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For most athletes who make it to the NFL, reaching the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal. Sure, every kid in the backyard pretends to catch the pass in the end zone to win the championship, but for the men who actually beat the tremendous odds just to suit up at the professional level, actually hoisting the Lombardi Trophy is almost too much to dare to dream.
Winning or losing any single game is usually beyond any one player’s control, and when the larger-than-life hype is stripped away, the Super Bowl is, at its core, like any other 60-minute gridiron battle between two teams. There will be a winner, and there will be a loser; just being in that rare position is enough for most men to call it a success.
Jackie Smith’s 16-year NFL tenure was a success, but it’s a career that included the highest of highs as well as the lowest of lows. He’s one of the sport’s all-time elites, with a gold jacket and records that still stand… but he’s also most closely identified for dropping an easy touchdown in the biggest game of his life, a momentary failure that follows him to this day, four decades later.
This is the extraordinary story of a Hall of Famer who has, incredibly, been shunned by a faction of both franchises he played for: by the ownership of one who won’t forgive him for comments made in the heat of the moment of an offseason negotiation, and also by the fanbase of the other who won’t forgive him for an on-the-field error he made in the heat of battle.
His time with one team earned him football immortality. His time with the other made him the poster child for letting the moment slip away when it matters most.
It almost defies explanation that a player who made just three catches in a Cowboys uniform is remembered at all, given all the larger legends in the team’s illustrious history. But not all tales have a happy ending, and sometimes there’s more to a player’s story than the catches he made. Sometimes, unfair as it is, the story ends up being largely about the one catch he didn’t make.
Every young football player dreams of making it to the Super Bowl. But Jackie Smith might tell them to be careful what they wish for.
'We shouldn't have ever called that play.'
Dec 14, 1975; Chicago, IL, USA; FILE PHOTO; St. Louis Cardinals tight end Jackie Smith in the locker room following a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Cardinals defeated the Bears 34-20. Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
The Cowboys were trailing by a 21-14 score with 2:46 left in the third quarter. Third down, three years to go. The ball rested on the 10-yard line, with Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach looking like he was about to put the league's top-ranked offense in the end zone to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII. And then Cowboys head coach Tom Landry called what Staubach was positive was the wrong play. Ben Baskin picks up the story from there in a Sports Illustrated piece from 2016. "When he heard the call- 47 QB Pass Y Corner- Staubach immediately signaled for a timeout. This, he argued to Landry, was a goal line play, and one that had been added to the game plan only a week earlier. They'd never practiced it from anywhere other than the one- or two-yard line. The problem: Dallas wasn't on the goal line. Landry told him to run it anyway." According to the play design, Staubach was supposed to fake a handoff to fullback Scott Laidlaw while a pair of Dallas receivers each raced to a pylon and running back Tony Dorsett would slip into the flat. The emergency option on the play would be Smith, the big tight end who was to head to the back of the end zone and wait. Only now the distance the receivers would have to run would be double what the team had ever practiced. "We shouldn't have ever called that play," Staubach would say many years later. "We can blame what happened on Coach Landry." Staubach took his coach's command, though, and lined the offense up to run 47 QB Pass Y Corner. The play was meant to look like a run, with the entire Cowboys offense bunched in tight. Pittsburgh's famed "Steel Curtain" defense crowded the line, too, and played for the run, assuming that Dorsett or Laidlaw would get the carry, attempting just to pick up the first down. As the play developed and the pocket collapsed around Staubach, Smith- the fourth option on the play- was all alone in the end zone, though not quite to his target destination. Jackie Smith was the oldest player on the field at Super Bowl XIII. He was a 16-year NFL veteran who, at the time, had more receptions and receiving yards than any tight end before him.
Oct 15, 1978; St. Louis, MO, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith (81) on the sideline against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
He hadn't even been on Dallas's opening day roster in that 1978 season; he had retired the year before after spending his entire career with the (then) St. Louis Cardinals. The 38-year old was lured back into action for the defending Super Bowl champ Cowboys, but he spent the season doing nothing more than blocking. He hadn't caught a single pass during the regular season. But now as the last-ditch safety valve on a critical third-down play in the red zone in the Super Bowl, Smith was literally by himself in the end zone. "I saw him open and I took something off it. I didn't want to drill it through his hands," Staubach told The Miami News after the game. "The ball was low. It could have been better." "All of a sudden I look, and Roger throws me the ball," recalled Smith. In that frozen moment of time, with Staubach's ball floating through the muggy Miami air on that late January night, Smith was poised to be the hero in the biggest moment of his football life.
'He had something inside him that was forever trying to burst out.'
