Big Red Legends: Jackie Smith

(Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of a story written by Howard Balzer on August 3, 1994 about Jackie Smith’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

MAKING A HALL by Howard Balzer

Canton, Ohio—Friends, fans and family.

On another sun-splashed Saturday in the city where professional football was born, a new class of the game’s greats was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Friends, fans and families came from far and wide to honor them and show their love. Emotions were high as even the most stone-faced among them broke down. No matter what was said beforehand, the new Hall of Famers become overwhelmed by the moment, by the hospitality of the volunteers, by the fans lined deep on the sidewalks waving during the parade Saturday morning.

For Jackie Smith, the weekend was a whirlwind of non-stop action. He seemed to be operating on adrenaline alone, overcome by what is happening, surrounded by friends, fans and family.

Friends: They came from everywhere, including teammates Charley Johnson, Jim Hart, Larry Stallings, Bill Koman, Terry Miller, Steve Jones, Tim Kearney, Kurt Allerman.

Kearney and Allerman played with Smith only briefly, Kearney for two seasons, Allerman for only one. But this was somewhere they had to be. Allerman remembered an incident from his rookie season of 1977 when an opposing player came hurtling toward the Cardinal bench and he stopped him. Said Allerman, “Jackie came over and said, ‘Rookie, let him go. You help our guys.’ That’s the way he was. An intense competitor.”

Kim Tucci made the trip from St. Louis. The widow of Smith’s high school coach, Gabe Felder, journeyed from Kentwood, LA, Jackie’s hometown to pay her respects and bring a proclamation from Kentwood Mayor Bobby Gill. College friends also made the trip.

After a dinner function Friday night, there was a reception in the headquarters hotel. Several in the St. Louis group were the last to leave. Hey, there isn’t much in pro football to celebrate anymore in our town, so we took advantage of every minute.

For Mark Vittert, the experience was like being a kid in a candy store. Vittert became friends with Smith in 1974, and that friendship resulted in him being asked to present Smith for enshrinement. “He asked me over breakfast,” Vittert said. “Needless to say, I was touched.”

As for the weekend, he said, “this has been like a Field of Dreams. Sitting near these larger-than-life people has been incredible. Hell, I thought Doak Walker died 20 years ago. It’s like being in another world. My father didn’t want me to have heroes, but Rafer Johnson was mine. I cut his picture out of Sports Illustrated in 1960 when he won the Olympic gold medal. And here I am in the same room with him.” (Johnson presented his brother Jimmy for enshrinement).

Fans: Two busloads of fans wearing specially made T-shirts left St. Louis at 7:30 a.m. Friday, got lost on the way, stopped at Big Red Liquor on the Ohio/Indiana border and were ready to party on Saturday. There were the Bazzetta sisters from the Hill. Suzanne Hoffman from Waterloo. Clem and Marsha Esker from Red Bud, IL. Henry Laslo of St. Louis to name a few.

John Ried recalled being introduced to Cardinal football by Marv Phelan when he returned from the service in 1962. “I didn’t even know St. Louis had a team,” Ried said. “But I never missed a game after that. Marv and I lost touch about two years ago. And then there he was on this trip. Amazing.”

After attending the enshrinement ceremony, the group meandered back to the buses behind Fawcett Stadium, where the Hall of Fame game between Atlanta and San Diego was being played. After halftime, Smith joined them. He signed autographs in an idyllic setting under a tree. Three hours later, he was still shaking hands and thanking everyone for coming.

Bill Hayner of Ferguson presented Smith with a resolution from the St. Louis County Council and a proclamation declaring July 30 Jackie Smith Day in Ferguson.

“I sure appreciate you being here. It means a lot to me,” Jackie said. “I love you all.”

Noted Smith’s son Darrell, “I’m more choked up here than there (at the ceremony).”

Meanwhile, St. Louisan Joan Aud put things in perspective for grumblers who complained about the long bus ride. “Jackie Smith had a lot more trouble getting here than us,” she said. “Hey, I got a $200 T-shirt and the trip was free.”

Family: With Smith were mother Hazel, wife Gerri, sons Darrell and Greg, daughters Sherri and Angie, and daughter-in-law Laura. Brother-in-law Jeff Vogt, husband of Jackie’s sister, was also in Canton. He made my day by giving me a special golf shirt with the same design that is on the T-shirt. It will be worn with pride.

“There are long-lost cousins, people from everywhere,” Jackie said.

They were all amazed by the people of Canton, who roll out the red carpet each year for the Hall of Famers. “I’ve never seen a city do what they have done,” Gerri said. “It’s kind of like home. The people of Canton, of St. Louis, they are real people.”

It turned out Jackie and Gerri’s anniversary was Friday. At a special reception on Saturday night, after some special words were said, Jackie called up Gerri and said, “Happy anniversary, but don’t think I’m going to do something like this again!”

It was a party that no one wanted to end.

Jackie: After all, he was what this weekend was all about. Jackie reveled in every activity, enjoying his fellow enshrinees’ moments as much as his own.

During the dinner Friday night, when introduced and walking onstage, he did a quick soft-shoe. Later, when the enshrinees and their families were announced again from the dais, Jackie did the wave with the crowd, standing and clapping and looking at the other families rising and patting Leroy Kelly on the shoulder when he was introduced.

In his speech on Saturday, Smith said, “It’s a treat to be with these other Hall of Famers, especially without their headgear.” Referring to Ray Nitschke, who bets on which enshrinee breaks down, Jackie said, “I’m going to try to make it, Ray.” And he did.

Many of the enshrinees also spoke about Jackie. Tony Dorsett was in his second season when Smith played for the Cowboys in 1978. “I learned about how to approach the game from a professional standpoint.” Dorsett said. Former Dallas coach Tom Landry presenting Dorsett, said that “Jackie Smith’s last year with us showed what a class guy Jackie Smith is.”

At the post-dinner reception Friday, Jackie visited with Bud Grant and later said, “He paid me the greatest compliment. He said if I had played for them, they would have won five Super Bowls.” Saturday, at a pre-enshrinement press conference, Grant said, “We were scared to death every time we played against him. If I knew then what I know now, I would have given two No. 1 picks for him.”

But it was left to Vittert to eloquently put into words the essence of Jackie Smith.

  • “He had the raw speed of a lean sprinter and the tenacity of a Cajun crocodile.”
  • “He played 210 games as if each were at the same time a battle and a Sunday afternoon frolic.”
  • “He is a quiet man, understated as a whisper.”
  • “Performance was his powerful statement. Leadership and Jackie Smith were inseparable. As so many of his coaches and teammates have said, Jackie was the pure leader—by example, by example, by example.”
  • And finally, “Let us be clear today. There never has been a man who has played this game who had more heart, who gave more of himself or who more deeply touched his teammates and the fans than Jackie Smith.”

We all seconded that emotion.

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