Since the league began in 1920, there have been thousands of players that have worn the jersey of an NFL team.
Given that information, the amount of players who make a memorable impression long after they have played is actually small.
While we are cognizant of our favorite athletes while they are playing, it is truly the special ones that we recall long after they have retired.
Whether it is for their play, their outsized personality or both, these special athletes capture our heart and imagination.
One such player is former Colts, Raiders and Oilers defensive end Bubba Smith.
Smith was a large and imposing force of will who terrorized opponents for 10 years in the NFL.
His fierce personality on the field belied his gentle and fun nature off it.
Long after he retired, Smith’s second career as an actor in a popular movie series endeared him to those who never knew him as a player.
He is now best remembered by the younger generation for his goofball antics and hilarious television and screen roles than for his athletic accomplishments.
This is the story of Bubba Smith.
In MEMORY of BUBBA SMITH on his BIRTHDAY –
Born Charles Aaron "Bubba" Smith, American professional football player, who starred as a defensive end in both college and the NFL before becoming an actor following his retirement from the sport. pic.twitter.com/oM4PjFRBA3
— spacewoman reporter (@SpacewomanR) February 28, 2019
Early life and college choice snub
Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith was born on February 28, 1945 in Orange, Texas.
His father, Willie Ray, was a very successful high school coach in the Beaumont, Texas area.
He accumulated 235 victories at three high schools during his career.
Smith had the opportunity to play for his father at Charleston-Pollard High School.
Under his father’s tutelage, Smith became one of the best athletes in the state.
He is still regarded as one of the finest athletes to ever play in the state of Texas.
With all the attention he was getting for his play on the field, it looked like Smith would have his choice of colleges.
In fact, he desperately wanted to play for the University of Texas and coach Darrell Royal.
UT football kicks off today! #DidYouKnow that the Johnsons knew Coach Darrell Royal? http://t.co/9iaX2xgQxu pic.twitter.com/JtqZfughwh
— Lyndon B Johnson NHP (@LBJohnsonNPS) September 5, 2015
However, the program had yet to be integrated.
Royal wanted to give Smith a scholarship, but the Longhorn program had not yet embraced black athletes as some of its Southwest Conference foes had done.
At that point in the South, racial integration was still a hot-button issue.
Coach Royal did not have the stomach to buck the system even with Smith’s immense talent.
The disappointment in not being able to attend his school of choice only motivated Smith to work harder.
He also sought out a different school where he could showcase his skills and show the Longhorns what they missed out on.
Smith would eventually find such a program, albeit one located over 1,000 miles north.
“Kill, Bubba, kill!”
Steering clear of the woefully slow to integrate southern schools, Smith found a new home in Lansing, Michigan.
Michigan State University was a bit of a culture shock for Smith.
Not only was he far from home, Michigan had something else he wasn’t used to, snow.
Smith recalled that his feet came out from him more than a few times slipping on ice during the winter.
BCPTBT: @MSUFBRecruiting came down and recruit three big time players from South Texas when they was not playing black football players in the SWC Gene Washington Bubba Smith Jess Phillips won national championship 1965 @ MSU! @HoustonChronHS @joeagleason pic.twitter.com/plKoNxIL0H
— BCP Foundation (@bayoucitypreps) September 4, 2020
His college career didn’t take off right away and Smith did the best he could not to think of home.
However, before a spring break early in his time in Lansing, Smith couldn’t wait to get back to Texas.
Some friends invited Smith to travel with them to Florida for the break.
He had other plans.
“I’m going home to Texas for my mama’s cooking,” he said.
Smith eventually made his mark on the Spartans program.
He became a feared defender in the Big Ten.
By the time MSU’s dominating 1965 season arrived, Spartans fans could be heard exhorting the 6’7”, 280 pound Smith at key moments.
The cry, “Kill, Bubba, kill!” could be heard far and wide.
During the ‘65 season, Michigan State finished 10-1.
Smith was part of a defensive unit that led the NCAA in rushing defense (45.6 yards per game) and scoring defense (6.2 points per game).
Even more impressive, Smith and his mates held rival Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame to negative rushing yards.
As the Spartans won the National Championship and the Big Ten title, Smith was named a First-team All-American.
During his senior season in 1966, Smith had 30 total tackles including 10 for losses.
Michigan State ranked third in the NCAA in rushing defense in 1966, allowing just 51.4 yards per game.
He was such a force that nine different organizations named Smith a First-team All-American for the second time.
