There’s no question Jerry Smith belongs on the Washington Redskins’ Mt. Rushmore of tight ends.
Whenever the topic of the best tight ends who ever wore Redskins burgundy and gold comes up, Smith is right up there with Chris Cooley, Jordan Reed, Don Warren, and Rick “Doc” Walker.
When Smith joined the Redskins in 1965, he bolstered an explosive receiving corps that also included future Hall of Fame wideouts, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell.
Smith became an eventual two-time Pro Bowler who became more of an undersized blocking tight end when the great George Allen became the Redskins head coach in 1971.
The Redskins, who had been one of the league’s laughingstocks for more than two decades, became perennial title contenders when Smith assumed his new role as a blocking tight end for the better part of the 1970s.
Smith eventually finished his 13-year NFL career with 5,496 receiving yards and 60 touchdowns on 421 receptions.
His 60 touchdown catches were more than those of Hall of Fame tight ends, Mike Ditka, Ozzie Newsome, Dave Casper, John Mackey, Jackie Smith, Charlie Sanders, and Kellen Winslow.
It wasn’t until 2003 when the Denver Broncos’ Shannon Sharpe eclipsed Smith’s career touchdown record for tight ends.
These are just some of the reasons Smith should receive serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday.
This is Jerry Smith’s incredible football journey.
Early Life and College Days with the Arizona State Sun Devils
Gerald Thomas “Jerry” Smith was born in Eugene, OR on July 19, 1943. He has a sister, Bonnie, and a brother, Ed.
Jerry attended San Lorenzo High School in Ashland, CA. He was on the San Lorenzo Rebels’ football, baseball, and wrestling teams.
Smith struggled early in his high school football career. He did not make the varsity squad until his senior season.
Smith took the JUCO route and attended Eastern Arizona Junior College the following year.
Jerry Smith was a gay tight end. One of the best ever .
Never got into the HOF.
He had 60 touchdowns , 5500 yards 13.1 ypc
9th round 1965 out of Arizona state
Passed away at 42 from aids in silver spring Maryland
His numbers better than HOF tight ends at the time pic.twitter.com/wqEwwY8ZpR
— Martin Brian Ansah (@DaAnsahonSports) June 15, 2020
He transferred to the Arizona State Sun Devils football program under head coach Frank Kush as a walk-on in 1963.
Smith played wide receiver as a junior that year. He had 129 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions for Arizona State, which had an impressive 8-1 win-loss record in Kush’s sixth year at the helm.
Kush moved Smith to tight end—the position at which he would excel in the National Football League for thirteen years—in 1964.
Smith was a natural fit. He had 618 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 42 receptions as the Sun Devils duplicated their eight-win season from 1963.
Although Jerry Smith played just one year at the tight end position during his college days at Arizona State, he blossomed into one of the best tight ends in Washington Redskins franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Washington Redskins made Jerry Smith the 118th overall selection of the 1965 NFL Draft.
On the other hand, the Kansas City Chiefs made Smith the 141st overall selection of the 1965 American Football League (AFL) Draft.
Smith and his family gathered together in their living room on draft day. The phone finally rang nine rounds into the draft festivities.
When Jerry answered the phone, he was elated to find out he will play for Bill McPeak’s Washington Redskins.
“Jerry was so excited. I mean, here’s a 21-year-old guy going to the nation’s capital,” his sister, Bonnie Smith-Gilchrist, told Commanders.com’s Hannah Lichtenstein in September 2022. “That was a real big thing, and it was the first part of a journey. He was eager to prove himself.”
Smith forged a tight friendship with fellow Washington rookie and safety, Brig Owens. The two rookies became training camp roommates at a time when racial tensions were still simmering.
Smith downplayed any potential backlash his pairing with Owens, an African-American, might create. He never paid attention to what other people thought about their friendship.
For his part, Owens told the Chicago Tribune (via Commanders.com) in 1986 that he and Smith spent hours talking about global issues. During their conversations, he found Smith to be a very caring individual.
Not only that, but Smith also knew the intricacies of the gridiron. One day, he told Owens to tackle Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey low because Mackey had a tendency to stiff-arm defenders with his fist.
Owens told Sports Illustrated almost five decades later the thought of Mackey knocking the living daylights out of him scared him silly.
Jerry Smith went on to spend his entire thirteen-year pro football career in Washington. Before long, he became one of Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen’s favorite targets.
Smith fortified a Redskins receiving corps that also included future Hall of Fame wideouts, Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell.
Jurgensen told Sports Illustrated in 2016 that Smith was a true professional. Smith ran precise routes and was always at the right place at the right time.
The quarterback also remembered Redskins strong safety Ken Houston was the only player who could stop Jerry Smith during their daily scrimmages.
Consequently, Smith constantly approached Jurgensen and asked him the best options that could stifle Houston.
