“Bubba” Smith leaves a legacy that shines beyond the football field and television screens that made him famous. The gentle yet also ferocious 6-foot-7 giant and Michigan State great stood tall in the face of 1960s racism that stained our society and did not allow it to sack his potential. Smith to this day serves as an admirable example of how to deal with the most mean-spirited of injustices and thrive in spite of other’s determined efforts to stop you.
Smith, the former Michigan State great and Hollywood actor who died this week, deserves heaps of praise for enduring what he did.
It could not have been easy.
I was born six years after Smith departed East Lansing and think of him more for his hilarious “Miller Lite” commercials and role as “Moses Hightower” in Police Academy movies than his dominance in football.
Until reading a number of stories on the man this week, I did not realize his path to Michigan State, the NFL and Hollywood.
Originally from Beaumont, Texas, Smith came along with other black players to Michigan State because then-coach Duffy Daugherty let them play, while major schools in the Jim Crow-ruled South did not.
Six of the group — including Smith and two other eventual College Football Hall of Famers in George Webster and Gene Washington — became starters in 1965 at Daugherty’s instructions — a historic move considering the times.
Smith, then a junior, understood the significance and thankfully made the most of it.
He spearheaded a defense that helped the Spartans go 19-1-1 over the next two season, with the tie being a 10-10 draw with Notre Dame in a legendary “Game of the Century” between the No. 1 Fighting Irish and No. 2 and unbeaten Spartans.
He and his teammates proved, beyond any reasonable doubt, that black players were anything but inferior to their white counterparts in talent and ability to be team leaders.
He also possessed the maturity and wisdom to manage the intense pressure he faced.
“I knew that was something that had never happened before,” Smith told the Lansing State Journal in 2005. “I went to each man individually. I said, ‘This is our chance. We’ve got to do this. If we don’t do this, it will never happen again.’ We had to show that we could be leaders, and winners.”
Smith undoubtedly faced racism here in Michigan, too. It’s an ill that can spread anywhere and still creeps today. There had to be painful and frustrating moments.
Smith, however, overcame them and reminded us anything is possible if you remain vigilant and dedicated to do what’s right, especially in sports.
The NFL called, with the Baltimore Colts taking Smith first overall in 1967. He remains the only Spartan to receive such distinction and won Super Bowl V with the Colts in 1970.
Smith went to Hollywood after his NFL career ended and built a successful acting career.
He did a lot to display his vast talents. Not bad for a youth from Beaumont, Texas, who some misguided and pathetic bigots did not want to see on their football field.