Jerry Smith — a football life and more

Jerry Smith of the Washington Redskins was as good a pass receiving tight-end as there was in the NFL during his era (the 1960s and 70s). What about John Mackey who “revolutionized” the position? Great player, true legend. They didn’t name the award given to the nation’s top collegiate tight-end the “Mackey Award” for nothing. But Smith caught 90 more passes than Mackey for more yards, and scored 22 more touchdowns.

Mike Ditka? He caught eight more balls than Smith for more yards, but had 17 fewer touchdowns. In fact, Smith’s total of 60 touchdown passes wasn’t surpassed until 2003 (by Shannon Sharpe who ended up with 62), 27 years after Smith hauled in his last TD.

Smith played in a receiving corps that including Hall of Famers Bobby Mitchell and Charley Taylor. But when Sonny Jurgensen had to complete a pass, he usually looked to Smith.

Weighing about 20 pounds less than Mackey and Ditka, Smith wasn’t the blocker they were. But you didn’t play tight-end for Vince Lombardi and George Allen, much less become one their favorite players, without contributing to the running game by moving linebackers.

For his contributions on the field and off (no Redskin said “yes” to more charitable and community events), Smith was a beloved Redskin. He was also gay. Smith died of AIDS in 1986.

The NFL network tells Smith’s story in its series “A Football Life.” Football fans, especially those of a certain age who followed the Redskins, should tune in when the show is replayed. But have some tissues ready because you’re unlikely to remain dry-eyed.

Smith didn’t “come out” as a gay player during his NFL career. Even to this day, no NFL player has, and to do so was unthinkable in the 1970s. However, he agreed to be interviewed by a Washington Star reporter for a story about his life as a gay athlete. Smith’s conditions were that he would not be identified by name, by team, or by position. Even with those conditions, it was a courageous move.

Although Smith didn’t come out, many of his teammates say they thought he was probably gay. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, the suspicion went beyond the team. Even though I had no connection with the Redskins or (as far as I knew) to members of the gay community, I first heard rumors about Smith’s homosexuality in 1974 or 1975.

The testimony of the Redskins interviewed for the NFL network show — a group that includes Brig Owens (Smith’s roommate), Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer, Larry Brown, Bobby Mitchell, Charlie Taylor, Chris Hanburger, Calvin Hill, and Jean Fugett –is that Smith’s sexuality didn’t matter as far as they were concerned and that openly revealing it wouldn’t have made a difference to them. That’s easy to say now, of course. Smith seems to have felt it would have made a difference, and a close friend of Smith’s who was interviewed for the show agrees.

Still, the Redskins of that era were a mature, broad-minded, live-and-let-live bunch. Under George Allen, Washington became home to various misfits and non-conformists — e.g. Duane Thomas and John Riggins. Many of the core team members marched to their own beat, except on the football field.

Given Smith’s stature on the team, and keeping in mind that his sexuality came to border on open-secret status, I suspect that coming out would not have hurt his relationship with most of his teammates. But it almost certainly would have had some impact, and would have created a media circus by the standards of that day. Smith was well-advised to eschew that path.

When Smith’s illness became known in the mid-1980s, a number of his former teammates rallied to his support, visiting him at Holy Cross hospital, for example. The extent of that support is unclear, however. It’s possible that the NFL Network’s presentation makes the degree of support seem greater in retrospect than it was at the time.

But the support of George Allen, the ultra-conservative old Redskins coach, is documented by a letter he wrote to the dying Smith. His son Bruce Allen (the current Redskins GM) reads from the letter during the NFL Network documentary.

As I said, make sure you have some tissues handy if you watch.

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