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A promise.

Antowain Smith probably would not be in the NFL without it.

It's what helped the Buffalo Bills rookie running back overcome the fact he missed out on major-college scholarship opportunities coming out of high school.

It's what convinced him to back out of a commitment to join the U.S. Air Force as an 18-year-old.

It's what motivated him to re-start his athletic career after spending 3 1/2 years working in a textile plant.

The promise was a vow Smith made to his dying grandmother to go to college.

The long road he took in fulfilling it is his unusual success story.

Smith's mother, Linda Lykes, was 16 when she gave birth to Antowain (pronounced An-twon). She was not ready to raise a family, so her baby son was raised by her parents, John and Clara Smith. They lived in the small town of Millbrook, Ala., just north of Montgomery.

Clara worked in the high school cafeteria while Antowain was growing up. She was a hard-working woman, but the Smiths were a very poor family. John Smith, Antowain's grandfather, was disabled. He had lost an arm in a workplace accident.

Antowain maintained a close relationship with his mother, who moved to Georgia, but his grandmother was the driving force in his life.

"I was definitely a country kid," Antowain said. "My grandmother always had me working in the garden picking peas and other stuff. We had a very special relationship.

"I used to kid with my grandmother all the time. Sometimes I'd walk up behind her and hug her and say, 'What are you cooking today?' I miss her cooking a lot. She'd say, 'You ain't done nothing all day, why don't you do some work around the house?' I just remember messing with her, watching TV with her, laughing with her a lot."

Smith was a good athlete growing up, but basketball was his game, not football. In fact, he didn't even play football until his senior year at Elmore High School.

"I didn't like the idea of having a ball in my hands and having somebody chasing me," he said. "I didn't much like the contact in football.

"Finally, my senior year, all my friends on the football team were telling me, 'You're too scared to come out.' I told them, 'Man, if I come out, I'll be the starting tailback right away.' "

That's exactly what happened.

"I kept after that rascal to come out for the team," says Elmore coach Jimmy Foschee. "He was a big-play player, the fastest kid I ever timed -- 4.3 in the 40. One game, we fell behind on a touchdown in the final minute. The other team kicked off, and Antowain ran back the kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to win it."

Elmore went 10-3 and Smith got a scholarship offer from Auburn. However, he couldn't meet all the academic requirements. Division II Jacksonville State signed him. But it turned out Smith would have to go back to high school for another semester before college.

In the meantime, he and one of his buddies decided to join the Air Force.

"I did everything," Smith said. "I passed the test. I passed the physical. I did everything but swear in. But I pulled out at the last minute."

The health of Smith's grandmother had been failing since she suffered a stroke during his sophomore year of high school. It kept her from working. And she required dialysis for a failing kidney. She and her husband needed support.

"I decided I can't do this," Smith said. "I can't leave my grandparents at home like this. So I stayed home and got a job. . . . My grandmother's biggest dream for me always was to go to school. She told me the longer you sit around, there's more of a chance you might not go. But she knew the reason I didn't go back then. I promised her I would go back. I told her I'd go back when she got better."

Smith worked the 3 to 11 p.m. shift dying cloth at a nearby factory. He made $5.50 an hour. He'd take $20 or $30 a week for himself and turn over the rest of his paycheck to his grandparents to pay their medical bills.

"I was hanging with my friends, and I really wasn't giving football that much thought," Smith said. "I was doing what I felt I had to do."

The health of Clara Smith kept deteriorating. Finally, in June 1993, she died at age 70.

"She had been suffering," Smith said. "At the end, I couldn't really stand to go to the hospital and look at her. She had so many tubes in her. I'd walk in and start crying at the door because I hated to see her like that.

"When she passed away, the one thing that stuck in my mind was that she always wanted me to go to school. I knew the one thing I could do that would make her the most proud was to go back to school."

Fortunately for Smith, his high school coach, Foschee, had never forgotten about him. He arranged a tryout at East Mississippi Junior College, about three hours east of Millbrook in Scooba, Miss.

"I figured that was the closest program to home and the place he might have the best chance of staying," Foschee said.

It was the spring of 1994. Smith was 22.

"I'll never forget that tryout day," said East Mississippi coach Tom Goode, a former NFL center. "As soon as he walked up, it didn't take a genius to see this guy had the tools. It was raining. We put him on the grass and water was everywhere, it was up to our ankles in some spots. There were no starting blocks. He ran the 40 and water and mud were splattering all over him. My watch said 4.5 seconds. I said, 'Lord, what a deal.' I told him, 'The tryout is over. You can come here.' "

Smith arrived in late summer for the start of practice. It was not the big time.

"That was in the middle of no-where," Smith said. "They had one store. It was your convenience store, your gas station, everything. All of downtown Scooba was that store. My first day after practice, I wanted to go home so bad. In fact, I called back home for somebody to come get me. Nobody would come. But if anybody had come to get me that day, I'd have never gone back."

Smith had grown to a sturdy 225 pounds and had a fine year, gaining 1,100 yards.

That earned him an athletic grant to the University of Houston. Smith liked the rebuilding Cougars' program because he was likely to get good playing time there and he was impressed by coach Kim Helton, who had spent 10 years as an NFL assistant with Tampa Bay, Houston and the Raiders.

Smith's junior season was hindered by a sore Achilles tendon, but he showed promise by gaining 608 yards for a 2-9 team.

Helton knew Smith was capable of much more.

"I told him, 'If you help me fix this football team by leading it, I'll use my credibility in the NFL to help you make it as a pro,' " Helton said. "From that point on, he became the hardest worker on the team. I told him, 'When I chew your butt out in practice in front of everyone, I want you to say, 'Yes, sir.' You do that, and the rest of the team will follow your example.' "

"I never really took the sport seriously until my senior year at Houston," Smith said. "Coach Helton told me I had to dedicate myself to working hard. So after that junior year, I stayed at school all summer, got a job and worked out every day on conditioning. I had never been a dedicated weight lifter until then. It paid off my senior year."

Smith rushed for 1,239 yards and 14 touchdowns and led the Cougars to the Liberty Bowl.

"The good thing about Antowain is he takes the coaching that's given to him," Helton said. "When he made a mistake, it was always his fault. He never said, 'But I didn't know this' or 'Somebody else didn't do that.' He took responsibility."

Impressive showings in the Senior Bowl and at the NFL scouting combine in March prompted his draft stock to skyrocket. The Bills made him the 23rd choice in the first round.

"If the guy had a give-up, let-go-of-the-rope attitude, he'd have sunk a long time ago because he had plenty of chances," said Dwight Adams, Bills director of player personnel. "I like guys that have some sic 'em in 'em, guys who are gonna play for you in the fourth quarter when it's cuttin' time. That's what he's got."

At training camp in July, the 25-year-old Smith signed a five-year contract that will pay him an average of about $1 million a year. The first thing he did upon signing was call his mother.

"That contract made it official," Smith said. "I had made it to the NFL. I'm grateful because I had to go through a lot to get here."

"He was a great poor kid," Helton said. "I hope he becomes a great rich one."

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