Smith’s final college game would become a classic.
Why the Michigan State-Notre Dame 'Game of the Century' lives on 50 years later https://t.co/muWsiO2kbN #Spartans pic.twitter.com/BBZAUwLzBH
— Sparty Fans (@SpartyFans) September 13, 2016
The undefeated Spartans faced the equally undefeated Fighting Irish for the right to become national champions.
During the “Game of the Century,” Smith laid out Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty.
The result was a separated shoulder for Hanratty forcing him from the game.
Backup QB Coley O’Brien entered the game and it was assumed that the Spartans would take advantage.
They did not.
“That didn’t help us any. It just let them put in that O’Brien who’s slippery and faster and gave us more trouble,” Smith said years later. “The other guy (Hanratty) just sits there and waits, and that’s what we wanted.”
MSU was unable to capitalize on the opportunity and the contest ended in a 10-10 tie.
The result was a shared National Championship between the two schools.
The Spartans also won their second straight Big Ten championship.
On the heels of the Spartans two-year record of 19-1-1 and back-to-back National championships, Smith was thrust to the forefront of can’t miss NFL draft prospects.
His decision to leave home and attend college far away from friends and family was about to pay off.
Selected by Baltimore
Smith’s reputation as a difficult defender and rabid tackler was rewarded when the Baltimore Colts selected him with the first pick of the 1967 NFL Draft.
#OTD in 1967 Michigan State's Bubba Smith was the top overall pick in the first NFL/AFL common draft. Four Spartans went in the top 10. pic.twitter.com/PXWw7SPQgg
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) March 14, 2018
His selection still marks the only time in league history that a player from Michigan State has been chosen with the first overall pick.
For Baltimore, getting Smith was almost an embarrassment of riches.
The Colts were already a good team, perennially in the hunt for a championship.
They had won league championships in 1958 and 1959 and lost in 1964.
In 1966, Baltimore had a 9-5 record and made a trade with the Saints after the season, which netted them the top overall selection.
With that pick, they added Smith to an already potent lineup.
As a rookie in ‘67, Smith did not start a single game.
However, he did pick up seven sacks.
The Colts finished the year 11-1-2 but did not make the playoffs.
The following season, Baltimore and Smith were in the zone.
While the team steamrolled opponents on their way to a 13-1 mark, Smith was finding his groove.
That year, Smith became a starter and had a fumble recovery along with 10.5 sacks (the NFL did not keep track of tackles then).
He was named a Second-team All-Pro after the year. In the playoffs, the Colts beat Minnesota in the Conference Playoffs and dispatched the Browns in the NFL Championship.
Then, it was on to Super Bowl III to face the Jets.
Before the game, the heavily favored Colts took a shot across the bow from New York quarterback Joe Namath.
In a slap to the face of the collective Baltimore team, Namath predicted a Jets victory.
He was almost universally laughed out of the building as the Colts and NFL were understood to be the more physical (and all-around better) team than any squad representing the AFL.
However, the Jets got the last laugh as Namath proved prophetic in their 16-7 victory.
Jets shocked the football world by beating the Colts in Super Bowl III on this date 51 years ago.
They haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since that day.
How much longer will NYJ fans have to wait? pic.twitter.com/RazDwrtaGg
— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaSports) January 12, 2020
In 1969, Baltimore struggled out of the gate, losing their first two games on the way to an 8-5-1 overall record.
Smith had seven sacks and two fumble recoveries for the year.
As Smith racked up ten sacks in 1970 and went to his first Pro Bowl, the Colts got back on track in the win column.
That season saw the team win 11 times against just two losses and a tie.
At that point in his career, Smith was notorious for his ability to get to the quarterback.
Offensive line coaches prepared all week to face him, yet still had a hard time shutting Smith down.
“He was a hell of a football player,” said Fred Miller, a former Colts defensive tackle and Smith’s teammate for five years.”
“By his second year in the league, once he got his attitude right and worked hard, I don’t think there was anyone in the league who could block him.”
“We used to prime Bubba all week,” Miller continued with a chuckle. “We’d know which offensive lineman he’d be facing in Sunday’s game, and we’d say, ‘Bubba, he’s going to kill you!’
“But it was always the other way around. They hardly touched him.”
Former teammate Bruce Laird also commented years later about Smith’s ability to wreak havoc on an offense.
“He was basically a freak of nature at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds. Bubba was the fastest player on the football team for 10 yards.”
