With the passing of legendary MSU and NFL star Charles “Bubba” Smith, Spartan Nation has lost a deity, a Hollywood icon and a friend.
Smith was found dead by a caretaker Wednesday in his Los Angeles home.
On the football field, the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Smith was as ferocious a defensive end as the game has ever seen. From the time he stepped onto campus to play for legendary MSU head coach Duffy Daugherty in 1964, Smith became known for his tenacity and work ethic on the field and his comfortable charisma off it.
“He was a true Spartan,” former head football coach George Perles said. “Him and Duffy were very close. It was beautiful when you would see them together. They had so much respect for each other.”
Although he struggled adjusting in his first two seasons after coming to MSU from Beaumont, Texas, Smith would be remembered as one of the legends in the history of the program, as he paved a career that would lead to his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988. In his final two seasons at MSU, the two-time All-American Smith led the Spartans to a combined record of 19-1-1, which included back-to-back Big Ten and national championships in 1965 and 1966.
Perhaps his finest moment came in his final game at MSU, in which Smith anchored the Spartan defense — separating the shoulder of Fighting Irish starting quarterback Terry Hanratty on a tackle — in a 10–10 draw with Notre Dame in a game billed as the “Game of the Century.” The game produced more than 20 All-Americans and 30 future professional football players.
“I don’t think that they’ve had a game where they had that much talent on the field,” Smith told The State News in 2006. “Show me a game that had that much talent, that had that many first-round picks to come out of that game.”
Smith’s aura continued to grow as he was drafted with the first overall pick in the 1967 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts. He spent five seasons with the Colts, where he would reach the Super Bowl twice and win once in Super Bowl V before he was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1972.
During his time in the NFL, Smith would develop many high-profile friends, including NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus. Butkus — who starred alongside Smith in commercials for Miller Lite and the short-lived TV series “Blue Thunder” — said working with Smith allowed the two to be close for many years.
“I just started laughing when we used to do the commercials,” Butkus said. “We helped each other with how to make something a little bit funnier. We really worked at it, and I was proud of that – what we did. … I really miss him.”
After a knee injury slowed his career, he retired from the Houston Oilers in 1976 and focused on building an acting career.
Smith landed several small roles in many popular shows in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, most notably “Good Times,” “Taxi” and “Charlie’s Angels.” With his tremendous size merged with his subtle humor, he would gain the respect of fellow actors, including “Good Times” co-star Jimmie Walker, who became a fan of the “gentle giant.”
His big break would come when he landed the role of florist-turned-officer Moses Hightower in the 1984 hit “Police Academy.”
Smith later made a public return to his alma mater in 2006 on the 40th anniversary of the “Game of the Century” to see his No. 95 jersey retired and his name added to the Ring of Fame at Spartan Stadium. As he waved to the crowd, he was greeted with a framed No. 95 jersey by then-sophomore defensive end Justin Kershaw — who wore No. 95 but vacated the number following the game — and the famed “Kill, Bubba, Kill” chant by the Spartan faithful.
“Needless to say, Bubba was a longtime friend,” said former MSU wide receiver and teammate Gene Washington in a statement to the athletics department. “He was a great teammate and a great leader. Bubba never had to say much because he led by example.”Questions with Bubba Smith
-- Ogden Nash
Actor and football great Charles A. "Bubba" Smith grew up in Beaumont, Texas, graduating from Charlton-Pollard High School, where he played for his father, coach Willie Ray Smith, Sr. Willie Ray bred three All-State Smiths -- Willie Ray, Jr., Tody, and Bubba. They made Charlton Pollard a perennial power in Texas school football. In Bubba's senior year the school was 11-0, and college recruiters beat down the doors at the Smith household until Bubba decided to attend Michigan State University.
Bubba became one of MSU's all-time great players, winning All-Big Ten and All-America honors for two straight years (1965 and 1966) as the team stomped through two unbeaten seasons and became the national champions. Whether he was playing tackle, defensive end, or middle guard, fans would cheer him on with, "Kill, Bubba, Kill!"
In 1967, the Baltimore Colts made him their number one draft choice. Bubba stayed with the Colts through the 1972 season and racked up some impressive statistics: He played in the NFL championship game in 1968 and the Super Bowl in 1969 and 1971. He was chosen All-AFC in 1970 and 1971, and played in the Pro-Bowl in 1971 and 1972.
A ten-year veteran of the NFL, wrote his memoirs, "Kill, Bubba, Kill," with Hal de Windt in 1983.
He has developed a successful second career as an actor, first working in Miller Lite beer commercials then starring in the Police Academy movies.
SMITH: Tastes great.
SportsHollywood: What's your favorite sports movie?
SMITH: Remember The Titans with Denzel Washington. I like the story of having to overcome what may seem as impossible odds to achieve a goal and the teamwork it takes to get there.
SportsHollywood: What's your favorite movie that YOU were in?
SMITH: Black Moon Rising with Tommy Lee Jones.
SportsHollywood: Which was your favorite POLICE ACADEMY movie?
SMITH: The first one.
SportsHollywood: Most memorable football game:
SMITH: Michigan State vs. Norte Dame 10/10 Game.
SportsHollywood: Do you think your Michigan State team could have beaten any pro teams?
SMITH: The 1966 team would have been competitive with a few NFL teams..
SportsHollywood: You were named to the NCAA All-American Team twice. Most athletes don't stay in school long enough to accomplish that anymore. How do you feel about early entry into pro sports?
SMITH: I feel that there is not enough money you could be paid to make up for the learning and growth process you get in college. The millions of dollars will always be there if you are that good of a player.
SMITH: Apparently acting.
SportsHollywood: When you're in a bar, do people ever ask you to recreate the "easy opening can" ad?
SMITH: I do not go to bars, but at personal appearances there is always someone who asks.
SportsHollywood: Did you ever idolize any football players when you were growing up?
SMITH: My big brother, Willy Ray Smith Jr. He was the best player in the family.
SportsHollywood: What sports do you enjoy now?
SMITH: Football and Track & Field.
SportsHollywood: Favorite pro athlete playing today:
SMITH: I'd say Kobe Bryant in basketball; Marshall Faulk in football; Alex Rodriguez in baseball; and Michael Johnson in Track & Field.
SportsHollywood: Is there anybody in football today who reminds you of you?
SMITH: Not really the size of the player at each position is so different than when I was a player.
SportsHollywood: Who do you think will win the Super Bowl?
SMITH: St. Louis Rams.