Former NFL tight end Jackie Smith is primarily known for one specific play.
During his lone season as a member of the Dallas Cowboys in 1978, Smith played in the only championship game of his career.
In the third quarter of Super Bowl XIII against Pittsburgh, quarterback Roger Staubach saw Smith alone in the end zone and fired a pass his way.
Instead of catching the ball and tying the score, Smith dropped it and most of America felt pity for the long-time vet.
Today in 1979, the Steelers beat the Cowboys 35-31 in Super Bowl XIII. I've seen the replay probably a thousand times and yet I still expect Jackie Smith to make that catch. pic.twitter.com/R1NnIvnx8x
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 21, 2018
Despite the drop, Smith was known as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL at the time.
He had been an accidental football player in college before embarking on a 15-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Smith’s time in St. Louis was marked by just three playoff appearances, but he was a frequent participant in the Pro Bowl due to his sure hands and great blocking.
This is the story of Jackie Smith.
Injuries Curtail Smith’s Prep Football Career
Jackie Larue Smith was born on February 23, 1940, in Columbia, Mississippi.
Happy 80th birthday to Hall of Famer Jackie Smith who retired as the all-time leading receiver at tight end with 480 receptions, 7918 yards and 40 TDs. 10th round pick out of Northwest Louisiana State in 1963 and inducted into Hall of Fame in 1994. pic.twitter.com/AejInWBnrq
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) February 23, 2020
Shortly after he was born, the Smith family moved to Kentwood, Louisiana.
Looking back, it’s remarkable that Smith eventually played professional football given his abbreviated experience in high school.
When he was a freshman at Kentwood High School, Smith was a first-chair clarinet player in the Kentwood High band.
Before his sophomore year, Smith decided he wanted to try his hand at football.
There were only 30 kids total in Smith’s class, so making the team was easy.
However, he was barely into his first season on the gridiron when a torn Achilles tendon abruptly ended his initial attempt at football.
Then, when Smith returned as a junior, he was found to have severe swelling in his ankle.
The diagnosis from the doctor was osteomyelitis, and Smith missed all of his junior season except for the second half of the final game of the year.
Smith was lined up as a tailback that day and looked a little out of place.
“We were in the single wing and I was one of the backs,” he recalled. “I ran so goofy that the other team couldn’t figure out what I was doing.”
Finally free from any medical issues before his senior year, Smith began the season as a starting tailback.
During the fourth game of the season, he sustained a serious hip injury and was finished.
In three years of prep football, Smith had played in all or parts of only five games.
Smith Excels in Track
Although his football experience was nothing to write home about, Smith was healthy enough to participate in track each year.
As a sophomore, he went out for the track team to try to impress a girl by running the hurdles.
Smith also found that he loved to run the quarter mile and compete on Kentwood High’s mile relay team.
Kentwood High School announced its first Hall of Fame Class recently. Small school, big talent! Jackie Smith and Queen Brumfield Nard, both members of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, in that class.
— Louisiana Sports HOF (@LaSportsHall) November 13, 2018
By the time he was a senior, Smith was a spectacular runner and won meets (and a state title) in the low and high hurdles.
“I was determined,” Smith said. “It’s (hurdles) a game of arms and legs played mostly from the neck up. Once you have the ability to do something, it’s about how you think about it and how you position it in your mind.”
Smith’s speed and agility on the track were his only chance at getting help to pay for college.
“I didn’t get any football knowledge in high school,” Smith said. “I didn’t even know what a draw play was. The only reason I went to college was because of track. I ran track the whole time I was in high school and eventually won the state championship in the hurdles in my division.”
Track Career Gets Smith Noticed by Colleges
In a meet during his senior year on the campus of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Smith won a race in the hurdles and was greeted at the finish line by Northwestern’s track coach, Walter Ledet.
Ledet and Smith took a walk and had a conversation about Smith’s college plans.
The coach told Smith that Northwestern would love to have him, but the school could only give him a partial scholarship.
