Sports Illustrated: This Has Been a Trying Year. Chris Smith Knows As Well As Anyone

October 15, 2020

Sports Illustrated

This Has Been a Trying Year. Chris Smith Knows As Well As Anyone

Alex Prewitt

A month before he bagged Patrick Mahomes, in a devastatingly 2020 moment, the Raiders defensive lineman sat in his team hotel room, under quarantine. He turned on his phone, logged into FaceTime and watched alone as friends and family mourned the loss of the person who meant the most to him.

As his flight climbed toward the heavens on Sept. 11, as his teammates busied themselves with banal entertainment for the long plane ride to Carolina in Week 1, Chris Smith reclined in his seat and reflected on loss. Man, it’s crazy, the Raiders defensive lineman thought. It’s really been a year.

He considered how much had changed in her absence, how many moments she’d missed by his side. The peaks and valleys of his NFL career, now on his fifth team in seven seasons. The thrills and challenges of raising an infant daughter, Haven, now walking up a storm back home. The birthday celebrations, the new business, the isolation of a global pandemic …

But he’d also learned to grieve by remembering the good times, so that’s what he tried to do. He scrolled through old pictures and videos. He called up saved text messages. He listened to her music, including her absolute favorite song, “No Guidance” by Chris Brown and Drake.

“Just thinking about everything,” Smith, 28, says—but more than anything, he thought about their final hours together. About the images that replayed in his mind, like a tragic inflight movie. About, as he puts it, “what happened that night.”

One year earlier, on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, Smith and his girlfriend, 26-year-old Petara Cordero (PJ, to close friends), went to dinner in Cleveland, where he spent most of last season with the Browns. At first they’d picked a restaurant within walking distance of Smith’s house, but they called an audible, driving to a hookah lounge instead. The idea was to give Cordero a break—a casual evening out, just the two of them, while their nanny watched over four-week-old Haven. Still the couple rolled out in style: him behind the wheel of a new Lamborghini SUV; her wearing a Rolex and diamond heart necklace that he’d given her, plus her favorite black-white-and-red Jordan 1s. She was a big sneaker head, Smith says.

At the lounge, Smith and Cordero ordered drinks, picked out their favorite shisha flavors (mint, watermelon, strawberry) and eased into a conversation that escalated in seriousness, from their offseason travel plans (Smith lobbied for London, which he’d visited three times for NFL games) to their goals in raising Haven and their shared desire to someday marry. Three hours later, Smith realized he’d taken only a few sips of wine, such was his focus. “I knew right there, our love was going to go to another level,” he says.

The details of their ride home would soon be the subject of countless headlines, plus a somber interview segment preceding ESPN’s Browns-Jets broadcast the following Monday night. “Everyone knows the story,” Smith says. But here’s what sticks with him:

As 2 a.m. neared on Sept. 11, the couple was heading westbound on I-90—Smith estimates that he was driving 10 to 15 mph over the speed limit; one witness told police it was faster—when Smith struck something and blew a tire, causing his SUV to spin out and strike a concrete wall along the side of the road before coming to a stop in the far-right lane of a four-lane highway. The airbags deployed. The car was totaled. But neither he nor Cordero had sustained even a scratch. “I’m thinking, That’s a miracle,” Smith says. “Next thing you know … .”

Smith says he had moved into the passenger seat, still inside the car, and was rooting around for his cellphone with his head down and the passenger door ajar. She had stepped onto the shoulder, surveying the damage and dialing a friend for help. “Then I heard this bang,” he says.

Rushing out of the car, heart racing, Smith frantically scanned the shoulder for the source of the noise. In the moment, he didn’t notice that the passenger door had been destroyed, nearly plowed clean off. Nor did he spot the gray Mazda 3 in the distance, wrecked against the concrete wall. Nor, for that matter, could he see his girlfriend. Only later, after a detective showed him pictures of the scene, did he fully piece together what had happened.

The only thing he could make out, right in front of him on the asphalt, was a single Air Jordan sneaker.

They met toward the end of 2014, the same year Smith was drafted in the fifth round by Jacksonville, through Cordero’s older sister, Kyphi. But Cordero was living in Charlotte, near where Smith had grown up, and Smith was playing for the Jaguars. The distance made it tough to forge a friendship, let alone any kind of romantic bond.

Still they stayed in touch, growing closer with each text and call. After Smith learned in 2015 that his second child was on the way (with a mother who lives in Arkansas, after fathering a daughter with a separate woman in college), Cordero was one of the first people he told outside of his family. “She got a little upset,” Smith says, “like: ‘Chris, you don’t need to be having more kids.’ But … I respected her so much as a friend that I could tell her anything.”

Finally they began dating, in late 2017. Smith had been traded months earlier to Cincinnati, where then he played in every game of his expiring rookie contract. When the season ended, the free agent went back to Charlotte with nothing but free time. And as he got to know Cordero, he found there was so much to love.

Not just her beauty or her smile or her “corny, high-pitched laugh” that always turned heads. But also how her innate skepticism balanced out his constant sunny-day disposition. How she spoke up whenever she saw someone being treated unfairly. How she seemed to walk through life with an ironclad resolve, captured by a cursive tattoo on the right side of her chest, just below the collarbone: STAY STRONG.

More than anything, though, Smith recalls being taken by how her “spirit” made him feel. “She was very loyal, caring, genuine,” he says. “It wasn’t, I’m dating Chris, the NFL Player. It was, I like Chris as an actual person.” When he was away for football, she was the voice who greeted him on the phone each morning before he went to practice, and the last he heard at night as they fell asleep over FaceTime. When they were together, she was the partner with whom he sipped wine and danced to R&B music. Football, in fact, was only a very small part of their relationship. Cordero saw Smith play in person just twice: in the Browns’ season opener against the Titans last September; and in a pre-Christmas game against the Bengals, a year earlier. It was just days before that 2018 game that Chris and Petara received some of the happiest news of their lives.

While Smith was enjoying the early fruits of a three-year, $12 million deal with Cleveland, Cordero learned she was expecting. They found a nanny and bought six months’ worth of diapers. They traveled to Hawaii and Puerto Rico on babymoons, strolling the beaches and sampling every restaurant, mapping out their future as three. Eventually, at a gender reveal party, Cordero broke out Smith’s sack dance, a two-handed belly rub, as firecrackers shot pink flares. “It was just a perfect story,” Smith says. “It was like no bad could happen.”

The following August, only hours after Smith arrived back in Charlotte from a joint training camp practice against the Colts, Cordero went into labor. “She dilated to nine centimeters and she didn’t use an epidural until the end,” Smith says. “It just shows how tough she was.” When it came time to name their daughter, Cordero stood strong again. “She said, ‘You get the last name, so let me choose the first!’ ”

Fourteen months later, Smith says he isn’t exactly sure how Cordero landed on Haven. But he knows what the name means to him now. “I correlate it to my grieving process,” he says. “Haven means a safe place. After Petara passed, [our daughter] was my safe haven.”

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