In the ‘70 playoffs, Baltimore blanked the Bengals 17-0 in the Divisional round.
Bubba Smith of the Colts closes in on Virgil Carter of the Bengals in the 1970 playoffs. #CINvsIND pic.twitter.com/vqESg7Yybp
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) September 9, 2018
Then, they won a hard fought game against the Raiders in a contest where Smith nearly took over.
“In the [AFC] championship game in 1970, when we beat the Raiders, 27-17, in Baltimore, he absolutely destroyed the Raiders,” former Baltimore GM Ernie Accorsi said. “He knocked [quarterback Daryle] Lamonica out of the game. He was unblockable.”
The victory over Oakland meant the Colts were returning to the Super Bowl, where they would face a formidable Dallas team.
The Cowboys took a 13-6 lead into the half, but Baltimore eventually prevailed 16-13.
The game wasn’t decided until Colts rookie kicker Jim O’Brien made a 32-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining.
On January 17, 1971, the Baltimore Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13 to win Super Bowl V. Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley was named the game’s MVP. #SuperBowl #NFL #1970s pic.twitter.com/XGTQbVJ5BH
— 70’s Daily Dose (@70sDailyDose) January 17, 2021
With their Super Bowl V victory in hand, the Colts received their championship rings the following fall.
However, Smith said during interviews that he purposefully didn’t wear his ring.
He was disappointed that he and his teammates did not win Super Bowl III in 1968.
1971 and ‘72
In 1971, Smith continued his assault on quarterbacks with 8.5 sacks.
That helped him get selected to his second straight Pro Bowl and a First-team All-Pro nod.
The Colts advanced to the playoffs with a 10-4 record.
They defeated the Browns 20-3 in the Divisional Playoffs then succumbed to the Dolphins 21-0 in the AFC Championship, thus ending their attempt at repeating as champs.
During the 1972 preseason, Smith was seriously injured when he accidently ran into a yardage pole before a game.
The yardage poles were used by the NFL to mark yardage during games and were made from solid steel.
Unfortunately, his injury was serious enough to cause Smith to miss the entire season.
Trade to the Raiders
It turned out that 1972 would be the last season that Smith would spend in Baltimore.
In a somewhat surprising move, the team traded him in the summer of 1973 to the Raiders for tight end Raymond Chester.
Although the trade may not have been popular with Colts fans, it turned out well for Smith.
Bubba Smith – Oakland Raiders (November 17 1974)…https://t.co/09rz0q0QjV https://t.co/eDw2xW2F1b#nfl pic.twitter.com/B3PB62rhmd
— NFL (@NFLSeason17) September 19, 2017
While he put together a 4.5 sack season, Oakland went 9-4-1 in 1973 and returned to the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons.
In the Divisional round, they took care of their hated rival, the Steelers, 33-14.
The following week, Miami advanced to Super Bowl VIII by beating the Raiders 27-10.
In 1974, quarterback Ken Stabler guided Oakland to 12-2 and a first-place finish in the AFC West.
Meanwhile, Smith had one fumble recovery and three sacks for the year.
In the postseason, the Raiders took a measure of revenge against Miami from the previous year, knocking them out 28-26.
In the AFC Championship game, Pittsburgh in turn enacted a bit of their own revenge by knocking out the Raiders 24-13.
For the second year in a row, Oakland and Smith came up just short of the Super Bowl.
Return to Texas
By 1975, Smith’s once illustrious career was winding down.
After starting 25 games over two years in Oakland, he was traded to Houston.
In memoriam: Remembering former #Oilers DE Bubba Smith, BOTD in 1945
🏩 Nacogdoches County, TX
⚰️ Los Angeles, CA (Aug. 3, 2011 age 66
🎓 Michigan State
📊 2 GS
🎽 7️⃣7️⃣#LuvYaBlue #RIP 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/j8rYP1R4GK
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) February 28, 2021
This marked a return to his home state. However, it also marked a sharp decline in his production.
During the ‘75 season, Smith cracked the starting lineup only twice, leading to a paltry two sacks.
The Oilers, in head coach Bum Phillips’ first year, went 10-4 but failed to make the playoffs.
The 1976 season was a giant step back for not only Houston but Smith as well.
While the team regressed to a 5-9 record, Smith barely saw the field.
In what would be his final season, he only saw limited playing time in four games.
Even worse, he did not collect any meaningful stats that season.
After the year ended, Smith decided to hang up his cleats.