Thinking quickly (and needing a full scholarship to afford college), Smith told Ledet that another school, Southeastern Louisiana, had expressed interest in him as well.
His claim wasn’t entirely true, but the idea that there was competition for Smith made Ledet scramble to make him a better offer.
A few days after their conversation, Ledet called Smith and gave him an updated scholarship offer.
“They told me, ‘If you go out for the football team and don’t quit, we can give you a full scholarship,’” Smith remembers. “I didn’t even have to play—just don’t quit.”
Now that his college education was paid for, Smith accepted Northwestern’s offer.
Not a Lot of Receptions, but Smith Still Shines
Smith may not have had many opportunities to play football in high school, but he was still a very good athlete.
He joined the Northwestern football team, and in 1960, he became a starter as a receiver.
Of course, college football at the time was dominated by run-based offenses, so Smith didn’t get a lot of passes thrown his way.
As a sophomore, he caught exactly 10 balls for 129 yards.
During Smith’s junior year in 1961, he only had nine passes for less than 100 yards.
Happy Birthday Jackie Smith; 10th Round Draft Choice out of Northwestern State; 210 games played, 480 receptions, 7,918 yards, 40 Touchdowns, 5X Pro Bowl, 4X 2nd Team All Pro, Member Professional Football Hall of Fame; 80 Today… pic.twitter.com/oQ3EcZm5IA
— Larry in Missouri (@LarryInMissouri) February 23, 2020
That leading receiver may or may not have been Smith.
Regardless, he was fast and elusive on the field (and on the track) and onlookers could tell that Smith was talented at what he did.
One of those onlookers happened to work for the St. Louis Cardinals football team and liked how Smith moved.
That observation would determine the course of Smith’s life.
Drafted by St. Louis
Jack Rockwell was the trainer for St. Louis and he also doubled as a scout.
He happened to catch a Northwestern spring game in 1962 and also caught a glimpse of Smith running on the track.
Astounded by his speed, Rockwell reported what he found to the Cardinals’ coaches.
During the 1963 NFL Draft, St. Louis was on the clock in the tenth round and the staff couldn’t agree on who to select next.
“Ah, hell, just take that redheaded kid from Louisiana,” said someone in the room.
Just like that, Smith was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals as the 129th overall pick of the tenth round.
OTD 1962: The Cardinals drafted future Hall of Famer Jackie Smith in the 10th round out of Northwestern Louisiana State. Smith went on to become the all-time leading receiver at tight end in 1973. #BigRed1960s pic.twitter.com/XOd5irrHJ7
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) December 3, 2021
Based on his minuscule college stats, the pick seemed like a reach, even to Smith.
“Getting drafted? I didn’t even consider it a possibility,” said Smith. “Somebody was looking out for my sorry ass, or the Gods were on my side, or [the Cardinals’ coaches] all just got drunk that day and didn’t make good decisions.”
Once the shock wore off, Smith prepared for his first pro camp by training with former Northwestern player Charlie Hennigan.
Hennigan was a receiver for the AFL’s Houston Oilers and one of the best pass catchers in the league.
He taught Smith the basics of playing receiver in the pros and taught him how to make precise cuts during routes and how to elude defenders.
By the time training camp arrived, Smith was ready to prove he was worthy of making the team.
“If they’re crazy enough to draft me, I’m crazy enough to make this damn team,” thought Smith.
Switch to Tight End
Smith’s attention to detail, his work ethic, and the lessons he learned from Hennigan helped him survive the slog of his first NFL camp.
When he found himself playing in the Cards’ final preseason game in 1963, Smith knew he had made the team.
“I pinched myself on the ass to see if I was awake,” said Smith.
However, St. Louis coach Fran Polsfoot conferred with head coach Wally Lemm about moving Smith to tight end.
Polsfoot believed that the 6’4, 235-pound Smith could be used at the position in the same way that Chicago Bears’ tight end Mike Ditka was being used.
Normally, the tight end had been little more than a blocker who occasionally caught a pass.
Ditka’s role on the Bears’ offense was different, though, and he was used more as a third (or fourth) receiver.
