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The WHY: Carla “Smiley” Odom

On May 13, 2020, WNFC Co-Founder Odessa Jenkins hosted Atlanta Phoenix star Carla “Smiley” Odom in “The Why”. The two legends spoke on Atlanta loyalties and Smiley’s sports history. Smiley shared her love of the game and how her tunnel vision focus has contributed to her success during her 18-season football career. The conversation with the veteran middle linebacker concluded with dialogue on the well-deserved All-Star treatment at the 2019 WNFC IX Cup, recruiting in Atlanta, and the future of women’s football with the WNFC leading the way.

Read below for an edited for length transcript of “The Why” with Carla “Smiley” Odom.

You can also watch the full interview on Instagram.

*Not edited for language. May include profanity.

OJ: Anytime we do something with ATL, you know it’s lit. I am so excited today. Today we are going to go live with Carla “Smiley” Odom. Those of you who might not know who Smiley is, today you’re going to find out tonight.

She is one of the most dynamic athletes that we have in our league. Yeah, she is one of the most dynamic athletes that we have in all of women’s sports.

What’s up Smiley?

Smiley: Hey!

OJ: How you doing? Smiley!

Smiley: I’m good.

OJ: You a fucking superstar, man. Your name precedes you. When you bring up Carla “Smiley” Odom, everybody starts talk like, “Mm-hmm”. I ain’t going to tell you everything they say.

Smiley: Go ahead as long as it’s decent. Don’t tell me the bad.

OJ: The one thing they do say is “That chick can ball, man.” Tell everybody where you’re from and then what team you play with.

Smiley: Currently, I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, born and raised. Of course, my name is Carla “Smiley” Odom. You already said that. I’ve played with the Atlanta Explosion. I played with them for 11 years and I’ve played the past 7 years with the Phoenix.

OJ: Nice, okay. So, if anybody knows anything about the Atlanta Phoenix, you are the face of that team. If somebody had to pick a face for the Phoenix, you are it, right? Tell us about how it is to have life in Atlanta, sort of be the star of that team with all of its craziness and all of its ATL vibe. How have you guys kept it together? How have you kept a competitive, good-looking organization together this long?

Smiley: Let me tell you this. I think no matter what team I’ve ever been on I consider it to be my team. And that’s only because I take charge, not really meaning to, but because I know what it takes to make a champion. I want that to go to whatever team I go to. I’m always going to be ride or die ATL, that’s just how I roll. Home team, that’s my loyalty.

Atlanta, lately we’ve gotten a lot new rookies on the team. So it’s just exciting to see them grow, to see them learn. And I think that’s what keeps me around, period, is seeing their light bulbs go off when they get to the sport, when they learn the sport, when they want to play the sport.

OJ: We’ll get into running down your resume in women’s football. But tell me how you started in sports. What got you out there?

Smiley: To be honest, my first love was swimming. I was swimming before I could even walk. I never did swimming competitively. I actually just taught it. I taught it for a long time.

So from swimming, I played softball. I tried to play tennis for a little while, that wasn’t my thing. I tried to play soccer for a little while, that definitely wasn’t my thing.

OJ: Soccer wasn’t your thing?

Smiley: Definitely it was not my thing. That’s a whole lot of running in that game, no ma’am. So I did not play. I ran track in high school. I played basketball in high school. I was actually supposed to play basketball in college but I chose not to take a scholarship for that.

I think flag was my first introduction into actual football other than being around football when I was younger, playing pick-up games and stuff like that. But an organized kind of football was flag. I started when I was actually in college. I would play intramural flag in college.

From there, when I moved back to Atlanta, Mashonda Gilmore… It’s a name everybody probably knows in football.

OJ: Everybody knows Mashonda.

Smiley: Everybody knows Mashonda. Mashonda had a team Light and Tight in Atlanta. So I started with Light and Tight. I played with Light and Tight for about 13 years.

OJ: Wow.

Smiley: But yeah, so I was playing flag and tackle simultaneously which kept me in shape and everything but after a while I had to stop. Basically Mashonda was just like, “Hey, I got a football team,” or, “We’re starting a new league” or, “I heard about a new league. I want you guys to try out and see what happens from there.” And once that third team kind of folded, she got together with another owner and started the Atlanta Explosion and from there I fell in love and it just took off from there.

OJ: So it’s interesting, and you just glazed over it, that you passed up on a basketball scholarship, to go play basketball in college. And it’s so funny, because I ask a lot of athletes that got into football and then they ultimately end up saying, “Hey, football is my love. I wish I would’ve found it faster.” What made you pass on basketball?

