Jan. 16, 2018
By Matt Winkeljohn
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of Buzz Magazine
Kofi Smith has a fabulous job as the youngest president and CEO of the Atlanta Airlines Corporation, and running Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s facilities keeps his blood going. But he’ll gladly go back in time to re-visit his Georgia Tech-record 90-yard fumble return and jump like it’s game day again.
Or maybe he’d kneel.
This is certain: a 5-9, 178-pound defensive back and special-teams standout from Florence, Ala., Smith treasures that moment against Wake Forest on Nov. 21, 1998, and he believes in the power of prayer to this day.
“I wasn’t a superstar and all I wanted was one touchdown. I prayed to God, `Please let me have one touchdown,” Smith recalled. “Coach [Randy] Edsall, our defensive coordinator . . . called the perfect play, a corner blitz. Everything timed up where they had a sweep my direction, and I was coming untouched . . .
“Angels made him drop that ball and it took one bounce into my arms, and I was like a missile. As soon as I hit the end zone, I looked up to heaven on my knees with my arms out and all I was saying was, `Thank you God, thank you God.'”
Smith is no less quick to thank Georgia Tech for his success in the business world, although after landing a great job as a production manager with Milliken & Company in LaGrange upon graduating in 1999 with a degree in industrial engineering, he left for … football.
After playing part time in 2001 and 2002 with the Columbus Wardogs of the old arenafootball2 league, he left the business world in 2003 to chase the professional gridiron dream full time.
“I was making great money, and to leave to chase football in arena 2 for $200 a week. That decision was the best decision that I ever made. However, those who loved me most they were really [unhappy], and thought it was the worst,” he said.
“They will love you right out of your dream. I didn’t allow that to happen. I was chasing my dream.”
It should not come as a surprise that Smith made that decision through prayer.
That grew up with him in Florence, where “my mom taught me how to pray.”
While he starred as a quarterback and defensive back at Bradshaw High, his friend Roderick Jones excelled at the other high school in town, Coffee.
Then, Jones was murdered as a senior while Smith was a junior.
Jones had a son, Deondrick, on the way at the time of his death.
“We started playing football together at six years of age. We grew up playing together or against each other, the same as basketball,” Smith said. “Rod was a star at Coffee — Rod was a year older than me. We were always in each other’s life.
“His girlfriend, Michelle … when she went into labor, I was working at this restaurant and her mother called me. As I was standing in front of the nursery, something spoke to me … in a very clear, audible voice and said, `This is your son; take care of him.'”
And that’s why after playing arena football in 2003 for the Norfolk (Va.) Nighthawks, in 2004 for the Corpus Christi (Texas) Hammerheads and in 2005 for the Quad Cities (Iowa) SteamWheelers of various indoor football leagues, Smith stuffed his cleats in the back of the closet.
Deondrick Jones was on his mind.
“My son was about to turn 14, and I knew that his dreams were going to take precedent over mine, and I had to get back into making some real money,” Smith recalled. “He was going to be driving and want a car in two years and then he’s going to be ready for college.”
Frustrated by multiple rejections of his resume, Smith — who had been selling furniture back in Alabama between arena seasons — decided, “I always wanted to have my own business, and apparently I was pretty good at selling.”
So he went into real estate, securing his residential license.
Working in Alabama and Georgia, that didn’t go as well as he thought it might, so he considered transitioning to commercial real estate and called to seek advice from former Georgia Tech linebacker Lucius Sanford, who is the executive director of Tech’s Letterman’s Club.
Upon learning of the upcoming Georgia Tech Hall of Fame dinner, which would induct his former teammate, linebacker Keith Brooking, Smith attended.
“I called Lucius, and I was telling him what I wanted to do from a commercial real estate standpoint, and he was telling me things I should do,” Smith said. “And Lucius told me I should come. I asked how much it was, and he said $50. I said, I don’t got it. He said, `Come work it, be a host. Help me check people in.'”
That dinner turned Smith’s life.
He sat across the table from former Tech baseball player Jahmal Overton, who he met while they were student-athletes on The Flats, and Linc Facility Services Southeastern manager Edwin Hilder.
“Hilder was looking for a facility manager. When he and Jahmal were talking, in their conversation for General Mills, Jahmal said `You should talk to Kofi,'” Smith recalled. “Ed got up and said, `Jahmal said some great things about you.’
“I said, `If it’s anything close to plant engineering and has to do with manufacturing, I could do it.’ He told me to send him my resume. I sent it that night, and was hired in two weeks.”
Smith won several awards while running GM’s plant in Covington, Ga. from 2006-08, and more after Linc moved him to into the facility manager position for Delta Air Lines at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Not long after he earned his MBA from Tech in 2009, he was promoted to director, supervising all of Delta’s facilities at the airport.
The Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corporation — which manages all facilities at the airport — hired Smith in Oct. 2010 as deputy executive director. Eight months later, in June 2011, he promoted to CEO at the age of 35 — the youngest ever to ascend to the position.
Not bad for a guy who took a three-year break to go play a little arena football.
Chalk that up to Smith and Tech’s push.
He had limited knowledge when he visited The Flats on his recruiting visit, and Smith was locked in on being a Vanderbilt Commodore even after Tech defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable called and said, “We’d like you to come down a visit.”
“I was going to be a doctor, and that’s why I was interested in Vanderbilt,” he said. “When I got to Tech and realized it was the No. 1 industrial engineering school. [Running back] Curtis Holloman and I were on the visit together, and we said, `We’re coming here.’
“Nashville had nothing on Atlanta. I had never seen so many sights, so many beautiful women, all the sights that’s not the right reasons to pick a school, but I’m glad I did.”
As a newbie at Milliken, he had little idea what was going on, yet he got up to speed quickly and won multiple industry awards. Credit, Tech.
“I knew nothing about the procedures behind what we were doing, or the financial structure, but Tech taught me how to source resources. I knew how to go find people,” he said. “If you were saying something I didn’t understand, I would write it down, and get it on my calendar just to know.
“Tech had broken down my [fear] of being afraid to go ask for help. You have to release all your pride. I didn’t graduate Tech with honors. I graduated with a 2.7 (grade point average). I understand I’m not the smartest cat, but I know how to deal with people, and that was my Google.”
Some may want to highlight the fact that he manages the busiest airport in the world, a sprawling facility that covers some seven million square feet with an operating budget of more than $150 million.
Give him a chance, and he’ll talk football first.
“The gift that they gave all the seniors was a picture and that’s the picture they put in my frame, of me on my knees looking up to the sky,” said Smith, who has a 4-year-old son with his wife, former Tech student Nicole Lewis.
“[God] allowed me to make that touchdown on Senior Day, my last home game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. My mom, dad and Deondrick were able to see it. That touchdown couldn’t have come at any better a time.”