For example, in 1961 alone Ditka caught 56 passes, then 58 more in 1962.
There was also word in Baltimore that fellow 1963 rookie, John Mackey, was going to be used as a pass-catching tight end on the Colts’ offense.
Polsfoot had watched Smith every day in practice and knew that Smith’s speed could be used to the Cards’ advantage.
— Redbird News (@redbirdnews) August 4, 2017
Lemm gave his blessing and Polsfoot began teaching Smith the intricacies of the position.
Then, in Week 5 of the 1963 season, the regular St. Louis starter was injured and Smith took his place.
He responded by annihilating the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers with nine receptions for 212 yards and two touchdowns in the Cards’ 24-23 win.
After the Pittsburgh game, Smith became the new starter and St. Louis finished the ‘63 season 9-5.
As a rookie, Smith had 28 receptions for 445 yards and two scores.
Smith Becomes a Pro Bowl Player
Smith took to his new position well and finally became a full-time starter in 1965. He would not miss a start until an injury reduced his 1971 season to nine games.
In 1964, Smith had 47 catches for over 600 yards and four scores as St. Louis went 9-3-2 and played the Green Bay Packers in the Playoff Bowl, losing 24-17.
#BigRed Hall of Famer Jackie Smith will be signing autographs this Sunday (April 8) at the St. Louis Sports Collector's Show in St. Louis. Check out the details at below web link. Hope to see you there!https://t.co/bykKcPdcJ5 pic.twitter.com/0rLElG63Pc
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) April 2, 2018
It was the first postseason appearance for the Cards since 1948.
The next decade would not be kind to St. Louis as the organization failed to return to the postseason until the mid-1970s.
However, Smith established himself as the NFL’s preeminent tight end.
“He had the raw speed of a lean sprinter and the tenacity of a Cajun crocodile,” said long-time friend Mark Vittert.
Between 1966 and 1970, he was selected to the Pro Bowl each year and he was a second-team All-Pro between 1966-1969.
During the 1967 season, Smith had career-bests in receptions (56), yards (1,205), and touchdowns (nine).
This was remarkable for a tight end, and his yardage total was only 60 yards away from the NFL’s leader.
Even more stunning was the fact that the total was nearly 1,000 yards better than the average of the other tight ends in the league that season.
As his career progressed, teammates and opponents alike marveled at Smith’s athleticism.
He had great speed, fantastic hands, and was a sound technical blocker.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 23, 2021
Also, when it came to running in the open field after a catch, Smith didn’t bother dodging defenders — he simply ran over and through them.
“He was the baddest dude you ever played with; you’d have to shoot him to stop him,” said Tim Van Galder, Smith’s teammate. “Nobody messed with Jackie Smith.”
“Everybody liked Jackie from the first day we saw him,” Coach Lemm said. “In fact, we wondered why he wasn’t drafted until the 10th round. Two things I remember best. If you got the ball to Jackie, he would catch it. Then he would set sail for the end zone and nothing was going to stop him. He was just a bull to bring down.”
St. Louis Returns to the Playoffs
In 1973, new coach Don Coryell arrived in St. Louis.
Coryell loved to throw the football and Smith was a happy recipient.
That year, Smith caught 41 passes for 600 yards and caught 25 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns in 1974.
When JACKIE SMITH played for the St. Louis Cardinals, he was one of the best all-around TE's in the history of the NFL. pic.twitter.com/9xc2sK6Kwf
— BESTBALL VIPER (@DFSVIPER2) October 21, 2021
St. Louis put together a 10-4 record in ‘74 and finally returned to the playoffs before losing to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional round.
In 1975, Smith’s usage began to decline and he started only seven games, catching just 13 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns.
However, his blocking helped the Cards only surrender eight sacks total in 14 games, which set an NFL record.
After winning 11 games for the second time in franchise history, St. Louis lost in the Divisional round for the second year in a row — this time to the Los Angeles Rams.
Smith Retires for the First Time
In 1976 and 1977, Smith started one game total (mainly due to injuries) and had eight receptions and one score.