Houston, who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1986, sang Smith’s praises.
“Covering Jerry at practice made me the safety I was,” Houston told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “He was the best pattern-running tight end I ever saw.”
In Smith’s first six seasons from 1965 to 1970, he and Jurgensen collaborated for 3,675 yards and 44 touchdowns.
Smith earned the first of his two career Pro Bowl selections and one Second Team All-Pro selection in his third season with the Redskins. He had 849 receiving yards and an incredible 12 touchdowns on 67 receptions that year.
Smith became a Pro Bowler for the second time in 1969. He had 682 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches on 54 receptions in 14 games while also earning First-Team All-Pro honors for the first and only time in his pro football career.
Jerry Smith’s second Pro Bowl nod coincided with the great Vince Lombardi’s first and only season as Redskins head coach in 1969.
In a 2014 episode of the NFL’s A Football Life (via Commanders.com), Ed Smith said Lombardi and Smith had a mutual admiration for each other. Jerry always talked about the beloved head coach.
Sadly, Lombardi succumbed to colon cancer in the fall of 1970 at 57 years old.
Although Jerry Smith became a first-rate tight end in the National Football League, the Redskins were just a mediocre team in the first half of his pro football career.
Washington averaged just six wins per season from 1965 to 1970. Consequently, they extended their long postseason drought to twenty-six years.
The last time the Redskins made the postseason was in 1945 when they lost in the NFL Championship Game to the Cleveland Rams, 15-14. Jerry Smith was just a two-year-old toddler at the time.
When the NFL ushered in the 1970s decade, the Redskins became a completely different squad under the leadership of head coach George Allen.
Allen made wholesale changes when he took over the reins from Bill Austin. He relegated an aging Jurgensen to backup duties in favor of new starting quarterback Billy Kilmer in 1971.
Kilmer rose to the occasion and led the Redskins in passing yardage until the end of Smith’s NFL career in 1977.
As for Smith, Allen asked him to take on more blocking assignments. Consequently, Smith never had more than 554 receiving yards from 1971 to 1975.
Smith, however, had seven touchdowns on just 21 receptions in the 1972 NFL campaign.
Despite the drop-off in Smith’s offensive production, he earned Allen’s respect because of his exemplary blocking abilities.
Although Jerry Smith was an undersized blocker who stood 6’3″ and weighed 210 pounds, he held his own against bigger pass rushers who easily outweighed him by at least 50 pounds.
Throughout his thirteen-year pro football career, Smith was a consummate team player who was never afraid to hold off a ferocious pass rusher. He earned the respect of his coaches and teammates alike with his selfless play on the football field.
Allen promptly righted the Redskins’ ship from the get-go. Washington averaged eleven wins per season in Smith’s last seven years in the NFL from 1971 to 1977.
Not only did the Redskins end their agonizing playoff drought, but they also became perennial Super Bowl contenders. They made the postseason five times from 1971 to 1976.
The Redskins have taken the lead back on a Jerry Smith touchdown catch! pic.twitter.com/Reh7706YqO
— The NFL in 1972 (@NFL50YearsAgo) October 1, 2022
Washington also made its first Super Bowl appearance at the end of the 1972 NFL season.
Unfortunately, the Redskins lost to Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII, 14-7.
Smith was in a position to help Washington tie the game in the fourth quarter. However, the ball never made its way to him in the end zone. Instead, the goalpost got in the way of Redskins quarterback Billy Kilmer’s pass.
Despite the flubbed pass, Kilmer always thought highly of Jerry Smith.
Kilmer lauded Smith for his team-first mentality and great hands. Whenever Kilmer asked Smith if he could stay after practice to catch more passes, the latter always obliged, per Sports Illustrated.
A Big Secret
Smith had a secret that made national headlines many years after he played his final down in the National Football League: he was gay.
Smith never broached the topic of his sexuality with his Redskins teammates, who loved him like a brother, per Lichtenstein.
His sister, Bonnie Smith-Gilchrist, told Commanders.com in the fall of 2022 they never looked at him merely as a gridiron warrior. They considered him a good person on and off the football field.
“They took care of him, and he took care of them,” Smith-Gilchrist said. “If any teammate needed anything, others would drop what they were doing and come help. It was such a tight-knit brotherhood.”
Sonny Jurgensen, Smith’s first quarterback in the pro football ranks, told Sports Illustrated in 2016 that he had no idea if any of the Redskins knew about Smith’s sexual orientation. If they did, they would not have made a big issue out of it.
Smith had a one-night stand with Redskins running back David Kopay sometime during the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Smith and Kopay became intimate after a drinking session with Redskins public relations director Joe Blair one summer evening.
Kopay thought that was the beginning of a long-term relationship with Smith. However, the latter never saw it that way. Although they continued to talk, they were never intimate again, per Sports Illustrated.
