Surrounded by his girlfriend, financial adviser and lawyer, he fixes his eyes on a spot somewhere high on the floor-to-ceiling window. "Yeah, my parents wanted a house," Smith says. "But it was way bigger than mine and cost way more than mine."
It's not an easy topic for Smith to discuss -- recounting the conversation appears to be nearly as hard as being on the phone in the first place. He long ago gave up trying to pinpoint when it all went wrong, when the combination of family and money turned corrosive, when one ceased to exist without the other. He recites facts, stripped of emotion, as if determined to turn a painful time in his life into an after-action report.
"That call," he says. "That was the point where I said, 'That's enough.'"
At that precise moment, as he hung up the phone without giving his mother assent or encouragement, something hardened inside him. Reclaiming his finances, that was the easy part. Demystifying his new life -- being something other than a conduit for the wishes of those around him -- that was more complicated.
It works like this: We lack the linguistic dexterity to explain the myriad paths of young men who emerge from poverty -- or a simple lack of privilege -- and achieve riches by playing a game. When words fail us, a creation myth must fill the void, and so the modern professional athlete becomes our Sedna, a massive woman of Inuit legend who lives at the bottom of the ocean, controlling the underworld by providing fish to keep her people from going hungry. Our version of Sedna frees himself from the streets -- the temptations, the poverty, the turbulent flow of every Bad Part of Town -- through a ceaseless, unquenchable devotion to his sport. Visions of The Escape accompany every rep on the bench press, every free throw in an empty gym. In short, his life is a series of made-in-Akron, Beats by Dre moments.
Yes, he will rise up to leave it all behind, but here's where the mythological sleight of hand appears: He'll bring it all with him too. He can't forget where he came from. The myth mandates loyalty and strikes down the ingrate.
And all those people who toiled alongside, those who believed in him and sheltered him and sacrificed for him? They'll also come along, for he's the sin-eater, absorbing all debts -- moral and financial -- so others can be absolved. And his people will never go hungry again.
IT LONG AGO became easier for an athlete to subscribe to this myth than to defy it with his personal story. Easier to nod and smile and tacitly agree to be a benign receptacle for our society's need to bundle its fairy tales into color-coded boxes. Why else would newly minted professional athletes -- and let's cut the pretense: It's nearly always young black athletes -- invariably be asked whether they've bought their mother a new house? Or a new car? Or both? Does anyone know whether Aaron Rodgers moved his stay-at-home mother and chiropractor father out of their Chico, California, home and into a beach mansion? Has anyone ever thought to ask?
But could it be possible, ever so slightly possible, that athletes who come from similar backgrounds can have wildly dissimilar stories?
Smith's story is best told chronologically. And it begins, as so many do, in a van filled with cleaning supplies rattling down a desolate highway somewhere in the Mojave Desert.
Smith spent much of his elementary school years working for the family business. Pinkney's Cleaning Service specialized in cleaning new buildings after construction was complete but before tenants moved in. Family members would often climb into that van, drive from their home in Moreno Valley, California, to Phoenix or Sacramento or anywhere in between, clean a building and then pile back into the van for a return drive that could last seven hours. They'd pull into the driveway at 4 or 5 a.m., and Tyron and his five siblings -- a mixture of half brothers, half sisters, stepbrothers and stepsisters -- would be at school by 8.
Introspective and shy, bigger than his peers, Tyron felt detached, like an asset rather than a son, someone valued primarily for his ability to clean tall windows. The detachment might have been rooted in a moment he was too young to remember: the death of his father, Jerry Lee Smith, when Tyron was a year old. Tyron was told that Jerry Lee was murdered and that someone is in prison for the crime, assertions he's been unable to substantiate.
"Growing up, it's hard to feel separated," he says. "You don't know which direction to go. ... It got really complicated. I was the one who always asked, 'Can I get my own job? Can I do my own thing?' I didn't want to work in the janitorial business my whole life."
