Thomas recalls meeting Smith

Published 11:13 pm Thursday, August 4, 2011

Former Michigan State and NFL great Bubba Smith died at age 66 Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy MSU Athletic Communications)

Two-time Michigan State All-American Bubba Smith died at his home in Los Angeles, Calif, Wednesday at age 66.

Smith, who was a member of back-to-back Big Ten and national championship teams in 1965 and 1966 in East Lansing, went on to play nine seasons in the National Football League. He was a member of the Baltimore Colts, Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers. Smith was the No. 1 draft pick of the Colts in 1967. He helped them win Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys in 1970.

Smith was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

While still at Michigan State, Smith had a profound influence on current Cassopolis and former Dowagiac football coach Bernard Thomas.

Michigan State was traveling by train to play Notre Dame Thomas’ freshman year of high school in Cassopolis. Former Ranger standout Don Weatherspoon was also on the train, which made a stop at the Cassopolis depot.

“I tell this story often,” recalled Thomas. “Obviously I know who Bubba Smith was. When I was a freshman in high school and Michigan State was headed to Notre Dame the Grand Trunk Railroad ran through Cass and the train stopped at the depot. Everyone got out of school to go down to the depot to see meet the train and to see Don. Everybody had their favorites, but for the most part everyone wanted to see Bubba Smith.

“Don spoke, so did Duffy Daugherty. But everyone wanted to see Bubba Smith. That is my first recollection of Bubba. It had a tremendous effect on me. It motivated me to want to be a Division I college football player.”

That would not be Thomas’ only brush with Smith. A few years later, after completing a stellar career at Western Michigan University, Thomas was drafted by the Colts and had another meeting with Smith.

Smith was having a contract dispute with the Colts, so he was not in uniform the first time the two met.

“He had already made a name for himself in the pros, but I remember him introducing himself to me. I remember laughing and saying to him ‘I know exactly who you are.’ I was just a 12th round draft choice, but we got to talking and we found out we had that Michigan connection. He told me he used to come down to Western quite often because of the fraternity he was in.”

Thomas ran into the Smith family again when he tried out for the Houston Oilers.

“One of the reasons I didn’t make it was because Tody Smith was a defense end there. Bubba’s brother was a member of the ‘Wild Bunch’ at USC. Tody and I got to talking and we had that Michigan connection going too. I had heard that Tody had died a few years back, so when I heard about Bubba tonight I immediately thought of him.

“The Smith boys were from Beaumont, Texas and they were two of the nicest guys you will ever had met. I will never forget them. Who can ever forget those light beer commercials Bubba made with Dick Butkus? And then of course there were the Police Academy movies. Those always made me think back to those conversations we had in Maryland.”

Smith was a three-year letterwinner at Michigan State where he helped the Spartans go 19-1-1 his final two seasons. He was named first team All-American by nine different organizations and was selected the United Press International Lineman of the Year in 1966.

He played five seasons with the Colts, two years with the Raiders and played his final two years of his career with the Oilers.

In 2006, Smith was selected as one of the 10 Greatest Defensive Players of All-Time by

Smith became only the third player in Michigan State history to have his jersey retired as part of the 40 year anniversary of the infamous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame.

The Big Ten Conference will hand out the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year Award at the conclusion of this season. The award will be selected by the conference’s head coaches and a media panel to honor Smith and Penn State’s Courtney Brown.