On January 31, 1988, Washington Redskins running back Timmy Smith went from obscurity to a household name in a matter of hours.
Named Washington’s starter just before Super Bowl XXII against Denver, Smith proceeded to rush for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) June 5, 2014
His yardage total set a Super Bowl record that has yet to be broken.
What made the milestone even more remarkable was the fact that Smith had only rushed for 126 yards in 1987, his rookie year.
The following season, Smith tried to take advantage of his newfound fame by holding out and demanding a new contract.
His demand backfired and Smith would only total 470 yards and three touchdowns in 1988.
By the end of the 1990 season, Smith was out of football for good, and in 2005, he was arrested for trying to sell drugs to an undercover officer.
This is the story of the sudden rise, and fast fall, of Timmy Smith.
The Prep Star from Hobbs
Timothy LaRay Smith was born on January 21, 1964, in Hobbs, New Mexico.
Happy Birthday Timmy Smith, out of Hobbs, New Mexico & @TexasTechFB In @SuperBowl XXII, he set a @SuperBowl rushing record in his 1st career start, gaining 204 yards & scoring 2 TD’s; It was his only significant achievement as an @NFL player; 59 Today…. pic.twitter.com/7rG0Xj1zkd
— LarryInMissouri (@monte_hendricks) January 21, 2023
Anyone who paid attention would have witnessed the seeds of Smith’s future ability in high school.
While playing football and basketball for Hobbs High School, Smith displayed an athleticism rarely seen in the Land of Enchantment.
On the gridiron, Smith racked up yardage as a running back as if his life depended on it.
During his senior year alone, Smith rushed for an astounding 2,306 yards and 31 touchdowns.
His rushing total set a state prep record and included a contest against Lubbock Monterey where he rumbled for 319 yards on only 19 carries.
By the time his prep career for the Eagles ended, Smith was a top-100 recruit in the nation.
Although he had offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Smith decided to stay close to home and attend Texas Tech.
Plagued by Injuries
Not long after arriving in Lubbock, Texas, Smith was redshirted by Coach Jerry Moore.
He then suited up for the Red Raiders in 1983 and ran for 442 yards on 94 carries (a 4.7 yards per carry average) and one touchdown.
Smith also caught 11 passes for 84 yards while Texas Tech went 3-7-1.
Then, in 1984 as a sophomore, Smith led the team in rushing with 711 yards on 164 yards (4.3 average) and four touchdowns and added 94 receiving yards.
Mine: Texas Tech RB Timmy Smith pic.twitter.com/Na6oruMkhS
— Jim (@Bigtenman77) April 23, 2020
The Red Raiders still struggled in the win column, finishing the season with four victories.
However, Smith was an obvious talent as his 5’11, 215-pound frame allowed for sudden bursts of speed and power to boot.
Looking to capitalize on his sophomore year, Smith was cruising in the Red Raiders’ first game of the year in 1985.
While playing the University of New Mexico on September 7, Smith carried the ball seven times and had 97 yards and two touchdowns.
Unfortunately, while scoring his second touchdown, Smith took a blow to the knee that ended his day and his season.
He was ready to go as a senior in 1986 when the injury bug came for him again.
As the team practiced during the preseason, Smith fractured bones in his foot and ankle.
That kept him on the sidelines until late in the year when he saw mop-up duty.
The end result was seven carries for 19 yards.
Surprise Draft Pick
Smith’s college career primarily amounted to two good seasons of exciting promise followed by two years of injuries.
His Red Raider totals were 292 rushing attempts for 1,313 yards, eight running scores, and 41 receptions for 401 yards and one receiving score.
It wasn’t much to write home about and certainly not good enough to attract the attention of NFL coaches.
Until it was.
Smith and his brother were watching the 1987 NFL Draft until the running back drifted off to sleep.
“I watched the first four hours of the draft, but I started getting migraine headaches wondering if somebody was going to give me a chance,” Smith said. “So I fell asleep and all of a sudden the phone rings. My brother answered it and said it was the Washington Redskins. I thought he was playing with me,’ Smith said. ‘Then I talked to (Washington General Manager) Bobby Beathard and he said they drafted me in the fifth round. I don’t know why they drafted me. They had some of the best running backs in the league.”
Already on the Redskins roster was veteran George Rogers, who won the 1980 Heisman Trophy while playing for the University of South Carolina, and third down specialist Kelvin Bryant.
Smith had his work cut out for him, but he was in a position to prove he belonged in the NFL.
Smith Rebuilds His Confidence as a Rookie
There weren’t many opportunities for Smith to get playing time in his rookie year.
Washington Coach Joe Gibbs had him return a few kicks and Smith ran the ball 29 times for 126 yards total.
— Sports Autographs (@SportsAutograp1) January 9, 2017
He was primarily used as a back for the scout team, but Smith used those opportunities to push himself.
“He was focused that rookie year, very focused,” said former Washington teammate Clarence Verdin. “Timmy could have been a superstar someplace else – he was that good.”
As he ran headlong into the teeth of the Redskins starting defense during practice, Smith regained his confidence as a runner after two lost years in college.
