By Larry Harris
The giant nicknamed "Bubba" was, at least for the moment, a stranger in a strange land as he towered over most of his Baltimore Colts teammates. In today's NFL there are few linemen who weigh less than 300 pounds, but in 1967, a 6-foot-7 man who tipped the scales at 285 was an anomaly.
Yet, the expectations dwarfed even those imposing physical dimensions. Smith was to be the next big thing, the All-American No. 1 draft choice out of Michigan State who would make big bucks -- for that era -- and give the Colts a defensive presence to rival the heydays of Gino Marchetti, Art Donovan and Big Daddy Lipscomb.
Don Shula's staff wasted no time in casting Smith into the fire. The Oklahoma drill, for those who have never seen it, has several variations, but it is basically a one-on-one blocker vs. defender exercise that separates men from boys. It is the closest thing to the Ultimate Fighting Championship that pro football has to offer.
During Smith's first few tries, Colt blockers got the best of him, and some of the closely gathered players began to snicker. Then, apparently, the big man at last realized this competition was a measuring stick of manhood as well as talent, because during his next try, Smith unleashed a roundhouse head slap to the helmet of scrappy veteran Dan Sullivan with an amazing result. Sully, a 250-pounder himself, was hurled into the air sideways and for what seemed like seconds, floated horizontally before crashing to the ground on his back.
"Boys," drawled the garrulous muscle man Billy Ray Smith, who would eventually play beside Smith on the defensive line for four seasons, "I think we got ourselves a player."
Smith's ensuing football career that ended too soon because of a freak injury has been well documented and now Smith's life has suffered the same fate. A caretaker found the huge man dead in his California home Aug. 3. He was 66 years old.
All sports fans are aware of Smith's second rip-roaring comedic career in advertising and the movies, but there are a ton of Smith stories that have never been told. These are a few of them.
It seemed as if there was a machine that manufactured outstanding pro football players in the Texas town of Beaumont during the '60s, and Smith was just one. Segregation laws kept him from playing college ball in the South, but Michigan State was oh, so glad to get a player of that caliber and he helped lift the Spartans to the mythical national championship in 1965 and a piece of it (along with Notre Dame) the following year.
What the Colts -- and others -- did not know was that Smith was truly a freak of nature. During a time when most teams were instituting all kinds of programs to make players stronger, Smith's power and speed were totally unenhanced. When he came to Westminster, Smith had never lifted a weight in his life. A lowly sports writer could bench-press more poundage than the No. 1 draft choice in the NFL.
To Smith's credit, he bought into a lifting program teammates Bill Curry and B.R. Smith developed, and in a year he was bench-pressing the sports writer himself -- and lifting a flexible actual human is not an easy thing to do. But it was natural strength and the speed of a jungle cat that made Bubba the scourge of NFL offensive linemen for five seasons before he crashed into a yard marker in an exhibition game in Tampa and severed three of the four major knee ligaments before the 1972 season. After serious surgery, he departed Baltimore and was never fully able to attain his previous heights.
Off the field, Bubba was a gentle soul who, without any fanfare, sought to help tear down racial barriers and ease the pain of the less fortunate. On some now-forgotten road trip, he showed up with a handful of tickets to the sold-out arena where hundreds were milling around in search of entry.
"Would you make sure that some of my little brothers who want to go to the game get these?" he asked a guy covering the team.
That was one of the most pleasant responsibilities the sports writer ever was charged to bear.
In the Colts' old Memorial Stadium dressing room, there were numerous uncovered construction bars and joists that hung not far from human heads. On one occasion then-general manager Dandy Don Klosterman, he of the flashy wardrobe and the Hollywood swagger, bet a pair of sports writers a hundred bucks that Smith could leap and touch one of those bars.
In those days, a hundred bucks was about half a week's salary for Baltimore sports writers and the two of them thought long and hard about emptying their pockets and taking the wager. They knew Smith could easily dunk a basketball, but in the dingy dressing quarters, that bar seemed to be a lot higher than 10 feet.
"You're on," they finally told Klosterman and Smith was summoned and told of the bet. The big man said not a word, but looked at the news guys with pity, uttered a big sigh, semi-crouched and vaulted into space. His head, once described by a writer as "big as a beach ball," nearly touched the bar -- but not his hand! Like Terrell Owens going for a pass over the middle, Smith suddenly grew alligator arms and his palm barely went by his ear as he flailed at the bar.
The writers fled with their winnings as onlookers roared. They could hear Klosterman cursing a hundred yards away.
Like all men, Smith had his failings. His genial, engaging off-field carriage disturbed some who thought he should wear his "Kill Bubba Kill" persona 24 hours a day, but Smith was more Bruce Wayne than Batman. Predictably, some critics never acknowledged his unique ability, claiming he eased up on far too many plays (does Julius Peppers' name ring a bell?) and he frequently drove diminutive trainer Eddie Block to such distraction that the little man with the big temper would actually come out of his sacred quarters and pummel the mammoth's midsection with both fists.
Even giants are sometimes humbled and so it was on one cross-country trip in the late '60s. By a quirk of schedule, the Colts crossed paths in an airport with the Philadelphia NBA team that featured one Wilt Chamberlain, who was asked to pose for a photo with Smith. The 7-foot-1 colossus, who was constructed like Hercules himself, draped an arm around Smith and the titan of the gridiron abruptly became a very small boy.
More Front Row:
• The Bubba Smith That Few Knew
• Nightmare Journeys: Dreams Come True
• Wounded Warriors Get Boost From PING
• 'Rhythm Boys' Recounts Sporting Struggle
• Frazier's Good Luck Rubs Off On Orioles
• From The Cheap Seats
Issue 164: August 2011