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Tragedy to triumph: Former NFL star devotes award to those who helped him survive

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 ( 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.

Smith has vivid memories of his first outing with Marksman. He envisioned a trip to the movies or the beach. Marskman took him to his house to help wallpaper, rake leaves and pull weeds.

“Seymour is an old-fashioned guy, and at first, it wasn’t so much fun being with him, but I realized he was teaching me life lessons, about hard work, about commitment, about how to take care of a house,’’ Smith said. “I also paid attention to how he related to his wife, his children, and that is how I treat my family. My mom never remarried, so Seymour became my role model.’’

Marksman remembers the day he met Smith.

“They were a good family, all turned out to be smart kids, but I remember the first time I walked into their house, they were all sitting around watching TV after school, and I said, ‘This has got to stop,’’’ Marksman said. “Homework should be done right after school, when the mind is still fresh from school, and then TV should be a reward for finishing work.’’

Marksman also taught him how to save money by cooking at home. “If you buy a bag of frozen breaded fish fillets, some French fries and lemonade, you can have a lovely meal at home and save 30 bucks,’’ he’d tell him.

Smith now loves to cook for his wife of 14 years, Kimberly, whom he met in a car accident in Dallas. Shrimp scampi and steak are his specialties.

Smith’s other male role model was Jackson, his Pop Warner football coach. He remembers overhearing the coach telling his mother that he was special, a confidence booster he carried with him for much of his childhood.

“When I heard negative comments, about how I was too slow or too small, I thought of Coach Jackson. I am still close with Seymour and Coach Jackson. They come to all our family picnics. Their influence on me is immeasurable.’’

A few years ago, a UPS driver rang the doorbell at the Smith home. When Smith opened the door, his twins Darius and Daryn hid behind his legs. They were 3 at the time.

“I remember looking down at them clinging to my legs thinking, ‘I’m their shield, their protector,’’ Smith said. “I thought back to when I was 3. I didn’t have a dad to protect me. It hit me right then how important it was for me to always be there for them. That’s why this has become my life mission, to be a positive male role model for as many kids as possible.’’

Throughout his playing career, Smith wore a rubber bracelet in memory of his father stretched over his left ankle. It read: “R.S.’’ Now, he pays tribute to his father in a different way — by being the husband and father his never got the chance to be.