Neil Smith is the perfect example of a football player overcoming a learning disability to become one of the best pass rushers during his era.
Smith discovered he had dyslexia when he was a child growing up in New Orleans.
Back then, his dream was to play in the Super Bowl after watching his idol Ed “Too Tall” Jones play in Super Bowl X.
Smith persisted and even had to take defensive linemen tests orally when he turned pro.
He eventually formed a remarkable tandem with the late Derrick Thomas in Kansas City.
Chiefs fans will always remember Smith’s signature home run sack celebration after taking down quarterbacks week in and week out.
A little over a decade after Smith entered the NFL, he had earned two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos.
If Neil Smith enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday, it will solidify his status as one of the best defensive linemen in NFL history.
Neil Smith was born in New Orleans, LA on April 10, 1966.
Smith’s single mother Lutisha raised him, his older brother Kevin, and his older sister Sandra by herself.
Kevin and Sandra helped look after their youngest brother Neil to help ease their mother’s parenting load.
The three siblings grew up in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom, and one-kitchen house along Fig Street in New Orleans.
According to Smith’s 1998 autobiography Yes I Can! Struggles From Childhood to the NFL, his mother worked several jobs to make ends meet. One of those jobs was cleaning houses.
While Mrs. Smith worked during the day, she left her youngest son at daycare.
Neil Smith has always been a bundle of energy since he was a toddler. He described himself as “extremely energetic” at that age, per his autobiography.
He was into sports at a young age – he played touch football and stickball with other kids in his neighborhood.
Neil Smith also loved playing basketball as a child. He mentioned in his book he idolized legendary New Orleans Jazz point guard “Pistol Pete” Maravich:
“‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich of the New Orleans Jazz was my favorite player,” Smith wrote. “Everyone wanted to be like Pete. Dribbling behind his back and through his legs, Pete was the Michael Jordan of his time!”
Smith and his friends played basketball from dawn until dusk. They even played basketball when it got so dark they barely saw the hoop and backboard. They’d only go home because their had to eat dinner. Otherwise, they would’ve stayed longer.
The only time Smith didn’t get to play basketball was on Sundays. His mother insisted he attend Sunday school at the New Home Baptist Church every week. She told him her faith helped strengthen her in her daily life.
Smith wasn’t too keen on the idea as a child. However, he learned to appreciate and apply the things he learned in Sunday school when he became an adult.
“I was taught to treat others with respect and to show kindness and caring for those in need,” he wrote in his book. “Looking back, I’m glad my mom made me go.”
On the football front, Smith grew up idolizing Dallas Cowboys defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones.
Smith saw Jones in action against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X in 1976. Smith was barely ten years old at the time.
Smith loved the way Jones played. Watching that game gave birth to a new dream for Neil Smith: he wanted to play in the Super Bowl someday:
“He would leap high into the air with his arms fully extended to block a pass or a punt. I loved the way he was able to take control of the moment and to make something exciting happen,” he said.
Little did he know he’d play in not just one, but win two consecutive ones, with the Denver Broncos two decades later.
Neil and Kevin Smith made extra money as kids when they helped toss trash into a garbage truck in the wee hours of the morning.
The future NFL star mentioned in his autobiography they’d wake up at four o’clock every morning and then run outside to help the garbage men.
They used the extra money they earned to buy candy, marbles, and water guns. Despite waking up at the crack of dawn, they managed to make it to school on time.
It turned out Neil Smith had a learning problem in the classoom.
He revealed in his autobiography he had dyslexia – a condition where people see letters backwards. It impeded his reading abilities in school.
Smith attended a special after-school program to cope with the condition and eventually improve his grades.
Neil Smith excelled in football and basketball at McDonogh 35 Senior High School in the Big Easy. He earned All-District and All-Area honors in both sports.
#90 DAYS until Louisiana High School Football is back!!
6X Pro Bowler, 4X All-Pro, 2X Super Bowl Champion, Nebraska Alumni, From McDonogh 35 High School!
DE NEIL SMITH!
— Louisiana Football Report #LAHSFB (@LAFBReport) June 1, 2018
Despite Smith’s impressive high school football resume, not too many college recruiters knocked on his door.
Only the Southern Jaguars, Grambling State Tigers, Alcorn State Braves, and Nebraska Cornhuskers put Smith on their short list.
Smith was also on the brink of signing up with the Marines or Army but the Cornhuskers dangled a scholarship at the last minute.
It was too good an offer to pass up. Neil Smith became a Nebraska Cornhusker.
College Days With The Nebraska Cornhuskers
Neil Smith started at right tackle for the Cornhuskers freshmen team. His 36 tackles tied him for the team lead with Lawrence Pete.
Smith also added seven tackles for loss for the freshman squad.
The Cornhuskers won ten of twelve games in the 1984 NCAA season. Fifth-ranked Nebraska beat the 11th-ranked LSU Tigers in the 1985 Sugar Bowl, 28-10.
Smith played behind second-year starter Chris Spachman in 1986. Smith suited up in all twelve games for Nebraska and had 19 total tackles.
