Broncography: Rod Smith, Ring of Famer

Roderick ‘Rod’ Smith was born in Texarkana, on May 15, back in 1970. He was all-league, all-area, all-state, and an all-state game choice as a senior at Texarkana High School in Texarkana, Arkansas. He earned two letters in football and basketball, and one in baseball while in high school. He attended college at Missouri Southern State, a Division II school.

While he was there, Rod set conference records with his 3,043 career receiving yards and 34 touchdowns. He broke his own school’s receptions record with 153, and as a senior, he was voted All-American by the AP, Kodak, Football Gazette, and NCAA Division II sports information directors - in other words, nearly everyone who covered Division II. In his senior season alone, he caught 63 passes for 986 yards and 13 TDs. He was a finalist that year for the Harlon Hill Trophy, which is given annually to the top Division II football player.

In 1994, he completed his studies with three degrees - economics and finance, general business, and the third in marketing and management. He was ready for his post-football life, which has been as successful as he was on the field. I follow him on Twitter just for the pleasure of it, and have found him to be one of the most positive and supportive folks I’ve had the pleasure to read.

Rod went undrafted, but was originally picked up by the New England Patriots. They released him shortly thereafter, and Wade Phillips & Co. took him on. Smith spent his first year on the practice squad, and in 1995, Mike Shanahan took over as head coach and brought his old roommate Mike Heimerdinger along to be the wide receivers coach. Heimerdinger would constantly be in Rod's ear, telling him that he had the skills and the ability - he just needed to bring it out. Smith listened, and he now gives the late Heimerdinger credit for all that he accomplished.

"He saw more in me than I saw in me at the time," Smith said. "And sometimes that's all you need is somebody to believe in you more than you believe in yourself. He told me I had the talent, I had the skills. He spoke those things into my life every day, and then I went out there and had to go to work for him."

"Every tool I had in my toolbox, I borrowed from him. He kept saying it and I couldn't help but believe it because it's all I heard."

One of the things that I remember most about Rod Smith was something that he has said more than once: that when he came to work each day, he’d kind of sidle up to his locker and take a quick look to make sure that his name was on it and that he still had a job. He never took for granted that he would, and every day he prepared and then practiced as if his job depended on it - because to him, it did. He never assumed that he was still a Bronco. He expected that each day he would have to earn it, if he wanted to be one the next day. That’s too rare a thing in life, people who work like that daily.

There was none of the sense of entitlement that so many player portrays in their words and in their actions. In his post-football life, and you can probably guess what Rod does; in its essence, he teaches people how to find the success within themselves. He embodies leadership, compassion, strength, and caring. He shares those qualities with people, and he’s always there for those he works with. I’ve sent along a comment or quick vignette occasionally if it fits what he likes and says, and I always receive a polite and friendly response. I doubt that he knows who I am - it’s just his way.

Rod was voted Missouri Southern’s Outstanding Graduate in 1994 after completing his trio of degrees; everything he learned in earning those degrees, he shares with the people that he mentors. Rod spoke for many of them in a quote on his former website:

“I never understood that word - overachiever. It means that you’re doing something that you’re not supposed to be able to do,  because obviously we were able to do it. It’s just a matter of having the right opportunities.”

In so many ways, he’s just continuing in his post-football life what he did with the Broncos. He always improved the players around him. If you worked or work with him, you have the right opportunity. He will make sure that you’re putting out everything that you can, and that you’re working on getting the right chances based on that. Luck favors the prepared. Getting the right opportunities also tends to require a lot of hard work. Smith understands that, lives that, and passes it on to others. Just as he did in football, he’s making those around him better.

Coach Gary Kubiak once said to Smith that he should play as long as he could. He said that of all the guys he knew past their playing days, only a few were doing well. Smith took his words to heart. Said Smith later, “It was a wake-up call for me."

To me, this is the line that separates the truly elite player from the simply talented: Can you make the players around you better? A lot of people have talent. Some of them have it in boatloads. Only a few of them have the gift, the drive, and the quality to make those around them better players and better men. Sometimes it’s leading by example, but in the case of Smith, it was both that and the way that he shared his knowledge openly and without reservation with the players around him.

He’s still doing that in his business life. There is a quality to some people who strive for success without losing their perspective regarding those around them. It’s a tough road to walk - a razor’s edge that few can balance, and Smith was one of those few. It’s something that he’s brought into his post-football life.

It’s the quality that’s there in the hours that Peyton Manning spends teaching his line and receivers how to play the game at a Super Bowl level. It was there in the first three Super Bowls that John Elway drove his team to, even though they weren’t really good enough to be there. No matter how talented a person is, if they can’t make the people around them better, they’re not going to reach the level that they themselves are capable of.

