February 10, 2011
The University of Missouri holds its Hall of Fame induction for the Class of 2010 this weekend. They ought to have two ceremonies: One for the bulk of the class and one for Brad Smith.
Most of the time in this profession, we try to separate ourselves from the fans. We are held to a little bit higher standard. We don't cheer in the press box, we don't get emotionally invested in the games and we don't publicly like or dislike players.
Well, for me, Brad Smith is an exception. I've never liked an athlete I have covered more.
There was all the on the field stuff. To watch Brad run was a privilege. He was one of those rare players: The defense knew he was getting the ball. He got the ball. And he still made them look stupid. A lot of sports is built on surprise and deception. Catch the other team off guard. Not Brad Smith. He lined up, you knew he was going to run the ball on probably a third of the offensive plays (at least) and you still couldn't keep him from doing it.
I was asked recently to pick my favorite Smith performance from three games. The choices I was given were the 2002 debut against Illinois, the 2003 win over Nebraska and the 2005 Independence Bowl. I responded that those would rank 2,3, and 4 on my list, respectively. Number one was a loss. I'll never forget watching Bad Brad nearly singlehandedly knock off No. 2 Oklahoma on a Saturday night in a 5-and-7 season that would have been fairly forgettable without this new kid at quarterback.
In 2002, I was just a fan. I was working in Rapid City, South Dakota and followed Missouri from afar. I read that Gary Pinkel had named this redshirt freshman from Ohio that I'd never heard of his starting quarterback. I'd be lying if I told you my initial thought was anything other than, "Sweet, guess Mizzou will be looking for another coach in five years because what in the name of all that is good and holy is this Pinkel dude thinking?"
The Tigers were televised nationally in that 2002 game against Illinois. I had little expectation, but Missouri wasn't exactly televised very often in the Black Hills so I watched. Wow. I don't need to recap the game. If you're reading this, you remember it. For the next four years, Brad Smith terrorized defenses.
The shame of Smith's legacy is that Missouri was never that good when he played. The Tigers went 25-23 with him at quarterback. By the time he was done, many fans were clamoring for another freshman to take his place, just as Smith had done with Kirk Farmer in 2002. It remains as stupid today as it was then.
Just think about this: Without Brad Smith, what is Missouri's record in those four years? I'll tell you one thing: It sure as hell isn't above .500.
Sometimes, the player that turns a program around isn't the guy that wins the conference championship or the national title. Sometimes, it's the guy that came before them. In the wall that is Missouri football over the last decade, the first brick was Brad Smith.
But Brad's legacy goes so far beyond the football field. Number 16 made a generation of young Missourians Tiger football fans. His last home game was against Baylor, a 31-16 win in which Smith ran for 161 yards and two touchdowns. I had gotten my son (then eight) a ticket to that game. The next day, he was crestfallen when I told him it was Brad's last game at Faurot Field. The way I tell the story, he cried. I don't know if that's really true or not, but it makes the story a little better.
The point is, kids his age never knew Missouri football as what I did when I was a kid. The Tigers were never a laughingstock to them. They had a chance to win every time they stepped on the field. That was all because of Brad Smith.
Ultimately, we all know Brad Smith, and love Brad Smith, because of what he did on the football field. But what he did off of it may have been better. He met his wife in Bible study. His idea of a wild time was going fishing with his buddies. He is the anti-New York Jet, but Rex Ryan has called him one of the most valuable players on the team.
After the first time I interviewed Brad, at Big 12 media days in Kansas City prior to the 2003 season, I told a friend, "If my sons grow up to be half the men that Brad Smith is, I've done my job as a father."
So, hats off to my all-time favorite. Brad Smith is a Hall of Famer, in every single sense of the phrase.