Smith doesn't remember watching football as a kid; he had neither the time nor the inclination. He was too big for Pop Warner, and besides, there were van rides to take and windows to reach. But he began to play in high school, and his size and natural ability immediately meshed with his work ethic. He didn't so much find football as it found him. He was huge and nimble, eventually reaching 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, and by his junior year everyone had a pretty good idea where this was headed.
He was excused from janitorial work if he had a weekend camp to attend, and he remembers thinking, "It was a little weird they let me do my own thing." When he's asked if that created friction between him and his siblings, he says, "It probably did, but I never knew about it." It sounds like the first time this possibility has occurred to him.
Was this the beginning of Tyron's embrace of the myth? When he climbed into the van after Friday night games, heading for another empty building, did he close his eyes and dream of The Escape, when he could direct schools of fish to the surface and rid everyone of this burden?
"When I was out there, I was just enjoying playing," Smith says. "For me, playing a sport was my own space, away from reality. You don't have to worry about anything because you're out there, and you can just play freely."
He did it well enough to earn a scholarship to USC, and in his junior season, something shifted in the family dynamic. NFL decision makers began seeing Smith, with his 85-inch wingspan and sub-5.0 speed in the 40, as a potential first-round pick in the 2011 draft. The conversation at home took on a sharper edge. Family members wondered how much he might get and what percentage of that they might get. There was talk of cars and houses and jewelry. "All of a sudden, people's perception of me started to change," Smith says.
As Leigh Costa, Smith's girlfriend, puts it, "He's always told me he felt like nobody ever really cared about him until coaches started saying, 'You could be really good.'"
HE PLAYED ALONG with the myth. Everyone else was, so what choice did he have? When he was chosen No. 9 in the draft, he was 20, the youngest player in the NFL. He signed a four-year, $12.5 million contract, bought his mom a Range Rover and vowed to pay off his parents' mortgage and retire the family's debts. "I didn't think I owed them anything," Smith says. "I just really wanted to help out. I know how hard the struggle is, and growing up we always had to worry about debt. That was my thing: Use this money to pay off your house, pay your debt and be free of all that stuff."
Later, Smith discovered the money he provided wasn't used for those purposes. Asked how it was spent, Smith shrugs, betraying no emotion. "We don't know," he says. A direct line could be drawn connecting that moment to the moment he hung up the phone because it marked the beginning of a gradual erosion of trust and control. His humanity vanished beneath a barrage of requests. He was no longer son or brother or friend. He began to feel like a human Santa list, robbed of his capacity to be generous.
"The things that were asked for as gifts shocked me," he says. "All I could think to say was, 'Hey, that sounds really expensive.'"
He paid for airline tickets so strangers and near strangers could accompany his parents to games in Dallas. He paid for game tickets (players get only two comps), parking and food. He paid for hotel rooms or let the guests stay in his home.
"Tyron deferred to the mom, who deferred to the stepdad, who had his own mindset on what he deserved and what he should get," says a family associate with knowledge of the situation. "Tyron's a great kid. He was young and overwhelmed."
And so he relented. The myth, after all, demanded he remember where he came from, and a sort of achiever's guilt took over. His family was still back in Moreno Valley, still doing the job he had worked so hard to avoid. He started to think: Maybe I don't deserve all this money. When his financial adviser would call for authorization to transfer funds to his family, he'd say, "Yeah, just transfer it over." They wore him down. Inside, it tore him up.
Studies indicate that 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt within two years of retirement. How many of those bankruptcies can be attributed to the gradual erosion of control, the constant drip of family and friends asking for money and the unwillingness to confront it? John Schorsch, Smith's lawyer, estimates that the family received roughly $1 million from Tyron's accounts over one year.
"I'm not trying to be hurtful, but I'm not making this money so other people can live off it," Smith says. "You have to understand: This game doesn't last long at all."
AFTER HIS ROOKIE year, Smith was moved from right tackle to left, a huge promotion in an offensive lineman's world. When he texted his parents to tell them, the response he received did not convey joy or congratulations. Instead, it referenced his next contract and how it would be bigger now that he was playing a more valuable position. "It was hard to have a straight-up conversation," Smith says. "I love my family -- I do -- but I didn't love what they became."