In nine seasons (he did not play in ‘72) Smith had 52.5 total sacks along with four total fumble recoveries.
He played in two Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls and was a First-team All-Pro once and a Second-team All-Pro twice.
As he rode off into the sunset, little did Smith know that his ability to make an impression would soon reach people far and wide.
Second career as an actor
Even retired, Smith’s imposing size was perfect as a pitchman and character actor.
In the late 70s’, Smith and an assorted mix of former NFL stars such as Dick Butkus starred in a series of humorous Miller Lite beer commercials.
An 80's shot 📸 ✨ … Mickey Spillane & Billy Martin (seated) … (L-R) John Madden, Rodney Dangerfield, Bernie Geoffrion, Boog Powell, Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith.#Television #Commercials #MillerLite #1980s pic.twitter.com/4iDwoGva67
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) February 28, 2021
As the athletes took turns arguing over whether the beer was “less filling” or “tasted great,” Smith delivered a few memorable lines to the camera.
“I had my own way of tackling,” Smith said during the ad. “I used to grab the whole backfield. Then I threw guys out until I found the ball.”
At the commercial’s end, Smith tore off the top of a beer can while smiling and proclaiming, “I also like the easy-opening cans.”
For the next few years, Smith had small roles in various television shows and movies.
In 1984, he hit the big time.
That was the year where Smith joined a motley group of actors for the wacky movie The Police Academy.
Released March 23, 1984, Police Academy is a comedy film directed by Hugh Wilson, and starring Steve Guttenberg, Kim Cattrall, Bubba Smith, Michael Winslow, and G.W. Bailey. pic.twitter.com/Rsw4SrEmSi
— 🎃💀Killer Kitsch👻🕸 (@killer_kitsch) March 23, 2020
In the movie, he played the role of Moses Hightower.
Smith would reprise this role for five additional Police Academy movies over the next five years.
Former teammates noted that Smith’s role in the Police Academy movies fit him to a T.
“He was really a gentle, elegant person,” Accorsi said. “In the movies, he wasn’t acting at all. He was just being Bubba.”
By the end of the 2000s, Smith had appeared in over a dozen television shows and bit parts in movies.
🎉Bubba Smith was born on February 28, 1945 pic.twitter.com/9aV3IuwLRz
— RetroNewsNow (@RetroNewsNow) February 28, 2021
In 1988, Smith was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Additionally, his jersey number 95 was retired by Michigan State in 2006.
The sports world was shocked in 2011 when it was announced that Smith’s caretaker had found him dead in his Los Angeles home.
Thinking of the great Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith which would’ve been his 74 birthday today. Rest well Bubba we miss you! 🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/eGYGqsO1HQ
— Four Verts 🏈 (@FourVerticals_) February 28, 2019
The official cause of death at the time was acute drug intoxication and various other conditions.
During his autopsy, doctors found the weight loss drug Phentermine in his system.
They also noted Smith suffered from heart disease and high blood pressure.
The coroner revealed that Smith’s heart was twice the weight of a normal heart and that some vessels were blocked.
Five years later, it was revealed by the Concussion Legacy Foundation that Smith’s brain, which his family had donated, was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
It was further noted that, out of the four stages of the disease, Smith’s brain was at stage 3.
The fact that Smith died, in part, due to an enlarged heart was no surprise to those that knew him.
His love of the game, as well as his outsized movie characters, showed that Smith’s heart was filled with a love of life.
This zest for fun was noted by former teammates after his death.
“He was just a good guy,” said former Colts linebacker Mike Curtis of Smith.
Tony G says
Well done Ben! This article sheds light on a truly admired and adored gentle giant!
Ben Donahue says
Thank you, Tony!
Jay Westerman says
That was a great article. Bubba was a winner in life.
Ben Donahue says
Thank you, Jay!
Ben Donahue says
Thank you, Jay!
Ken Edwards says
I first saw him in the police academy movie and that’s when my dad told me about how great a player he was. We were from Baltimore originally and my dad loved him for his football days. I remember seeing him and guys like Dick Butkus play in the old NFL films that would show up and he was a beast. Thanks for the article and walk down memory lane!
Ben Donahue says
The Police Academy movies were my first introduction to Bubba as well. I found out by about the third movie that he had been a former NFL player and I instantly dug into NFL archives to find out more about him. By all accounts, he was a pleasure to work with off the field and seemed to have a lot of fun in the movies. He’s definitely missed.