The Cornhuskers went 9-3 in 1985. They lost to the fifth-ranked Michigan Wolverines in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, 27-23.
Neil Smith’s college football career took off in his junior season in 1986.
Even though he was technically the Cornhuskers’ third defensive tackle behind Spachman and Lee Jones, Smith may have well been the starter.
His 49 tackles ranked third behind defensive end Broderick Thomas (58) and cornerback Charles Fryar (52). Smith had 10 tackles against both the Colorado Buffaloes and Oklahoma Sooners in 1986.
Smith’s 10 tackles for losses and 5.0 sacks made him one of the team leaders in those statistical categories.
Smith took over Lee Jones’ starting defensive tackle spot in the 1987 Sugar Bowl against the LSU Tigers.
Smith outdid himself in front of his hometown fans. He had five tackles – including two for an eight-yard loss – in Nebraska’s resounding 30-15 triumph.
— Edgar (@epatino23) May 25, 2015
As a senior in 1987, Neil Smith established himself as one of the best pass rushers in Cornhuskers football history.
His 7.5 sacks ranked him eighth in the Big Eight that year. He also had 65 total tackles, two fumbles, one fumble recovery, three passes broken up, and an interception.
Smith became a one-man wrecking crew on defense for Tom Osborne’s 10-2 Nebraska Cornhuskers in the 1987 NCAA season.
Despite Smith’s exceptional performance on defense, the Cornhuskers lost to the third-ranked Florida State Seminoles in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-28.
Nonetheless, Smith became a Sporting News All-American, an Associated Press and United Press International All Big-Eight selection, and Associated Press and Football News Second-Team All-American in 1987.
While Neil Smith became an unstoppable force on the gridiron, he told The Washington Post’s David Aldridge in 1995 he never let his guard down in the classroom:
“I had a chance to meet the professors in school. Some teachers really didn’t want to do it. But they saw me in class and saw I really was willing to learn and wanted to be there.”
A well-rounded Neil Smith would establish himself as one of the most formidable pass rushers in the National Football League.
Pro Football Career
The Kansas City Chiefs made Neil Smith the second overall selection of the 1988 NFL Draft.
The Chiefs traded their third and 29th overall selections to the Detroit Lions so they could move up and pluck Smith from the draft pool.
Smith signed several one-year contracts with the Chiefs three months after they drafted him.
According to Smith’s agent Gary Kovacs, the total of his client’s contracts was at par with the $4.1 million deal No. 1 overall pick Aundray Bruce signed with the Atlanta Falcons.
“I’m happy with what I got, that’s why I’m here,” Smith told UPI’s John Hendel. “Now that I signed, I feel relieved. I’m looking forward to getting out there.”
The 1988 NFL draft April 24–25, 1988, at the Marriot Marquis in New York City, New York
With the 2nd Pick the Kansas City Chiefs selected Neil Smith DE Nebraska pic.twitter.com/ZLFRMyfgYZ
— Timothy C. Kulla (@TCKooo) April 25, 2020
Smith’s first year in the National Football League wasn’t easy by any stretch.
The Chiefs were a dreadful 4-11 in Frank Gansz’s last year at the helm in 1988. Smith had just 2.5 sacks as a rookie.
According to Aldridge, Smith “struggled with everything his first year in the pros.”
Chiefs defensive line coach Tom Pratt quizzed Smith and the other linemen regularly. However, since Smith had dyslexia, he had to take the tests orally.
“Tom was a guy who spent a lot more time with me,” Smith told The Washington Post in 1995. “I kept it quiet for a long period of time.”
He also revealed to 610 Sports (via ArrowheadPride.com’s Joel Thorman) he had an estimated three concussions in just one game in 1988:
“Early in my career, I remember my rookie year, I probably had three (concussions) in one game and still played and had one of the worst headaches in my life.”
Smith would endure more beatings for twelve more years in the pro ranks. They would take a massive toll on his well-being after he hung up his cleats.
Smith’s trademark home run sack celebration was one of the most creative in league history.
Chiefs legend, Neil Smith was part of some of the best defenses in the teams history.
— ʀ ᴊ (@__R2J) July 21, 2021
Surprisingly, it didn’t start out that way.
Smith got the sack celebration idea after watching “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on NBC on a Friday night. It was three days before Kansas City’s Monday Night Football game against their arch nemesis, the then-Oakland Raiders.
Leno delivered a punch line and then did a golf swing. All of a sudden, a light went off in Neil Smith’s head.
“That’s it! That’s what I’m going to do!” Smith told 610 Sports (via ArrowHeadPride.com’s Joel Thurman) on July 1, 2013.
Smith had 3.5 sacks against the Raiders and did the first version of his sack celebration which resembled more of a golf swing.
However, it evolved into a baseball swing in the ensuing years as a tribute to legendary Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett, per 610 Sports:
“A reporter says, ‘Can you explain the swing that you have? Is that a tribute to George Brett?” And I said, ‘Absolutely. Tell George Brett I’m gonna get 3,000 sacks and I’m gonna break his record.’ It just took off after that.”