Smith also earned the respect of the Redskins veterans.
“I think this was really beneficial because he got knocked around and I think he really re-honed his running skills,” running backs coach Don Breaux said. “Defensive players really had respect for him and we were impressed.”
Smith Shines in the Postseason
While watching from the sidelines, Smith got a first-hand view of Washington’s extraordinary 1987 season.
The team finished the year 11-4 and had the NFL’s fourth-best offense.
Then, during the playoffs, Rogers got dinged up and Smith saw an increase in playing time.
In a 21-17 win over Chicago in the Divisional round, Smith rushed for 66 yards.
80’s & 90’s Sunday: Jeff Bostic (53), Doug Williams (17) and Timmy Smith (36) of the Washington Redskins line up against the Bears & Mike Singletary (50) https://t.co/ZX5ge9ymqX pic.twitter.com/K27dsrRMbQ
— allthings18 (@ALLTHINGS18) June 2, 2019
One week later he gained 72 yards in the Redskins’ 17-10 win over Minnesota in the NFC Championship game.
Meanwhile, Rogers continued to suffer from ankle problems and the Washington coaching staff had to make a decision.
Should they start the rookie for Super Bowl XXII against the Denver Broncos?
“Every day (Rogers) seems to kind of twist his ankle. So now we’re going to take a look at (starting Smith). It wouldn’t be a real major surprise,” Breaux said days before the biggest game of the year.
Gibbs also leaned toward giving Smith his first start of the year.
“We want to get him in there. He’s evolved, I think, into an excellent runner,” Gibbs said.
What happened next is a matter of debate.
Former teammate Doug Williams recalls that Gibbs had him tell Smith that he would start in the Super Bowl only minutes before the game began.
“Coach wanted me to break the news to him and calm him down,” Williams said in 2016. “I said, ‘Timmy, you’re going to start the Super Bowl,’ and he looked at me like I was crazy. I said if you mess this up, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
However, Smith says that he was told he would start by Coach Breaux in a meeting with the running backs the day before the contest.
That led to a rather sleepless night.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before the game,” Smith recalled in 2016. “I got up at one in the morning and was just walking around. I wanted to visualize what was going to go on.”
While walking around in the still of the night, Smith envisioned bursting through gaping holes in the Broncos defense.
He also saw himself surpassing the Super Bowl rushing record of the Raiders’ Marcus Allen (191 yards), set in January 1984.
“I’m going to have the best game of my life,” Smith remembers telling himself.
Super Bowl XXII didn’t get off to a great start for Washington.
By the end of the first quarter, Denver, who had been favored by three before the contest, was leading 10-0.
Then, the second quarter began and the floodgates opened.
As Smith had envisioned the night before, the ‘Skins offensive line began opening yawning holes for Smith to run through.
Redskins Super Bowl XXII MVP QB Doug Williams hands the ball to RB Timmy Smith on January 31, 1988. Washington defeated Denver 42-10, with Williams throwing 4 TD passes (all in the 2nd-qtr) and Smith rushing for 204 yards and 2 TD’s.#NFL #80s #Redskins #HTTR pic.twitter.com/h4ZyQo3Y0e
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) July 13, 2020
“The Hogs” consisted of linemen Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby, Mark May, Raleigh McKenzie, and tight ends Don Warren and Clint Didier.
The group blew through the Broncos defense during run plays and provided great protection for Williams.
In the second quarter, the quarterback threw two touchdowns to take the lead.
Late in the quarter, Smith scored his own touchdown on a 58-yard gallop.
“After he hit the holes, he seemed to take it to the next level,” teammate Reggie Branch said.
By halftime, the Redskins had hung 35 points on the Broncos, the most ever scored during a single quarter in Super Bowl history.
Neither team scored again until Smith ran in from four yards out in the fourth quarter.
He continued slashing through the Broncos until he had caught, and passed, Allen’s record and then kept going.
“It was an unreal feeling,” Smith said. “You dream about it since elementary school and stuff. We were winning the Super Bowl! I couldn’t believe this – it really happened.”
The final whistle signaled the end of the game and a resounding 42-10 win for Washington.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 25, 2017
Smith had realized his second goal by running for 204 yards along with his two touchdowns.
His rushing total set a new Super Bowl record that has yet to be broken.
Even with Smith’s big day, Williams also had an afternoon to remember, passing for 340 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception.
He was named Super Bowl MVP and became the first black quarterback to win the league’s biggest game of the year.
When the media interviewed the Broncos defenders, Smith’s output was downplayed as little more than luck.
“They changed how they ran one play—the counter trey—to attack how we defended it,” said Karl Mecklenburg. “A lot of coaches spring a play and go on to other things, but the Redskins kept pounding away at it. Their line was really good. To me it was more their coaching staff taking advantage of what we did as a defense. Timmy Smith was the guy who got the yards.”
“Not to take away from what Timmy did, but we just didn’t play very disciplined defense,” said Broncos defensive tackle Greg Kragen.
