Darrin Smith was 2 years old and sick at home that April day of 1972 when his father, Rudolph, a mechanic, was murdered while volunteering at a Liberty City community festival — a fundraiser, ironically, to help police fight street crime.
Smith’s four older siblings were there and ran from the gunman as their father was shot in the back of the head by a man who got angry that Rudolph Smith asked him to move his car from a no parking zone.
Although Smith didn’t witness the crime, and has no memory of his father, it had a profound effect on him. He became jealous of boys who had their fathers around, and by age 8, he was, in his words, “becoming a very angry little boy.’’
That angry boy — with the help of his mother and two special mentors — wound up winning two national football championships at the University of Miami (’89 and ’91) and two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys (’94 and ’96). But more important in his estimation, he is a philanthropist, a dedicated husband and father of twins. He leads a men’s ministry at his church. And, by the time he was drafted by the NFL, he had earned a master’s degree in business administration.
“Rings can be taken away, but nobody can take your education away,’’ said Smith, who lives in Pembroke Pines and runs a real estate investment company.
On Wednesday, Smith will be honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps Embracing the Legacy Award for his advocacy work on behalf of youth. The award ceremony is at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
He said he is dedicating the award to his mother, Naomi, a retired Sears cafeteria cook; to his youth coach Dennis Jackson; and to his mentor and father figure Seymour Marksman, whom Smith met through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program when he was in third grade. Marksman taught Smith how to cook, how to bowl, how to tie a necktie, and instilled in him the value of hard work, and the true meaning of fatherhood.
“This award is their legacy, it’s what they helped create,’’ Smith, 43, said. “I am accepting this award on behalf of all the people along the way who supported me and encouraged me. In many ways, this award is more important than the Super Bowls and national championships because it is much more personal.’’
He travels the country as a motivational speaker, and founded Million Book Read, a campaign that promotes childhood literacy by asking for a million people each year to pledge to read with children (www.millionbookread.com). He was inspired when he read to a third grade class at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle while a member of the Seahawks.
“For more than 40 years, we have worked with children who have experienced abuse, violence and despair,’’ said Ed Kelley, president and CEO of the RFK Children’s Action Corps. “With the right support, skills and attention, these children are resilient and capable of overcoming hardships to have a positive future. Darrin has used his life experiences to lead the way for millions of young people, and he embodies hope, belief and action in demonstration to the world that children deserve better.’’
Though Smith grew up without his father — “a wound I have carried my whole life’’ — Marksman and Jackson stepped in just in the nick of time and set Smith on the right path. Marksman worked for Delta Airlines and was transferred to Miami in 1978. His wife and kids stayed behind for a year, and during that year, Marksman found and renovated a house, and began volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters.