Rod Smart knows a thing or two about making a name for himself.
He was the XFL player that became a cultural phenomenon in 2001 by having the words “He Hate Me” plastered on the back of his uniform to denounce haters everywhere, bringing him instant fame for his self-promotional genius. Brash personalities apparently run in the family; his cousin just so happens to be former Philadelphia Eagle Freddie Mitchell, the self-proclaimed “People’s Champ.”
Now, nearly a decade later, Smart is trying to get noticed in his first passion: acting. That includes the male lead role in an independent film released earlier this year called “Don’t Blame The Lettuce” and other gigs from his home base in Charlotte, N.C., while he plots his jump to Hollywood.
“I want to build my resume so when I do go out there, I have a sword and shield to fight with, instead of jumping into the fire without any armor,” said the always-witty Smart.
Skeptical of Smart’s acting chops? Judge them for yourself:
While he gained national attention for his football career, Smart is now following in the footsteps of another former NFL player-turned-acting star: Isaiah Mustafa, better known as the “Old Spice guy.” And just like Mustafa, Smart wants to take his celebrity to another level with his new profession.“In the NFL, you’re dressed up, you’ve got a helmet on and they don’t see your face,” Smart said. “With this, they can put a face with a name. … When you see [my] face, you’re going to be able to go, ‘Oh, I know him, that’s Rod Smart.’ Just like an Eddie Murphy or Michael Jordan, Will Smith(notes), stuff like that.”
It might seem like a pipe dream, but playing in the Super Bowl might have sounded equally impossible for Smart after he went undrafted in 2000 as a running back out of then-1-AA Western Kentucky.
After failing to catch on with the San Diego Chargers and even the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, Smart became the poster boy for Vince McMahon’s $40 million gamble in February 2001 during the XFL’s debut in Las Vegas. In stark contrast to the “No Fun League,” the XFL allowed players to put whatever they wanted on the back of their jerseys, prompting Smart to go with that ungrammatically correct phrase that fans instantly embraced.
He sealed his fame when sideline reporter Mike Adamle asked Smart to explain the nickname, to which he responded, “Because they hate me, man.”
Considered to be the lone bright spot of the league’s existence, the XFL milked the name for all it was worth and Smart’s brainchild ended up everywhere. Spike Lee made “She Hate Me” the name of a 2004 film, a character on an episode of “CSI: New York” was given the same female version, and Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme(notes) even gave his thoroughbred filly that moniker. And who can forget Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban sporting a T-shirt with “He Fine Me” on the back to mock David Stern?
Smart said the attention helped get him on NFL radars. Low and behold, that fall he was playing for the Eagles. He then landed in Charlotte, where Smart became the Panthers’ kick-return man and played in the Super Bowl XXXVIII loss to the Patriots in 2004.
But in the NFL he flew under the radar with “Smart” on his back instead of “He Hate Me.” Looking back, Smart says he would have legally changed his last name to “He Hate Me” to get it on his jersey like Chad Johnson did with “Ochocinco,” but Smart didn’t think of it at the time.
In 2005, Smart actually announced he was changing his nickname from “He Hate Me” to “He Love Me” because of all the support he received in Charlotte. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t catch on.
Smart certainly wasn’t feeling the love from NFL teams a year later when he was out of the league completely, after which he went into personal training before getting his big break in the form of a lead role in the relationship drama, “Don’t Blame The Lettuce.”
Asked whether he would consider “He Hate Me” as a stage name, Smart quickly dismissed the notion.
Said Smart: “In the acting world I’ll always be Rod Smart. But I’ll always have ‘He Hate Me’ fans and they can call me that until I die. Because I created it. I brought it here and I’m going to take it to the grave with me.”
Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical sports site that links the past to the present.
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- Rod Smart