A financial adviser who works with numerous professional athletes says, "As players get more, their families want to be paid more. People lose their humanity. We call some family members 'backup point guards' because that's how they believe they should be paid."
Smith's issues went beyond money. Costa, four years Smith's senior and a former account executive for a Dallas sports radio station, was caught in a story as old as time: She, the newcomer, brunette and pretty, was blamed for separating him from his family and controlling his life and finances. Members of his family allegedly made death threats against her. "I brought her into the middle of all this stuff," Smith says. "They bashed her any way possible, and she didn't do anything wrong."
After his mother's request for the $800,000 home, Smith made a last-ditch effort. He placed a call to Moreno Valley, saying, "I love you all, and you mean the world to me, but all this money stuff is stressing me out. Can we just have a great relationship?"
But the lines had been drawn. "We kept getting voice mails and emails threatening all kinds of things," Costa says. Smith and Costa enlisted Schorsch to handle the legal affairs. They cut ties with Smith's financial adviser and made the myth-defying move of hiring Bill Saplicki, a Dallas financial adviser who was recommended to Costa and who works primarily with doctors and dentists and precisely one professional athlete.
In the summer of 2012, Schorsch filed to have a protective order placed against Smith's parents and siblings, prohibiting them from having contact with him. The event that precipitated the protective order occurred on June 16 when Smith's mother and stepfather confronted him publicly while he was working at a youth football camp at his alma mater, Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley. "We did as little as possible to accomplish as much as possible," Schorsch says. And yet on the night of Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, with Smith at the team hotel on the eve of a home game against the Giants, two of his sisters arrived unannounced at the home Smith shared with Costa in North Dallas.
The doorbell rang, and Costa looked through the glass in the door and froze.
"You need to let us in this house," one of them said.
"Why?" Costa answered. "You've made threats against my life. I don't know what you have on you right now, and your brother's not here."
Costa said she called the police after the women repeatedly said, "We're not leaving until you let us in." Three days later, on Tuesday afternoon, two of Smith's sisters were among three people who returned to the house. This time, Smith called 911 and police cited the women for disorderly conduct. A Dallas police report noted that Smith's sisters were there to "harass and torment ... in the pursuit of collecting financial gain."
Frankie Pinkney turned down an interview request. She directed questions to her manager, Mark Wayne, who runs an entertainment company with offices in Seattle and New York. Pinkney, according to Wayne's website, is part of a group attempting to sell a reality show called Football Moms. "She's been painted as an extortionist to her own son, which is not true," Wayne says. "There's so much friction between her and her son. She loves her son with all her heart and wants to reunite. I don't think she's had a fair shake."
Wayne refused to elaborate, except to say, "The truth will come out. It's not for me to share; it's for Frankie. She took the heat for a lot of stuff. Her reputation has been damaged."
What is she waiting for? "She needs to heal," Wayne says. "A lot of healing needs to take place."
LESS THAN 48 HOURS after a tough Monday night loss to the Redskins on Oct. 27, Smith exhibits the second-day inertia of an NFL offensive lineman. It's quite a contrast. On game day, he's powerful and punishing, remarkably light on his feet -- like a dancing oak. Two days later, he lowers himself into his chair slowly, as if every vertebra moves independently. "My back -- ooh," he says, wincing. "Really stiff today."
Schorsch has a standard answer when questioned about Smith's financial responsibility to his family. "I am certain none of them ever took a hit for him," the attorney says. "None of them had to get a shot so they could get up and go to work. And they're not entitled to share in this. No matter what they did, they're not taking the risk."
That risk, short- and long-term, is significant. In his fourth year as a pro, Smith has already had a career longer than the NFL average according to the NFL Players Association. He has avoided serious injury but has had periodic ankle issues. Sedna might live forever, but an offensive tackle is not as lucky.