After the 1977 season concluded, he retired.
Before the 1978 season, new coach Bud Wilkinson asked Smith if he’d like to return to St. Louis.
Smith was interested and had a physical conducted by the Cardinals’ medical staff.
Then, a week went by and Smith had not heard from St. Louis, so he reached out to the team.
The Cardinals’ team doctor told Smith that he had actually failed his physical and that one more serious hit could leave him paralyzed.
In a number of interviews since that time, Smith has said that he doesn’t believe he actually failed his physical and that then-owner Bill Bidwell didn’t want him back.
Tom Landry Asks Smith to Play for Dallas
Smith was a few months into retirement when he got a call from Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry.
When the voice on the other end of the line identified himself as the famous coach, Smith didn’t believe him and hung up.
Landry called back and asked Smith if he was interested in joining the Cowboys for the 1978 season.
The team had nearly depleted their roster of tight ends due to injury and needed help fast.
Smith worried about failing his physical as he did with the Cards but passed the Cowboys’ exam.
Feb 23: Happy birthday to HOFer and former Cowboy Jackie Smith (TE: 1978, HOF 1994, b. 1940).
Smith had retired from the St. Louis Cardinals but Tom Landry talked him out of retirement because of an injury to who? pic.twitter.com/T39X81h7dn
— Fred Goodwin (@fgoodwin) February 23, 2021
Upon hearing the good news, Smith relocated to Dallas.
Once he arrived, Smith was quickly shown the ropes and he thought Landry’s leadership was the best he had experienced.
“That’s what made him so extraordinary,” Smith said. “The players didn’t mess around. They wanted to make sure they didn’t miss anything or they didn’t upset him about anything. They didn’t actually say that, but you could tell by their actions.”
Smith’s first game with the Cowboys was in Week 5 and he played the rest of the year, starting two games.
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) February 26, 2022
He was never targeted during the regular season and didn’t catch any passes for the first time in his career.
That hardly mattered though, as Smith was on one of the best teams in the NFL.
“I just thought I was in heaven to be able to work my ass off down there,” Smith said. “It was such an honor.”
Super Bowl XIII
Smith finally caught a pass during the Divisional round game against the Atlanta Falcons in the 1978 playoffs.
At one point during the contest, the Cowboys were down by a touchdown in the third quarter and quarterback Roger Staubach had been sidelined due to a concussion.
Backup quarterback Danny White was behind center and Dallas was at the Atlanta two-yard line.
After the snap, White was nearly sacked but tossed a pass in Smith’s direction.
He caught the ball and made sure to keep his feet in bounds resulting in the tying touchdown.
Dallas would advance to the next round after pulling out a 27-20 win.
“Catching passes is like riding a bike,” Smith later said. “It’s something you never forget.”
The Cowboys blanked the LA Rams in the NFC Championship game and met the Pittsburgh Steelers for Super Bowl XIII.
For most of the afternoon, Smith was used as a blocker and did well keeping the Steel Curtain defense away from Staubach, who had returned from his concussion.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) March 17, 2022
Then, late in the third quarter, Dallas was perched on the Steelers’ 10-yard line, down by seven, and facing third down.
Landry called a play that was normally meant to be run if the offense was in a short-yardage, goal-line situation.
Staubach called timeout and debated with his coach about using the play, but Landry was insistent.
The play itself was a passing formation where Smith acted like a safety valve and ran his route to the back of the end zone and looked for a potential pass.
“We shouldn’t have ever called that play,” said Staubach years later. “We can blame what happened on coach Landry.”
“The Sickest Man in America”
When the ball was snapped, Staubach quickly noticed that Smith was wide open as he headed to his spot in the back of the end zone.
He let it fly as Smith was getting into position and that’s when the tight end looked up and noticed the ball heading in his direction.
Smith attempted to plant his feet and slipped just as the ball arrived at chest level, hitting him in the hands.
Inexplicably, Smith dropped the ball and then kicked his legs straight into the air in frustration.