Smiley: I think I was tired of it. For me, basketball was something everybody expected you to do if you were an athlete and it was just I was tired of it. By the time you get to college, you eat, sleep, and shit basketball. I actually took an academic scholarship to Xavier. And once I got to Xavier they were pretty much like okay, “You are going to be in class everyday from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm every day your freshman year.”

OJ: Wow.

Smiley: “We don’t care what sports you play. You need to get your shit together.” I was like, “Let me think about this twice. Because that’s going to mean I’m going to be awake from like 4 o’clock in the morning.”

OJ: Yeah man. What’d you study?

Smiley: Yes, I studied a lot too.

OJ: Oh, here we go.

Smiley: Yeah, Xavier I was Bio. Pre-Med.

OJ: Okay, so you wanted to be a doctor?

Smiley: I wanted to be an Anesthesiologist at the time.

OJ: Okay, and then you changed your mind?

Smiley: Yeah, a lot of stuff happened. I changed my mind. I actually started off at Xavier for my first two years of school. A lot of stuff happened with my family. Two of my grandparents died, my parents went through a divorce, and I was like “Okay let me refigure my life out.”

I moved from New Orleans and then I came back to Atlanta. So when I came back to Atlanta, I went to Clark. That was the school that my dad went to. I actually took… I had a partial academic and a partial band scholarship.

OJ: What?

Smiley: When I say I’ve done it all, I’ve done it all.

OJ: No, that wasn’t you?

Smiley: Actually, I played the trumpet for 17 years.

OJ: Oh wow, that’s crazy.

Smiley: Yep, I played the trumpet for 17 years. I had plenty of basketball and band scholarships. Passed up on all of those to go to Xavier and chose academics.

Ended up coming back and going to Clark and then changed my major. My minor was always Computer Science. I kept that. Came to Clark and my major became Mass Communications: Radio, T.V., and Film with a minor in Computer Science. Okay, right.

OJ: What?

Smiley: But because of how strenuous Xavier was, all my credits for everything I ever did at Xavier was transferred over, still graduated on time all that. And here I am. And I went and actually started my master’s at Georgia State, but never finished.

OJ: Wow. So are you going to go back and finish?

Smiley: I always said I was. But the reason I stopped in the first place kind of messed me up. But I always said I would, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

OJ: Yeah. Tell me about this trumpet. You played the trumpet?

Smiley: Played the trumpet for 17 years-

OJ: It’s impressive, man. We all know you as this sort of talented, very charismatic person, right? The rest of the world and new fans to the WNFC are getting to know your charisma. I’m sure they can all tell through the phone.

But your focus on football has seemed to remain. Even though you’ve kind of been doing a lot of other things with your life, it sounds like football is the thing that kind of hung in there. Why did football hang in? Why is it staying around? Or why are you staying around in it?

Smiley: To be honest, I’m the kind of person that can’t sit down. So while it seems like football is the only thing that I do. I do everything all day.

I’m always into something. That’s how my mind works. That’s how I work. I actually kind of slowed it down later. But I’ve always done something.

With football, it has lasting power with me because it became one of my passions. It’s something I absolutely love to do. I absolutely love to be out on the field and it’s like you’re mind clears. You don’t think about anything else.

I always say if you’ve ever seen the movie Biker Boyz, where the guy gets on the bike and has tunnel vision once he’s on his bike. That’s how I feel when I’m on the football field. It’s just like tunnel vision. Everything else quiets. You don’t hear anything else around you. And it’s just… Once that whistle blows, you just play the game and that’s it.

OJ: Well let’s talk about it Smiley, are you the best Mike Linebacker in the country?

Smiley: I would like to say that I am. However, I’m getting up in age so I know there's others out there better than me. They just got to prove it.

OJ: Okay. That was such a Smiley answer to that question. I ain’t going to let you off that easy. You got to give me a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.

Smiley: [Winks] That’s all I'm going to say.

OJ: I’ll take that. Listen, I’ve had to recruit against you. I’ve had to put a team on the field against you. And hands down, you’re one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Smiley: Thank you.

OJ: So I’ve seen a lot of football players play this game and I threw what I consider some of the best players at you and you sent a message. You send a message when you play football, there’s no doubt about that.

Smiley: I’m going to hold my own. I’m not going to back down. That’s one thing I’m not going to do. If I don’t talk anywhere else, I’m going to talk a little bit on that football field.

But I am a quiet person when I play football, because my thing is, “Alright, I’ma get your ass next play.” I don’t even have to say nothing. “You might’ve got me that one play, but guess what, I’m coming for you. I’m coming for you.”

