100 in 100: Gates County’s Thomas Smith, one of UNC’s Rude Boys

A walk-on with the Tar Heels, the shutdown corner went on to play nine years in the NFL

Gates County’s Thomas Smith was one of Mack Brown’s “Rude Boys” at UNC before he played nine seasons in the NFL, including making a Super Bowl XVII appearance with the Buffalo Bills in 1993. (John J. Gaps III / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Gates County

Thomas Smith

Mack Brown has proven to be an elite recruiter who has attracted some of the best football players ever to wear a UNC uniform during his two tenures in Chapel Hill. But sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.


That turned out to be the case in 1989 when Smith showed up on campus as a walk-on after a standout career at tiny Gates County High School. The cornerback quickly earned a starting spot, and — as a leader in a secondary that became known as “The Rude Boys” — he played a major role in helping Brown transform the Tar Heels from a 1-10 record as a freshman to a seven-win bowl team two years later.

In nine NFL seasons with the Bills, Bears and Colts, Thomas Smith was tasked with covering the leagues top receivers, including 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice. (Paul Sakuma / AP Photo)

Smith finished his college career with six interceptions and was drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the 28th overall pick in the first round of the 1993 NFL Draft. A year later, he was a starting cornerback for the Bills in Super Bowl XVIII against the Dallas Cowboys. He held onto the position for seven seasons, earning a reputation as one of the league’s most reliable shutdown pass defenders before finishing out his career with the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts.

In nine professional seasons, Smith amassed 347 tackles, six interceptions and five fumble recoveries.

After retiring from football, he put the degree in business administration he earned from UNC to good use by starting his own real estate investment firm. He also opened a transportation company and currently owns a successful property management franchise in Baltimore.

In 2016, Smith returned to his alma mater and presented the Gates Red Barons with a gold commemorative football presented by the NFL as a gift to the high schools of all players that participated in the first 50 Super Bowls.