Bubba Smith Was Bigger than Life

(published August 4, 2011)

There aren’t many individuals in football who’ve inspired unforgettable chants.  Fewer still who did so while playing defense.  And there’s only one who had a verb all to himself.

“Kill, Bubba, Kill!  Kill, Bubba, Kill!”

At Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, that cry rang out throughout Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith’s tenure on the defensive line.  He was 6’ 7”, 285 pounds at a time when college linemen may have tipped the scales at about 230.  He was quick, strong, all but unstoppable, and truly terrifying to opponents whose job was to get in his way.

Bubba Smith was found dead in his Baldwin Hills, California, home Wednesday, at age 66.

Smith was the first selection overall in the 1967 NFL draft, played nine seasons, made two Pro Bowls, and was a stalwart with the Baltimore Colts teams that lost the 1969 Super Bowl, won it two years later, and allowed just 140 points in fourteen games in the 1971 season.

He played five years with Baltimore, two each with the Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers, but he made his biggest mark in the green uniform of the Michigan State Spartans.

He grew up in Beaumont, Texas, playing high school football for his father, coaching legend Willie Ray Smith at Charlton-Pollard High School.  Duffy Daugherty recruited him to come to Michigan State, where Daugherty was building a powerhouse featuring many southern African-Americans whose home-state universities were either still segregated or trying to remain so.  Both of the captains of the Spartans’ 1966 squad were African-American, as were eight of the starters on defense and – unusual for the time – so was the quarterback.  Michigan State won a share of the national title in 1965, and should have in 1966 as well.

No one had ever seen an athlete quite like Bubba Smith before.  He had the size to dominate with power, but the speed to run sprints with the team’s ball-carriers.  MSU’s track coach Fran Dittrich quipped, “I’d like to have Bubba on the track team, but he’s too big to run in one lane.”

Smith generally played defensive end in college, but he also lined up at nose guard on occasion, occupying the center and often both offensive guards and freeing up his teammates to crash through the line.  He was most effective on the outside, however, and he preferred sprinting past flat-footed linemen to knocking them onto their backs.  He won all-Big Ten and all-America honors in both 1965 and ’66, and entered the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

He was one of the signature players in perhaps the biggest college football game of the century, the clash of unbeatens between Notre Dame and MSU in 1966.  The two teams dominated their opponents as the schedule built to their meeting – the last game for Michigan State, next-to-last for the Irish.  (Neither team played in a bowl game that year.  Only one Big Ten team went to a bowl, the Rose Bowl, in those days; conference rules barred MSU, who’d gone the year before, from appearing in it two years in a row.  As a matter of policy, Notre Dame didn’t sully itself by appearing in such tawdry spectacles as bowl games then, a policy abandoned three years later once the money got big enough.)

Notre Dame tackle Bob Kuechenberg had the assignment to control Smith.  “I kept hearing this ‘Kill, Bubba, kill,’” Kuechenberg told Mike Celizic for his 1992 book The Biggest Game of Them All. “And being an English major, I knew that wasn’t a complete sentence because it lacked an object.  Kill whom?  Since I was the guy who was going to be blocking him, it must be me.”  (For his part, Bubba fronted the money for a teammate who printed up “Kill, Bubba, Kill!” buttons and made a small killing selling them on campus that week.)

Smith put Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty out of the game with a crushing hit in the first quarter.  This left the game in the hands of backup QB Coley O’Brien, a fact that may have contributed to ND coach Ara Parseghian’s decision to run out the clock rather than risk a pass in the final minute with the score 10-10.  Notre Dame had the last laugh, as all the polls ranked the 9-0-1 Irish number one ahead of 9-0-1 Michigan State (and 11-0 Alabama).

After his pro career, Smith joined the parade of ex-players appearing in commercials for Miller Lite in the late 1970s, playing off his ferocious reputation by describing his football habits (“I had my own way of tackling.  I used to grab the whole backfield, then I threw guys out until I found the one with the ball”).  He finished by ripping the top third off a can of Lite with his bare hand, smiling a gap-toothed grin, and saying, “I also love the easy-opening can.”  He was in all but one of the Police Academy movies, portraying the very-soft-spoken Moses Hightower, a role that suited the largely genial giant.

He was very much a product of the pre-ESPN age, a player who became a legend based on written accounts and a chant-ready nickname.  You knew who he was long before you saw him play.  Would he have stood up to today’s microanalysis and scrutiny?  Perhaps not; neither his size nor speed would be unique in the modern game.

So what?  Bubba Smith was a star.  He was the most fearsome player who ever made you smile.



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