OJ: So I’m married to Dillow, everybody knows that.

Smiley: Hey Dillow!

OJ: Dillow’s a great Offensive Lineman and she’s played for 16 seasons, right? So she’s seen them all. She’s seen great middle linebackers of the east. She’s seen great mike linebackers of the west. She’s seen them all.

And I will never forget the story, and it’s so funny, I’ma let y’all get on one of these days and talk about this story, but I’ll never forget the story when she said, “Listen, when I had to run head-up with Smiley, it’s something I will never forget as a football player.” And here’s somebody that’s universally known as a bruiser, as a bully, say she ran up against another bully. That to me is a perfect microcosm of who you are on that field.

Tell me if somebody’s never seen you play and they’re trying to figure it out still, we ain’t painting a picture. And they’re like, “Man I don’t understand. What do we think of when we see this woman play?” Who would come to mind? Who have you heard over the years, like “Damn, that Smiley, she’s like such and such”?

Smiley: I’ve been playing for so long, I’ve heard several different names.

OJ: Give me someone who you might agree with, right?

Smiley: I like Luke Kuechly. I like Von Miller. A lot of people have said Ray Lewis. But I feel like Ray Lewis is the person that comes to mind for any Mike Linebacker.

OJ: I like the Kuechly example. I like the Kuechly example because you’re smart. You get sideline to sideline like man. I mean, back in the day you got sideline to sideline. But no, you can get sideline to sideline.

When you come north south, which is what I value as an offensive mind… Linebackers that play north give everybody problems. It don’t matter what system you have. You could be running the Option, Spread, fucking Power I, it don’t matter. A linebacker that plays north is tough to deal with and you do that. So, I like the Kuechly example, I like it a lot.

Smiley: I like Kuechly too.

OJ: You’ve been playing all these years. If you had to give your elevator speech… Let’s say right now is listening is the Hall of Fame Committee and they are talking about Smiley as a potential Hall of Famer. What things would you say about your career that puts you in that class?

Smiley: I left it all out on the damn field, even my body parts. Yeah, A lot of my teammates would probably say, “She made me rethink if I wanted to play football or not.” They hate me in practice. They hate me in practice because I make them run and I make them work for it. But I’m not going to just make you run and work for it. I’m going to do it myself. So I’m not going to put you through anything that I’m not going to do myself. And that’s how I practice and that’s how I play.

OJ: That’s real. I was telling somebody, who was it? Oh, I was telling Slim yesterday that one of my favorite athletes of all time is Lawrence Taylor. And it’s for the exact reason that you just said and nobody wanted to practice against him. They tried to stop him from practicing. Because what he did to Quarterbacks in the game, he would try to do to his own fucking quarterback in practice. And I think that that’s a sign of greatness.

We’re listening to it right now with Michael Jordan, right? Everybody’s like “Michael Jordan was a tyrant. You didn’t want to fucking… You didn’t want to be on his team.” But I agree with you. The things I’ve heard, that I’ve seen in your ability to lead, and frankly statistically. Every stats that I’ve ever seen you, every league, you’ve been in the top 20, top 10 in tackles. Your statistics speak for themselves.

But I think it’s the way you play the game and the way you practice the game that makes you unlike anybody else. That’s a tribute to you and you keep doing it that way. So let’s talk about it. How long you been playing? Give me the years.

Smiley: This would’ve been my 18th season playing football.

OJ: So you’ve been playing this game for 18 seasons, you’ve seen a lot, right? You’ve seen leagues come and go. You’ve seen teams come and go. You’ve seen people come and go?

Smiley: Definitely.

OJ: As you head into 2021, what do you think about the state of women’s football?

Smiley: It’s only gotten bigger and better and I’m excited because it has grown so much. And I’m excited because I think just the other day I saw that the flag is being introduced into colleges as an actual sport. So I’m excited because it means we’re going in the right direction.

It means that we’re going from not just “maybe” something that they can get into, to “definitely.” We have a transitional period now. You can play as a youngster. You can play in high school. You can play in college and now you can play at a higher level.

So I’d say I’m definitely really excited. I’m excited to see that women will have another sport to play that’s no longer considered just a man’s sport. It’s considered a sport. It’s something that they can be proud about.

OJ: That’s a big deal. So you had a year experience in the WNFC. Did you do all-star weekend?

Smiley: I did.

OJ: And you went to the Super Bowl and you experienced it?

Smiley: I did.

