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Gov. Crist gives tarnished football star Sammie Smith his civil rights

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- State officials restored the civil rights Thursday of former Florida State and Miami Dolphins running back Sammie Smith who spent seven years in prison on a drug conviction.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the independently elected Cabinet, sitting as the state Executive Clemency Board, voted following testimony from Smith, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, several assistants and family members. All characterized Smith's involvement in the drug activity as totally uncharacteristic.

"It's a privilege for me to come up and vouch for him," Bowden told the panel. "I'll stand behind him 100 percent. This one, I'm sure, will not make another" mistake.

Smith, who was convicted on two federal charges of possession and distribution of cocaine in 1996, addressed the board first.

"I made a very, very, very bad choice," Smith told the panel. "Ten months of involvement (drug activity) changed my life. I hurt a lot of people. I hurt my family. I don't blame anyone for the choices I made."

Smith's daughter Jenee, a registered nurse at a local hospital, and his wife, Sholanda, testified along with former Florida State coaches Jim Gladden and Billy Sexton and track teammate Billy Close, a criminology professor at Florida State.

"I was very moved by the testimony on his behalf," Crist said afterward. "It was very compelling testimony. It touched my heart."

Attorney General Bill McCollum described Smith as an obviously exemplary person today.

"Sammie is going to contribute to the community and continue to contribute, maybe helping others from getting into the same problem," McCollum said.

Felons lose their civil rights in Florida following a felony conviction cannot vote, hold public office or get certain professional or business licenses without having their civil rights restored. In some cases most rights are automatically restored upon request once a sentence has been completed. Those who have committed more serious crimes must receive approval from the Clemency Board.

Smith ranks fifth in career rushing at Florida State with 2,439 yards in three seasons before being taken with the ninth pick of the first round by the Dolphins in the 1989 draft.

Smith, who turned 43 last month, immediately hugged his family, friends and coaches after hearing Crist and the panel Cabinet members grant the appeal.

"I was told once that nothing could just grow on sun alone, that you'd have some rainy days," Smith said. "But those rainy days are what builds character and allows you to grow."