Rod never forgot that football is a team sport. If you don’t do it for the guy next to you, if you can’t put the team first and see that your role on it includes driving yourself to the highest level you can, and helping your teammates do the same when it’s possible, ‘elite’ isn’t really the right word for whatever you can contribute. Rod had a lot of innate talent, but one of those talents was to personify how to be the best player and the best teammate you can be. Now he shares that with anyone who is willing to put in the work with him. His inclusion in the Ring of Fame is earned on so many levels that it’s hard to put into words.

How does he describe his career? "All I ever wanted to do is win. At the end of the day, the W's were all I cared about."

But unlike a lot of the ‘just win’ people out there, Smith did it with class, with respect for himself and those around him, and with exceptional effort. He became the best player that he could be. He became a leader of people, and he’s nearly unique in that he strives incessantly to become the best person he can be. It’s a quality that he brings out in those around him. He talks to them about it, he gets them talking about it themselves, and he helps them to see what they can be, as much as who they are.

Back in 1994, Smith began supporting an orphanage in Mexico City. When the Broncos traveled to Mexico for an American Bowl game, Smith met with a group of the children at his hotel for several hours. He handed out Broncos caps and T-shirts to 400 more. It was just how he was.

The Denver Broncos began an annual Community Blood Drive eight years ago. Ever since its inception, Rod Smith has served as a spokesman for it. His class, wit, and passion for the causes that he chooses to support have grown it substantially.

Smith was inducted into Missouri Southern’s Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 11, 2003, and was a 2007 inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Because he had been an undrafted free agent and spent his first season on the Broncos practice squad, he drew more than a few negative comments when Mike Shanahan brought him to the regular roster and then started him. Those snide comments didn’t last long. With Heimerdinger’s help and with ‘Easy’ Ed McCaffrey, he showed the league what can happen when the players within a franchise just don’t give up.

Between 1997 and 2005, Rod averaged 1,165 yards per season, setting a club record with eight career 1,000+ yard campaigns. He possesses the franchise mark with thirty 100-yard receiving games in the regular season, achieving eight of them in 2000 alone. Rod holds Broncos franchise records in receptions with 849, receiving yards with 11,389, and receiving TDs with 68. He also has the franchise’s postseason records for catches with 49, receiving yards with 860, and for receiving touchdowns, with six.

He also went to three Pro Bowls. Rod’s regular season totals in career receptions and yardage still lead all undrafted players by a wide margin. Incidentally, it's been said and written for many years that Smith had broken the records of Gary Clark among undrafted receivers, but Clark was taken in the second round of the 1984 Supplemental Draft.

John Elway himself pretty much summed it all up:

“Rod brought his lunch pail to work each day, took nothing for granted and made himself into an elite player. He’s a true pro. In addition to being one of the greatest undrafted players of all time, he’s one of the greatest wide receivers to ever play the position.”

That he is. Few players have achieved in their lives what Rod Smith has. As is his way, he gives all the credit for his success to Mike Heimerdinger, who passed away from cancer last year. There’s no question that Dinger was a brilliant mentor for Rod. There’s also no question that without Smith’s constant, incessant hard work, the outcome would not have been the same.

It’s also somehow fitting that John Elway is running football operations when Rod’s name is unveiled on the Ring of Fame tomorrow. They were and are two examples of success favoring the bold - and the very hard working. Both have left an indelible mark on the sport that they love and the kind of life that they believe in living. Both of them have made the game, and the experiences of the fans, that much better.

Smith said during a conference call earlier in the week,

“I was hungry. I stayed hungry—I’m still hungry now. There is something about the human spirit—you just have to be hungry 24/7. A lot of guys now, and I’m a little bit on the outside—not too far removed—but a lot of those guys figure they have it made because they got to the NFL. The hardest thing is staying in the NFL, especially staying in as long as I did with the path that I had to take. I embraced the path and I didn’t worry about the path. I knew where I wanted to go and I knew I was going to outwork everyone else. When they were gone, I was still working. When they were asleep, I was still working. That right there—work works. I tell people that all the time, work works.”

It certainly did. Congratulations, Rod. Thank you for the memories you’ve left us with, and the work that you continue to do. There are few like you, and it’s been a privilege to watch your drive, your ability to draw the best from those around you, and the success that your effort has created. Enjoy the day - you’ve more than earned it.

A lot of people who will be there on Sunday have better lives because of you. I can think of no greater earthly compliment.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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