OJ: Tell us about how... The way we’re doing it in the WNFC. Tell us about your experience with some of the events that you’ve been to and just share what it feels like; what we’re doing right and what it feels like to be a part of some of those events.

Smiley: Everything, because I feel like you get treated like an All-Star. Well, you are an All-Star.

OJ: You are a fucking All-Star.

Smiley: Right and you get treated like one. You’re like, “I get this too? This is free? They’re not going to run after me for taking this are they?” I mean I was like, “I get a bag, some shoes, all this stuff? Okay!”

So you feel like superstardom. You feel like next level. It’s like, damn, you feel like you made it. And I think that’s a great feeling for any woman that has put their heart and soul into a whole season and it’s like you get to that final stage, that next level and it’s like, “Damn, this feels great!”

OJ: So when are you going to stop?

Smiley: People ask me that every year.

OJ: Yeah, when it is it time to hang them up and start coaching? Because we’re going to have you in this league one way or another.

Smiley: Yeah, I do a little bit of coaching anyway. It’s kind of like… I don’t know. I keep saying every year, you know what, “I’m going to play one more year. One more year.” That one more year has turned into 10 more years, so I have no clue. I always say, when the wheels fall off. They’re getting squeaky.

OJ: No, you ain’t got me fooled. I know exactly where you are and so does my quarterback. “There’s the Mike. There’s the Mike.” You ain’t fooling me.

I think that obviously when people see you play, they don’t know how long you’ve been playing for, because you don’t move like anyone who’s been playing linebacker for 20 seasons.

But 2021 is going to bring new challenges, right? It’s going to bring new players. To your point, it’s going to bring new rookies that step out there and say, “I don’t care how hard she hits. I want to get in the drill with you.”

There’s going to be new teams, right? You got new teams in your conference, right?. You got Philly coming. You got the Prodigy coming. You got North Carolina coming. All these new teams are coming out there and we got Kansas City now coming and bringing it. What do you say to the people who are like, “It’s time to dethrone Smiley”?

Smiley: I’ma say, “I’ve been sitting at home working for COVID-19 working out three times a day, bring it. Bring it.”

OJ: I like how you’re getting real close to [the camera] like it-

Smiley: Oh it’s boiling. I haven’t been able to hit anybody in 3 months? Oh it’s brewing. All that is brewing.

OJ: I feel you man. I can’t wait to see you ball and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that when a lens is pointed at you in 2021 that it’s beautiful. And that we put the best product that you have ever seen related to a produced women’s tackle football game. We’re going to set the standard like we’ve been setting the standard, I’ll promise you that.

When you guys see some of the stuff that gets recorded you’re going to be like, “Man, we look good out here.” That’s the one thing that I’ma make sure we do. Because you deserve it.

Smiley: I’m excited. I’m ready.

OJ: You deserve it. So, the schedule for 2021 obviously is going to look different and you’re going to have some really good teams out there. So folks that aren’t looking at it on an individual level and they’re looking at it on a team level, what is this defense going to look like in 2021?

If I’m an offense and I’m scouting against you in Philly saying listen, you got Satoria Bell out there, like, “Bring it. I don’t care”. They got DeGraffinreed out there in Philly now. They got Bell out there in Philly. They got Angie Wells out there in Philly. They got some ballers, right? And that offense is coming your way. What can they expect to see in 2021 out of that Phoenix defense?

Smiley: Well, first of all, we already know what you got. So I can tell them exactly what you got, what you going to do, how you going to do it. You don’t know what we going to do. So it's a mystery of it.

We have some ballers on our team. We’ve recruited some ballers and they have done nothing but get better. I try to workout with these women twice a week to make them better athletes, period. Even during the COVID we’ve been working out together. We’ve been getting them better, making them better athletes. So we are going to be a force to be reckoned with.

OJ: So what exactly is the scheme y'all are going to be running? What is... If you see Toss, Sweep, Reverse coming, tell me what exactly... No, I’m just kidding.

Smiley: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

OJ: No listen, you being in ATL and having the industries that you have in Atlanta, how do you see continuing to grow the brand of the Atlanta Phoenix in a city that, obviously before COVID, was bustling? There is so much opportunity in terms of connecting with businesses, connecting with the media. You got the entertainment industry. What are some of your thoughts about how you grow the Phoenix brand in ATL so that you can pack them stands?

Smiley: Well, without giving too much away, we’ve already pretty much before this season was supposed to pop off, we had already reached out to a number of people to make a lot of changes for this season alone. But now since we have so much more time to think of new ideas and to just brainstorm, 2021 is going to be amazing. I’ve worked in damn near every industry there is, so I have networked and reached out to a lot of people.