Neil Smith and his best friend, the late Derrick Thomas, made a formidable pair for the Chiefs in the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.
The two bruisers combined for 181.0 sacks during their time together in Kansas City from 1989 to 1996. The duo scared quarterbacks every time they took the field.
Smith got into a scuffle with his teammate Trezelle Jenkins at a hotel lobby in 1995.
Jenkins was a rookie offensive lineman who the Chiefs drafted out of the University of Michigan.
Smith told 610 Sports (via ArrowheadPride.com’s Joel Thorman) on January 28, 2016 Jenkins elbowed him in his neck during downtime in practice. The impact was so hard Smith developed whiplash.
Smith told Chiefs head coach Marty Schottenheimer he couldn’t suit up for their game that week. The former eventually ran into Jenkins who mouthed off in front of his family members at the hotel lobby.
Smith lost his composure and went after Jenkins. He beat up the rookie lineman in front of his family.
“Damn right. Can we say that on air?” Smith told 610 Sports. “It was just me. It was his family. I was getting pulled. I lost an expensive bracelet at the time.”
Neil Smith became a member of the “Yes, I Can” program’s board of directors in his eighth year in the NFL. Even back then, he was already helped establish various programs for children with learning disabilities in the Kansas City area, per Aldridge.
During Smith’s tenure in Kansas City from 1989 to 1996, he earned five Pro Bowl nods, led the league in sacks in 1993 (15.0), became a two-time Second-Team All-Pro selection, and a First-Team All-Pro selection.
Under head coach Marty Schottenheimer’s leadership, the Chiefs made the postseason in six straight seasons from 1990 to 1995.
Unfortunately, Kansas City never made it past the AFC Championship Game during that stretch.
After Smith’s sack total dwindled to 4.5 in 1996 – his lowest output since his rookie year in 1988 – the Chiefs released him and let him test the free agent waters.
Smith signed a one-year deal with the Denver Broncos worth between $1 and $1.5 million on April 15, 1997.
Less than two years later, Neil Smith had won two Super Bowl rings with the Broncos. He achieved his childhood dream.
His fumble recovery set up a field goal in the Broncos’ 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.
Smith’s 79-yard fumble return for a touchdown in Denver’s 38-3 rout of the Miami Dolphins in the 1998 AFC Divisional Round was instrumental in the Broncos’ quest for a repeat a year later.
The Broncos eventually beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, 34-19.
The NFL implemented the “Neil Smith Rule” in 1998 that forbid defensive linemen from flinching to get a false start call.
During his tenure in Denver, Smith earned his third Second-Team All-Pro and sixth Pro Bowl selection.
After a successful three-year run in the Mile High City, Neil Smith spent his last season in the NFL with the then-San Diego Chargers 2000.
He retired at the end of the 2000 NFL season.
Neil Smith finished his 13-year NFL career with 278 total tackles, 231 solo tackles, 104.5 sacks, 17 forced fumbles, nine fumble recoveries, and four interceptions.
Neil Smith is a former co-owner of the Arena Football League (AFL) team Kansas City Brigade (which later became the Kansas City Command).
The Kansas City Chiefs inducted Smith into their Hall of Fame on October 22, 2006.
Smith became a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame two years later.
Smith just came off hip surgery and had two more surgeries scheduled in September 2015. He told 610 Sports that month given a choice, he probably never would’ve played football:
“If I had to do it all over again, probably not…It’s hard to get up in the morning.”
Smith rescued a woman who was stranded inside her minivan that was surrounded by waist-high floodwater in Lee’s Summit, MO on August 22, 2017.
Heavy rains flooded the area surrounding Voy Spears Elementary school that week. Smith saw the stranded passenger who happened to be nine months pregnant.
Smith told FOX 4’s Dave D’Marko he didn’t hesitate to get her out of her predicament:
“She was in there, I didn’t know if she had kids, because she was about nine months pregnant and she was very short, so I had to walk her out of there.”
Smith and former Kansas City Chiefs teammate Derrick Thomas started The Derrick Thomas/Neil Smith Third and Long Foundation during their playing days in the NFL.
The foundation aims to help raise funds for urban youth education.
One of their fundraising activities is an annual celebrity golf classic that many past and current NFL players attend.
— A.J. Forbes (@BeyondSixty) April 22, 2019
Smith and Thomas weren’t just teammates; they were also best friends. Even players from other sports noticed how close they were during their time together with the Chiefs from 1989 to 1996.
Former Kansas City Royals pitcher Al Fizmorris was one of them.
Fizmorris lauded the foundation for the work it has done for kids over the years, per KSHB.com’s Ryan Marshall:
“You know these two, of course they were best friends. And, you know, (there was) sadness of losing Derrick way too soon.”
Thomas passed away on February 8, 2000 due to pulmonary embolism he developed after a car crash sixteen days earlier.
Almost two decades later, Neil Smith has helped carry on Derrick Thomas’ legacy through their foundation.