Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bubba Smith Dies

Hearing the news today that Bubba Smith is dead brought back a childhood memory.

And it isn't a memory of his role in the "Police Academy" movies — which, actually, came along after I graduated from college.

The Associated Press quoted authorities as saying the death did not appear to be suspicious, but the cause is not yet known. Smith was 66.

When I was a child, Smith may have been the most feared defensive player in football. At 6'7" and 265 pounds, he was often the example that was cited whenever someone wanted to make the most extreme comparison someone could make regarding size (i.e., "He's as big as Bubba Smith").

Those are impressive numbers today, but even a casual football fan could probably name, off the top of his head, several current players who are both taller and heavier. Size and talent do not always go hand in hand, and not all of them would be All–Pro players, but Smith was.

Don't get me wrong. Size has always been important in football, but before Smith came along, teams actively sought more of a balance between athleticism and size in their linemen.

Smith played in something of a transitional period. He was a blend of immovable object and irresistible force when more and more linemen — on both sides of the ball — were content simply to be immovable objects.

My childhood memory is of something of an offhand joke that my father made when I was in my football card collector period. One afternoon, I had purchased a couple of packs of football cards (I guess I would have been about 9 or 10).

I opened them in the car on the way home, and a card of Bubba Smith was in one of them. I told my father.

"I got Bubba Smith!" I exclaimed (or something similar).

"Do you get two cards for him?" my father asked and chuckled at his own joke.

You had to be crafty to play the line in those days. You couldn't just get away with being big. You had to be clever. And you had to have a lot of confidence in yourself.

I was reminded today of a great story about Smith from back in the days when the college all–stars played the defending Super Bowl champs in the game that kicked off the NFL's preseason schedule.

As an All–American at Michigan State, Smith played against Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers in that exhibition game on Aug. 4, 1967. Early in the game, he burst through the line and tackled Starr in the backfield (I'm not sure if they were calling that a "sack" yet).

When the play was over, Smith said to Starr, "All night long, old man, all night long. Big Bubba's gonna be right here on top of you all night long."

Actually, Green Bay offensive lineman Jerry Kramer recalled in his account of the 1967 NFL season, Smith never got to Starr again. Kramer wrote that he was impressed with Smith's quickness but said he had trouble using his hands and, once Kramer adjusted, Smith posed no problems for him.

Smith was just a college player at the time, though, and it wasn't long before, as a member of an astonishingly talented Baltimore Colts team, he played in the Super Bowl himself, losing to Joe Namath and the New York Jets.

Two years later, he was a member of the Colts' only Super Bowl–winning team in the 20th century, but he refused to wear the ring he received for participating in Super Bowl V. The game was so sloppy (nearly a dozen turnovers) that he felt embarrassed to wear it.

(It is ironic, I suppose, that, on the 40th anniversary of that game last January, I wondered on this blog if Smith's survivors would put the ring on his finger before he was buried. Maybe the only way we will know is if the ring surfaces on Ebay or something like that.)

Smith is enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, but he is not in Pro Football's Hall of Fame. Perhaps one day he will be.

One of his teammates on those Baltimore Colts teams, tight end John Mackey, was inducted into the Hall of Fame nearly 20 years ago and, ironically, died just last month.

There aren't many tight ends in the Hall of Fame, but one, Shannon Sharpe, will be inducted this weekend.

In all, seven individuals will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Some of them, like Sharpe, will be quite familiar to modern fans; others (Les Richter and Chris Hanburger) are remembered by few. At least one (filmmaker Ed Sabol) never played the game.

Bubba Smith will not be one of the inductees — but, if there is any justice, one day (perhaps one day soon) he will be.

He just won't be around to see it.


Anonymous said...

As a close personal friend of the Smith family, I can tell you for certain that Bubba placed his first Super Bowl ring in the coffin of his dad, Coach Willie Ray Smith. The last known whereabouts of the second ring was the property dept. of the Glendale Police Department, where it was held after his brother, Tody, was arrest many years ago. Tody did not go claim the ring, and Bubba did not place much value on monetary possessions. I highly doubt that it remained there very long.

Anonymous said...

While Bubba was in the hospital following his knee injury while playing in Tampa Bay, his close friend and Baltimore attorney, Stanley (I forget his last name) filed a worker compensation suit on Bubba's behalf against the NFL. Bubba always believe this was the reason he was never inducted in to the Hall of Fame.