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Inside Slant: For Robert Smith, no end to the path for health

Robert Smith, who retired after the 2000 season and has battled alcoholism, helped develop a mobile app that uses pro sports passion and competition to encourage improved health from its users. AP Photo/Jim Mone

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The date was May 22, 2012. Robert Smith had been retired for 12 years, having halted his NFL career to preserve his health after an injury-filled tenure with the Minnesota Vikings. But for what? He was now an alcoholic and destroying his body in a different way.

Smith's decision to get sober on that day nearly three years ago incorporated a matrix of concerns, ranging from his wife's pregnancy to memories of his own father's substance abuse. Part of it, however, was about realigning his post-retirement life with the reason it began in the first place.

"When you're an alcoholic and you drink," he said, "you're putting your life in jeopardy and the lives of others in jeopardy. Whether it's liver damage or it getting so bad that it's tough to function and simply move around when you're inebriated, it was definitely a consideration."

That moment of clarity cleared a path that has brought Smith to this week, when a health-related mobile app he helped develop will ramp up operations. The Fan Health Network will use pro sports passion and competition to encourage improved health from its users. Its first contest launches Friday.

"For me," Smith said, "this has really been a lifelong passion."

In a phone conversation this week, Smith traced that interest to his youngest days. His mother was a nurse. He followed a pre-med curriculum at Ohio State. And at the end of the 2000 NFL season, the best of his career and the first time he had made it through all 16 games, doctors delivered startling news: He needed knee surgery for the second time in three years and the third time in his eight-year career.

Worried he would need knee replacement in his 40s, a fate not uncommon for retired NFL running backs, Smith -- 28 at the time -- passed on a multi-million dollar contract offer and walked away. He has had two maintenance-related surgeries since but said the decision validates itself every day.

"I've got a 5 year old and a 3 year old, and I can run with them and chase them without a problem," Smith said. "That's what I wanted to be able to do. It has been a blessing to have good health."

Retirement might have preserved his knees, but its attendant surplus of time permitted a vice to expand. In his final NFL season, Smith had grown into a heavy but organized drinker. He chose his nights strategically: Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, all of which preceded a day off or a light practice schedule. Few knew, and it was hardly evident on the field: Smith rushed for a career-best 1,521 yards. He totaled 1,869 all-purpose yards amid 343 touches and scored 10 total touchdowns for a team that advanced to the NFC Championship Game.

"Then I retired," he said, "and it got worse. When I was playing, especially my last year, I could control the days I would drink. Once I had time to do pretty much whatever I wanted, it was getting more and more difficult to do anything but drink."

Attempts at sobriety came and went. Smith's most recent effort came five days before his son was born and has lasted to this day. Smith, an ESPN college football analyst, revealed his struggle publicly in an emotional live television appearance.

By that time, via coincidence or providence or design, Smith was already working to develop a business revolving around personal health. A few months after re-committing to sobriety, he encountered a traveler in an airport who showed him how mobile apps were becoming interactive and responsive. Soon, Smith began working to build what would become the Fan Health Network (FHN).

More than 30 professional athletes have signed on as "team captains." Smith envisions sports fans joining a group headed by a favored player and competing for "wins" and prizes based on how active they are in, say, reaching an ideal weight or monitoring blood pressure. Resources from the Mayo Clinic also are incorporated.

Smith sees FHN as an expansion of the NFL's Play 60 program, which mostly targets children in an effort to combat obesity.

"I don't see the timing of all this as a coincidence for me," he said. "I got sober. My head was clearing up. My thoughts were clearing up. I knew I needed to try something different. I was able to spend countless hours working on a way to develop this."

It is jarring to think that 14 NFL seasons have passed since Robert Smith, just 43, has been on the field. Like many other ex-players, Smith learned that retirement is not the bliss he envisioned. His core hopes and dreams remain alive, however, and continue to manifest today.