Kopay, who came out as gay in 1975, remembered Smith taking him to an underground gay bar in the Baltimore, MD area—his first.
Although Jerry Smith never came out publicly about his sexuality, he also had his insecurities.
Smith’s friend David Mixner told USA TODAY‘s Nate Davis in January 2014 the Redskins tight end lived in constant fear that he was going to lose everything he owned.
Time to Hang it Up
Jerry Smith retired following the 1977 NFL season. He had 5,496 receiving yards and 60 touchdowns on 421 receptions in his thirteen-year pro football career.
Smith’s 60 career touchdowns set a new league record for tight ends. That record would stand for twenty-six years until the Denver Broncos’ Shannon Sharpe broke it in 2003.
Many football historians have also vouched for Jerry Smith’s entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Smith has more career touchdown catches than several Hall of Fame tight ends, including Mike Ditka, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Sanders, Jackie Smith, John Mackey, Dave Casper, and Ozzie Newsome.
Four-time Pro Bowl running back Calvin Hill, who played for the Washington Redskins from 1976 to 1977, considered Jerry Smith the best tight end he ever played with.
On this day in 1943, Redskins TE Jerry Smith was born. Memories of a great player in a different era. True Brotherhood …Brig Owens, Larry Brown, Bobby Mitchell, Roy Jefferson, Charlie Taylor. Happy Birthday Jer. pic.twitter.com/7XrzVpoXBA
— Bonnie Gilchrist (@ballcoachbonnie) July 19, 2020
That’s saying something considering Hill had been Ditka’s teammate with the Dallas Cowboys. He had also been Newsome’s teammate with the Cleveland Browns.
“I never played with a better tight end than Jerry Smith,” Hill told Sports Illustrated in 2016.
On the other hand, former Washington Redskins head coach George Allen singled out Jerry Smith as the best tight end in franchise history.
It was a no-brainer for Allen. Smith’s name was the first to come to mind when he named the Redskins’ all-time team in 1986, per Sports Illustrated.
Post-Football Life and Death
Jerry Smith owned The Boathouse gay bar in Austin, TX in the early 1980s, per Sports Illustrated.
Smith also managed a construction business in Rockville, MD, and sold mortgages after he retired from the National Football League.
Smith stayed in shape during his retirement years by playing golf and working out, per The Washington Post‘s George Solomon.
The news of Smith contracting the dreaded AIDS virus broke out in the summer of 1986. He had been afflicted with the disease since December 1985.
Smith’s constant fatigue prompted him to take an AIDS test four months earlier. However, the results came out negative.
When the symptoms persisted, he took another test four months later. Alas, the results were positive the second time around.
“It took tremendous courage for Jerry to do what he did,” Smith’s training camp roommate Brig Owens told the Chicago Tribune (via Commanders.com) that year. “But that’s Jerry. He was a team guy right to the end.”
Prior to the news of Smith getting the AIDS virus, his mother told Solomon he had not eaten solid food for two months. Smith received nutrients through intravenous means. He also took painkillers during his confinement.
Smith’s Redskins teammates came in droves and visited him at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, MD, per Lichtenstein.
#LGBTHistory One this day in 1986, Jerry Smith, a former tight end for the Washington Redskins, came forward about his AIDS diagnosis. This made Smith the first professional athlete to go public about having AIDS.
Unfortunately, Jerry Smith lost his battle two months later. pic.twitter.com/ZToswTSzBN
— gayNOLA (@gayNOLA504) August 26, 2020
Former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen remembered he and his other former teammates stood around Smith’s hospital bed.
“It was such a sad thing,” Jurgensen told Sports Illustrated in 2016. “He had been so full of life, and now he was melting. Guys who didn’t cry, who didn’t know how to cry, couldn’t stop.”
The closest Smith came to opening up about his gay lifestyle to Jurgensen was in his hospital bed in 1986. He whispered to Jurgensen he regretted moving to Austin, TX after he hung up his cleats in 1977.
Jurgensen already knew about Smith’s move to Texas because the latter also told his best friend, Brig Owens, the same thing.
Smith also spoke highly of Hall of Fame head coach Vince Lombardi on his deathbed.
“Every important thing a man searches for in his life, I found in Coach Lombardi,” Smith said (via Sports Illustrated). “He made us men.”
A hospital spokesperson recalled one out of every three phone calls was for Smith. Most of them were former and current Washington players. Owens visited him almost daily.
Sadly, Jerry Smith passed away on October 15, 1986. He was 43 years old.
Prior to Smith’s death, his weight dropped below 150 pounds though it had peaked at 210 pounds during his playing days with the Washington Redskins.
According to Commanders.com, twenty-three of Smith’s Redskins teammates from the 1972 NFL season attended his funeral. Jurgensen, Bobby Mitchell, and Charley Taylor were among those who carried his casket.
Jerry Smith is a member of the Washington Commanders Ring of Fame.