Bubba Smith was a towering presence

Posted Aug. 08, 2011 @ 2:57 p.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

Some football players embellish their height and weight on the roster sheet. Bubba Smith didn't have to. In the days leading up to Super Bowl III, Jets coach Weeb Ewbank asked Dave Herman to slide from guard to tackle.

"I weighed 255 and I had to block Bubba Smith, who must have weighed 320," recalled Herman in a New York Times interview years later. Actually, by most accounts, Smith played between 265-290 pounds during his NFL career. But when you tower over virtually every man lined up across from you, your dimensions can grow to Herculean proportions.

Smith was as famous for being big as he was for being good. There weren't 6-foot-7 defensive linemen in every NFL locker room back then, so the challenge his size posed was regular fodder for newspapermen. Offensive linemen spoke candidly about it before games. And the fact that Smith played his first five years as part of Baltimore's vaunted defense only intensified the fear offensive coordinators had for No. 78.

His death last week at 66 was national news, but sadly not because of Smith's NFL career. As a player, the Smith legend was never larger than his days at Michigan State. Before there was a "Run, Forest, Run" in Hollywood, Spartans fans regularly shouted "'Kill, Bubba, Kill." Notre Dame built its offensive game plan around blocking Michigan State's titan prior to 1966's "Game of the Century." When Irish QB Terry Hanratty sprinted right early in the contest, Smith dumped him into the East Lansing turf, separating Hanratty's shoulder. No coach could game plan for Bubba, which is probably why most all-time greatest college football player lists have him lined up at one of the end spots.

As a pro, though, Smith's career was short-lived. His time with the Colts had made him a rising star, but a crippling knee injury in a 1972 preseason game made him damaged goods, and a feud with management pushed him out of Baltimore. He spent two years in Oakland and two more in Houston, both beginning with hope and ending in disappointment.

"After I got hurt, people told me, 'You're going to have to go to a different ball game — brute force. You're going to have to run over people,'" Smith told Sports Illustrated in 1973. "My whole game is speed, quickness and getting people to get their feet crossed up so I can go by them. The people in the NFL are too big to run over, anyway." At the age of 31, football was through with Smith.

This is where the story of Bubba Smith should end. If it had, the news of his passing would have been short and sweet — a college great and former No. 1 overall draft pick who died much too soon. But the end of the 1976 season is really when Bubba Smith's career picked up again.

Football is entertainment. Fans love personality as much as they do hard hits and big plays. As part of Miller Lite's legendary "Great taste, less filling" campaign in the late 1970s and early '80s, Smith again found stardom for being the biggest man in the room. Often, he was given the biggest lines when Miller assembled casts of Hall of Fame talent.

Packaged with Dick Butkus, the two played up their "dumb jock" image to offer some of the most comical ads from the campaign. Speaking on golf, Butkus says, "You can't afford to get filled up when you're out there trying to get birdies." Scanning the sky, Smith follows, "Yeah, those things move awfully fast."

A 6-foot-7 giant with a sense of humor? Apparently, it had been there all along. Tweeted Baltimore Ravens radio voice Gerry Sandusky last week, "My dad was his position coach with the Colts. My brother and I would get Bubba sodas after practice on Saturdays. He would beg us to get our Dad to lighten up on him. Then he would smile."

After the Miller Lite ads there were television and film opportunities. In fact, some of the media reports last week gave more ink to his "Police Academy" credentials than to his ability to crunch quarterbacks. But I suspect that at some point down the road the importance of Moses Hightower will shrink within Smith's legacy.

What will never shrink, however, was how big Smith was for his day, how much he towered over the opposition. As history already has suggested, size doesn't fade like films and photographs. Who knows? Perhaps years from now, when stories are told about Baltimore's outstanding young end in Super Bowls III and V, Smith might stand 6-foot-9 and weigh no less than 350 pounds.

 

Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac