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Virginia State tailback Rayquan Smith illustrates the way NIL should work

Scott German
rayquan smith
Photo: Rayquan Smith

Soon after the NCAA started allowing athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, a college football player named Rayquan Smith decided he, too, would cash in on the opportunity.

Only one problem: playing at a small HBCU institution, Norfolk State, there were no opportunities.

Or so it seemed.

At least not if the school you played for, nicknamed the Spartans, didn’t call East Lansing Michigan home.

Nope, this was the Spartans of Norfolk State, members of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, not the Big 10.

While NIL is inclusive for all NCAA schools, there is, indeed, a pecking order, and Norfolk State is not just at the bottom, they didn’t exist in the new world order of NIL.

Smith understood the top players at the big schools were making six-figure NIL deals, and the possibility of those deals making it to Norfolk State and similar schools were essentially nonexistent.

And he was right.

Smith also determined that he was not going to allow that small detail to prevent him from taking a seat at the NIL table.

But how?

This is where the Rayquan Smith story begins.

It’s a story of how the NIL is supposed to operate. At least before entitlement got in the way.

About a week ago, I wrote a column about how the NIL had jumped the tracks of its intended purpose.

That NIL is nothing more than an incentive in the recruiting and transfer portal process, that had also worked itself into the high schools.

High school recruiting has simply turned into a cash grab. Selecting a school is more about which college can provide the most lucrative NIL deal for more and more prep athletes.

Yep, entitlement sounds about right.

Here is where Smith’s story goes in the opposite direction.

A Richmond native, Smith won four state football championships while playing for Highland Springs.

In 2021, Smith was an undergraduate football player and track athlete at Norfolk State. It was about the same time the NCAA lifted its ban on college athletes’ ability to earn income from the potential of their name, image,and likeness.

No, he didn’t choose Norfolk State because of the lucrative NIL deals that waited.

There were none.

It doesn’t work that way at small schools.

Smith, realizing this, took a different approach.

He went to work, for himself.

He didn’t ask for a handout, nor did he expect any.

Instead, through his tenacity doors began to open.

And again, unlike many players at the big-name schools, the deals weren’t simply waiting for him.

I spoke recently with Smith, who has since transferred from Norfolk State to Virginia State, which has a similar program.

We discussed his remarkable success as a pioneer in the NIL landscape.

“So, you were at a school (Norfolk State) that you knew had no NIL opportunities, but you were determined to find a way to create them? Why and how did you go about doing that?” I asked.

“First, I believed in myself, that was the key,” said Smith.

Smith never set out to dominate the NIL era. His intent was to land a few deals to prove it could be done at a small school.

Initially, Smith was seeking a job with a Norfolk-area Planet Fitness. Smith waited on a response to his job application, which never came. Instead of sulking, he began developing his own pitch to market himself after seeing other athletes on social media platforms signing lucrative NIL deals.

He emailed business after business offering to promote the company and their product or brand on his own social media platforms.  For free, if necessary.

“I was hitting every company I could, some I hadn’t even heard of,” said Smith.

“Can I do this; can I help promote your product? I really did believe in myself,” said Smith.

Smith also knew that to be of value to a company he needed to work on building up his social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

Smith estimates his first mass-emailing was to approximately 100 companies.

Only three companies responded. But that was enough to ignite Smith’s desire to make his idea work.

As Smith continued to develop as an athlete on the field, his emerging NIL portfolio was also developing.

In 2020, Smith was faced with his first obstacle, COVID-19, which shut down the season for Norfolk State.

The pandemic may have shut the country down, but it did not stop Smith.  He continued to market himself and worked harder to get his name out to as many companies as possible.

By July of 2021, with a growing list of clients, Smith hired an agent to help manage his business.

“Not to do my footwork, that was on me,” said Smith.

The agent helped with the business side of things, but Smith was still out banging on doors, so to speak.

Today, Smith has landed more than 80 deals, with total earnings well into five figures.

How’s that for entrepreneurship?

No collective? No problem.

Smith has done this on his own.

So, why isn’t every NCAA athlete doing this?

“They could, but I guess just like everything else, not everyone is willing to put in the work,” noted Smith.

Smith has partnerships with high-profile companies like Body Armour and Champs Sports.

According to Front Office Sports, it’s Smith’s ability to market wisely and network professionally with NIL decision-makers that has moved him to the front of the NIL world.

“I feel great about what I have accomplished. I know how hard I have worked throughout this journey. It proves you can do anything you want to do in life if you put your mind to it. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do.”

For the last three years Rayquan Smith has taken a different approach. He prefers to tell folks what he can do.

Now, that’s the way the NIL should work.

Scott German

Scott German

Scott German covers UVA Athletics for AFP, and is the co-host of “Street Knowledge” podcasts focusing on UVA Athletics with AFP editor Chris Graham. Scott has been around the ‘Hoos his whole life. As a reporter, he was on site for UVA basketball’s Final Fours, in 1981 and 1984, and has covered UVA football in bowl games dating back to its first, the 1984 Peach Bowl.