Smith is mellow, with the voice of a late-night DJ on a smooth-jazz station. He is almost allergic to attention; rather than speak to reporters, he sometimes stays in the training room after practice or games while a team employee delivers his clothes. He plays with a composed, almost detached air, like a man at peace with the violence of his profession. (During a game in late October, however, he did trade punches with Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.) His ability is unquestioned: He is widely considered one of the top three offensive tackles in the game, and for his play against the Seahawks in Week 6, he became the first offensive lineman in 10 years to be named offensive player of the week.
He treats money the way most people treat a gym membership: It's there, and he'll use it if he needs it. In July, he signed an eight-year extension, making his contract now worth a potential $109 million, with $22.1 million of that guaranteed. Many in the business felt the deal was too team-friendly -- Pro Football Talk called it "nuts" -- because it leaves one of the league's brightest young stars with no bargaining power for an entire decade. But the criticism fails to account for Smith's loyalty to Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, whose security team has assisted Smith and Costa and was once called on to remove one of Smith's brothers from the team's training camp in Oxnard, California.
Smith, who drives a Jeep he gets as part of an endorsement deal, values stability and craves normalcy. When he goes out to a four-star restaurant for a weekly dinner with Cowboys offensive linemen, they tease him for wearing clothes Leigh has chosen. "I have no style whatsoever," he says, holding his hands out to show off his workout shirt, sweats and shower shoes. "The guys know I don't dress myself. I wish it was like the early '90s, when you could wear jumpsuits."
When Costa asks him if he likes something -- whether it's a couch or a shirt or a toaster -- he answers her question with a question. To demonstrate, Smith holds a coffee cup over the table and says, "It could be something as cheap as this mug, and my first question is, 'How much does it cost?'"
"You're very conservative," Saplicki says.
"No," Smith corrects. "Cheap."
"I know the amount of money I make in the NFL could be over any day," Smith says. "It has to be put aside for me later down the line or for when I have a family."
Listen to Smith long enough and you'll pick up a pattern: He repeatedly uses the word "work" to describe what he does. He says it so often, it begins to feel intentional, or maybe it's a reflexive response to the weight of his success. The distance between the word "work" and the word "play" is immense: He plays football for a living, while the nonsports world -- the janitorial world, for one -- goes to work. "I saw the daily struggle," he says. "It taught you to live within your means and know what it means to actually earn a dollar."
The demystified truth is this: He suits up for the Cowboys not because he loves football necessarily; he's playing because he's damn good at it. For the love of the gameis largely an external phenomenon anyway, promoted by those who link generational bonding and the passage of time to a particular uniform. No matter how much it gets sexed up -- and in Dallas, in Jerry's world, they do their best -- there is nothing romantic about slamming your massive body into another massive body as a way of making a living. It's exactly what Smith says it is -- work -- and he speculates that half the players in any NFL locker room would walk away from the game if they were offered the same pay to do something else.
Is that heretical? Or is that how myths die and reality survives?
Understand this: Smith wasn't eager to talk. Things are quiet, the way he likes them. The stress is gone. He can go home and hang out with his rescue dogs -- he and Costa have five, including a 110-pound French mastiff named Beast -- and not worry about the next phone call or knock on the door.
But he knows his story is important. When he finishes playing, he's got an idea to travel the country telling it to top college players. He wants them to know that he said no and they can too. He wants them to know it's OK to stand up to the pressures from family and friends. He wants them to take control of their money and understand how long it has to last.
"It's so personal, and nobody really talks about it," Smith says. "'Hey, this sibling or family member is screwing me over.' You won't hear that, but it's a real issue. I'm not trying to bash my family at all, but it's hard to talk about this without doing that. And a lot of people aren't willing to tell their story."
It's getting late. The traffic in the throbbing Metroplex, 13 floors below, is starting to ease. Smith begins the process of standing, his back working like an elevator in a fleabag motel, refusing to be rushed. The men in suits stand at his sides like reverse bodyguards, and Smith says, "It's OK to say no," as if to remind himself one more time.