OJ: No, but I think that your point is really good that you guys get another year to prepare in a major city that everybody’s going to be looking for content for partnerships and that kind of stuff. It’s good to hear that you guys are coming up with it.

What are you guys doing in Atlanta to make sure that the pipeline of women… That you keep building the team, keep the team young, you keep bringing in? What kind of things are y’all doing in Atlanta to recruit?

And the other thing is, you guys got people from all damn country. You got like 19 Mexicans coming. You got people coming from Canada. I think there’s some girl flying from Zimbabwe coming. Now you got all these people coming from everywhere. What y'all doing down there?

Smiley: To be honest, a lot of people reach out to us and it’s just kind of like we are able to pick and choose who we can bring on and who we don’t bring on. Playing football, period, has afforded me the chance to meet a lot of people around the world. Playing with the World Games, I came in contact with a lot of those women.

When I stayed in… The girls in Paris, and the girls in shit damn near everywhere, in Brazil, and Mexico, and a lot of those places. We kept in contact. A lot of them reach out to me and they’re like, “Hey, I’m thinking about moving to Atlanta,” or “I want to come play a season with you guys.” And we’re like, “Well, shit, come on!”

Anybody that wants to come play, I’m always excited to have them come tryout come play and just to grow the sport, period. We’ve been fortunate that people actually reach out to us. We’ve also been fortunate a lot of the rookie class that come in. They have so many friends that they reach out to. They’re like, “Hey, I play football now, why don’t you come.” Atlanta is so huge and we could have so many more. So we going to try to keep putting our name out there, keep bringing more people in, and have some more A1 talent.

OJ: That’s what’s up. So as we kinda close out here, I got two major questions. I’m just saying, these are good ones. So if there are linebackers out there, young female linebackers out there around the country and they’re watching this. And they recognize you as one of the best, and you’ve done it at the highest level. And they want to know how. They want to know how to be able to do it the way that you’ve done it. What do you tell them?

Smiley: Keep your body in shape. Good Lord. No, keep your body in shape and also study. Study the game. I think any good linebacker, period, or even a middle linebacker, whatever you choose to be, has to know both sides of the ball.

I try to tell a lot of the girls, no matter what position you play, especially if you’re going to play linebacker, you need to know both sides of the ball. You need to know what those running backs are doing. You need to know what the guards are doing. You need to know what the quarterbacks are doing. You need to know their plays pretty much. So it’s studying, learning, reading, reacting, keeping your body together, all of the above. All of the above.

OJ: That’s good advice. That’s really good advice and it’s so funny because Dillow says that all the time. The thing that differentiates our greatest players... And it’s the same at every level of football, college, NFL, WNFC… The players who take care of their bodies and who treat their bodies like the best part of their game seem to continue to get better and the other ones fade away. Right, everybody has their moment but that lasting power is all about how you take care of your body.

So from a recruiting standpoint, let’s say that there's players out there in ATL, say there’s somebody sitting there in Dallas, they’re watching this and they’re like, “I don’t know what WNFC team I want to ball for, but I’m a free agent and I play defense.” Tell them why they should choose ATL and to come play defense with you.

Smiley: Come play with us if you want to learn the game. If you want to have a great sisterhood, if you want to be motivated, have good leadership to follow behind, be in shape, because that’s definitely what we going to do for you.

And my biggest thing is learning the game and just to be a better player all around. So it’s not just at your position. You’re going to know the other positions. You’re going to know the game, period. I think that’s my biggest thing.

OJ: Yeah that’s what a lot of players are looking for. But man, thank you so much. This has been amazing. Thank you for letting us peer into your life.

As I shared before, I’ve met a lot of people in this world. I’ve been all around the world and know a lot of great athletes. And there’s nothing like the great tackle women’s football athletes and you are definitely one of the greats. And I appreciate you for jumping in and sharing your why with us and giving us some of that ATL flavor. Alright man, I appreciate you Smiley.

Smiley: Appreciate it!

OJ: Thank you so much. Seriously, this has been so amazing. I can’t wait to share it out. 2021 we’re going to watch you ball, watch you do your thing, and continue to grow this game. Keep doing what you’re doing, man. Keep doing what you’re doing.

Smiley: Love you, bye!

OJ: Alright, peace. Alright y'all. That was Carla Smiley Odom of the Atlanta Phoenix and as you all can see, that charisma, that smile, man, we can all see why she is a star and why the WNFC is so excited to have Smiley as a part of our organization.


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