With 2:41 left in the third quarter of Super Bowl XIII, a wide open #Cowboys TE Jackie Smith drops a sure 10-yard pass from Roger Staubach in the end zone, which would've tied the #Steelers at 21 all.
Verne Lundquist: "Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America." pic.twitter.com/JHcITX2IcL
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 21, 2023
The cameras caught Landry in distress and Staubach could be seen yelling at himself.
“All of a sudden I look and Roger throws me the ball,” said Smith. “I tried to dig my left foot to turn, and it slipped right out from under me. It put my body about a foot from where I should have been, and I couldn’t get my arms back far enough to compensate.”
When Smith dropped the ball, play-by-play announcer, Verne Lundquist, sympathized with Smith and explained what must have been going through his mind at the moment.
“Bless his heart! He’s got to be the sickest man in America!” said Lundquist.
Instead of tying the game, Dallas settled for a 27-yard field goal by kicker Rafael Septien.
Pittsburgh then scored two touchdowns before the Cowboys countered with two of their own.
Dallas came up short and lost the Super Bowl, 35-31.
The Aftermath of the Drop
In the locker room after the game, Smith faced the music with reporters and stayed to answer all their questions, no matter how painful.
“I hope it won’t haunt me,” he said then, “but it probably will.”
Staubach also made sure to explain that it wasn’t Smith’s fault that the Cowboys lost and proceeded to list a number of mistakes the team made prior to the play.
He also took full blame for the result of Smith’s drop and explained his reaction after the play.
“I was mad at myself,” Staubach said. “I’m thinking: Oh my God, I screwed up. To make a big deal out of the drop, like it cost us the game, was ridiculous. There were so many other factors in us losing. And we lost to a really great team. I’ve always been sick about it. It’s just wrong that Jackie has taken any kind of blame.”
Shortly after Super Bowl XIII, Smith retired for good.
81 days until Super Bowl LVII at Glendale, AZ. And # of @ProFootballHOF TE Jackie Smith, 480 rec. in 15 seasons w/#Cardinals, 5-time Pro Bowler, played w/#Cowboys in 1978@JulesForTheBlue @PfgVibe #NFL pic.twitter.com/A8ljCTE3Jk
— Russell S. Baxter (@BaxFootballGuru) November 23, 2022
During his career, he caught 480 passes for 7,918 yards and 40 touchdowns and also had 327 rushing yards and three more scores.
At the time of his retirement, Smith’s yardage total was the highest ever for an NFL tight end.
He had also been a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro.
However, that didn’t matter to people who were upset by Smith’s Super Bowl drop.
Smith and his family members, including his children, were harassed by Dallas fans and people who recognized him.
Years later, the Smith family opened an ice cream store, and a man called the store and blamed Smith for causing him to lose a $20,000 bet on the game.
All the negative attention turned Smith inward and he alienated himself from most people.
“It was always fresh on people’s minds. I had to contend with it daily,” he said. “I was very depressed, not feeling very good, not wanting to talk to people. I was laboring trying to put it into perspective.”
“It made me think about how fragile all of this is — fame, notoriety,” Smith said. “How much work it takes to get there, and how little work it is to take it all away. It can be taken away with something as frivolous as missing a goddamned pass.”
Life Moves On
It took a long time, but Smith was finally able to put things into perspective.
“Football is a means to an end; it is not the end itself,” he said. “Yes, it allowed me to enjoy and experience things I would not have been able to otherwise, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But there is so much more to life.”
After leaving the ice cream business, Smith developed a passion for fishing that turned into a career with boating manufacturer Hobie Cat.
He loved the job so much that he helped design the Mirage Pro Angler product for the company.
In 1994, Smith was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Missouri Hall of Fame.
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) July 30, 2020
He has since been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame and the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.
Smith is currently 83 years old and spends most of his time doting on his wife, Gerri, and their children and grandchildren.
“I had more football than I thought I would ever get,” he said. “I went farther than I thought I could go. And probably more than I ever deserved. It’s been a tremendous experience.”