However, while Denver was pouting and Williams was enjoying his MVP award, Smith was deluged by interview requests from media all over the country.
1/31/1988: Washington Redskins RB Timmy Smith rushed for a record 204 yards in Super Bowl XXII. (Redskins 42 Denver Broncos 10) pic.twitter.com/K0uyKAlqnC
— Patman (@QuizandFacts) January 11, 2017
At one point, all he wanted to do was stop and get back to his teammates to enjoy the win.
“I was numb, man,” Smith said. “After that game, I’ve got all these people coming at me, but I wanted to go back on the field. After I got through running over them, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped. Once you get that feeling, it’s unstoppable.”
For the next few months, Smith appeared on programs such as the Today show, Good Morning America, Letterman, and even met President Ronald Reagan.
A year after not knowing what his future held, Smith was on top of the world.
A Risky Holdout Leads to Smith’s Eventual Release
Although he had the game of his life on the day he needed it most, the Super Bowl represented Smith’s only start as a pro.
That’s why Redskins management was surprised when Smith and his agent demanded that he be paid as the top running back in the NFL.
Meanwhile, Smith was living the good life and taking advantage of his celebrity.
When he finally reported to training camp in 1988, it was apparent to teammates and coaches that Smith wasn’t the same player as the season before.
“Now, Timmy would tell you this,” said Williams. “Timmy did not come back the following season ready to go. He was young, and had just come off a record-setting Super Bowl. I don’t know that he really understood what the game was all about—and that it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.”
In his second season, Smith started eight games but gained just 470 yards and three touchdowns while the Redskins went 7-9.
After the season ended, Washington released Smith.
The End Comes Quickly
Before the 1989 season, former Redskins offensive coordinator Dan Henning was the head coach in San Diego and offered Smith an opportunity.
It was quickly evident to the coach that Smith wasn’t the kid he remembered in Washington.
“He wasn’t as into it,” Henning said. “Once you get pretty good, you don’t think you have to be as prepared in terms of all the things you need to do as a professional.”
There were also rumors that Smith was hanging with the wrong crowd and possibly dabbling with drugs.
The Chargers released him before playing a down in ‘89.
In 1990, the Dallas Cowboys signed Smith and he started Week 1 against (coincidentally) San Diego.
Most Obscure Player of 1990: Timmy Smith:
By 1990, the Dallas Cowboys roster started looking like the team th… http://t.co/nq3GFd7D2l
— Dallas Cowboys Fans (@dallascowboyswu) July 16, 2013
During the game, he was blasted by Chargers rookie linebacker Junior Seau.
“It was like running into that wall over there,” said Smith. “I went straight down. At halftime I went and got one of those huge neck rolls. My neck was so bad. Jimmy [Johnson] said, ‘You ready, Timmy?’ I go, ‘Uh, no.’ They cut me the next morning.”
Cowboys rookie back Emmitt Smith took it from there and Timmy Smith was cut by Dallas.
He would get a few opportunities to play in lesser leagues, but nothing panned out.
By the time he was 28, Smith was finished with football.
His pro career amounted to 190 carries for 602 yards, three touchdowns, and nine receptions for 51 yards.
Smith is Arrested
For the next few years, Smith wandered looking for a new career.
He was a personal trainer and then worked at a juvenile correctional facility as a counselor.
On September 30, 2005, Smith was arrested after trying to sell cocaine to an undercover DEA agent.
It was later revealed that Smith was selling cocaine on the side while working as a counselor to help raise money for a friend who lost his house during Hurricane Katrina.
His decision quickly led to his arrest as the DEA would find 1,300 grams of cocaine and $100,000 in assets that belonged to Smith and his brother, Chris.
“One of my brothers had cocaine, so I made a deal with this dude who was introduced to me by a friend who was a dealer,” explained Smith. “I took the guy the cocaine maybe twice, and the third time they got my ass.”
After his arrest, Smith made a prepared statement to the media.
“Greed does not distinguish between rich, poor, notorious and unknown,” he said. “The Timmy Smiths of the world are not immune from greed, nor are they immune from being held accountable for contributing to the degradation of our communities. The insidious nature of drug trafficking corrupts everything and everyone it touches.”
Eventually, Smith pled guilty to a minor role in a drug conspiracy and was sentenced to 18 months at FCI Englewood in Littleton, Colorado.
Life After Prison
Once he was released from prison in early 2008, Smith worked to get his life back on track.
“Guys make mistakes. It’s all about what you do after that. You try to move on and be a productive citizen. You still have to be a role model. I was an embarrassment to my team-mates and my family. I’m a much better person for going through that. You got to build it back,” said Smith in 2016.
Shortly after leaving prison, Smith got a job as a salesman for an energy services company.
His days now consist of working with oil drilling companies primarily in Texas and New Mexico.
When people hear his name, they still ask about his huge day in Super Bowl XXII and why he fell off the face of the Earth afterward.
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) October 18, 2014
Smith, however, takes it a day at a time and is content with his life and spending time with his family.
“In the end,” he said, “every day above ground is a good day.”