Sep 1967; St. Louis, MO, USA; FILE PHOTO; St. Louis Cardinals tight end Jackie Smith (81) on the sidelines during the 1967 season at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
Jackie Smith's life on the football field actually began with him holding a clarinet, not a football. After giving up the marching band at Kentwood High School in southeastern Louisiana and trying out for the team instead, injuries plagued his football career. But the big and speedy Smith lettered in track and field, even winning the state championship as a hurdler. He was offered a half-scholarship for track by Northwestern Louisiana State College (now Northwestern State University) in Natchitoches. The school even sweetened the invite. "They told me, 'If you go out for the football team and don't quit, we can give you a full scholarship,'" Smith explained. "I didn't even have to play; just don't quit." He did play, and, despite his role as a tight end in the Demons' run-heavy offense, the 6-foot-4-inch Smith led the team in receiving his last two seasons. But it was a spring intrasquad game that got Smith noticed by a Cardinals trainer who happened to be in the stands that day. When there were no more players on the team's board in the tenth round of the 1963 draft, someone in the war room remembered "that redheaded track kid from Louisiana." No one was more shocked than Smith. "Getting drafted? I didn't even consider it a possibility," says Smith. "Somebody was looking out for my sorry ass, or the gods were on my side, or [the Cardinals coaches] all just got drunk that day and didn't make good decisions." It turned out to be a brilliant decision by the organization. In just his second game as a pro, the rookie snared nine balls and racked up 212 yards and a pair of touchdown in a St. Louis win over Pittsburgh. It was a sign of things to come. Through 1973- his 11th season- he amassed 6,743 receiving yards- over 2,000 more than any other tight end in the same timeframe. In 1967, his receiving yardage (1,205) ranked third in the league among all pass-catchers, wideouts included. Smith's size and speed made him especially dangerous after the catch, but he was also a punishing blocker and even punted for the team in his first three seasons. But it was toughness that forged the legend of Jackie Smith. He played in the first 121 games of his career, not missing a single contest until his ninth year in the league. https://twitter.com/AmazingSportCa/status/780114846281035776 "He was the baddest dude you ever played with. You'd have to shoot him to stop him," said Cardinals teammate Tim Van Galder. "I've never seen him tired, never seen him out of breath," claimed Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf. "It was like he had something inside of him that was forever trying to burst out." Injuries started to pile up in his 13th and 14th seasons. By 1976, he had been surpassed on the Cardinals depth chart and caught just three balls. Following just five more in the entire 1977 campaign, the 37-year-old called it a career. "I am a person who has to feel like I contributed," Smith said at the time, as per Texas newspaper The Victoria Advocate. "I don't feel like I have." To St. Louis fans, Smith had been a sports icon on par with the likes of Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Stan Musial, all superstars for the baseball Cardinals. And while Smith had enjoyed personal success in St. Louis- five straight Pro Bowls and four consecutive years as a second-team All-Pro- he was stuck on mostly mediocre teams that went 108-92-10 over his 15 seasons. Smith played in just two playoff games as a Cardinal, with the team losing both outings and himself catching just one ball in each. Little did he- or anyone- suspect that he'd return to the NFL postseason just twelve months later with one of the team's bitter rivals.
'We wouldn't have even been in the Super Bowl without him.'
Dec 1974; Unknown Location, USA; FILE PHOTO; St. Louis Cardinals tight end Jackie Smith on the sideline during the 1974 season. Mandatory Credit: Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
Retirement found Smith working at a St. Louis restaurant that he owned, along with his wife, his college sweetheart. In late September of 1978, the phone at Jackie's Place rang. Jackie himself picked up. The voice on the other end identified himself as Tom Landry. Smith promptly hung up, assuming it was a prank. When the Cowboys coach called back, he asked Smith simply, "Are you in shape?" Jay Saldi, one of two tight ends in Dallas, had broken his arm in the team's fourth game of the season. Landry needed someone to come in and provide depth and blocking behind Billy Joe DuPree. Smith ran laps around the lake behind his house that night as the family slept. The next day, he was on a plane to Dallas. Cowboys owner Tex Schramm boasted that the team had managed to scoop up a "surefire Hall of Fame" player, one who had helped beat his own Cowboys on several occasions.
Oct 13, 1974; St. Louis, MO, USA; FILE PHOTO; St. Louis Cardinals tight end Jackie Smith (81) carries the ball against the Dallas Cowboys at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit Herb Weitman-USA TODAY Sports
The former track star still had legs. At 38, he could still run a 40-yard-dash in 4.6 seconds. As per SI, "He would push so hard during the team's post-meeting, pre-practice one-mile warmup run that, as the season wore on, some of the Cowboys' younger players began to creep closer to the door as the meeting wound down. They wanted to get a head start so they could maybe, possibly beat the old man." Smith joined the active roster for Week 5 and played in all 12 of the remaining games on the schedule, including an overtime win against the Cardinals in front of his former home crowd at Busch Stadium. The Cowboys were practically a machine in 1978; they led the league in offense and defense and were widely favored to return to the Super Bowl. The NFL's all-time leading pass-catcher among tight ends was back in uniform, but he didn't log a single reception in his comeback season. The Cowboys used Smith as a blocker, mainly in goal-line formations. "I just thought I was in heaven to be able to work my ass off down there," Smith recalled. "It was such an honor." Smith didn't go unrecognized for his efforts in the trenches, though. Following an important win over the Eagles, Landry presented him the game ball. For his blocking. The team went 12-4, won the East, and gained a first-round bye in the playoffs. In the divisional round versus Atlanta, Smith made the most of his return to the postseason. With Danny White coming off the bench to replace an injured Staubach, Smith caught the first three passes of his Cowboys tenure, including a two-yard toe-drag touchdown that tied the game in the third quarter. Dallas went on to win, 27-20, earning a trip to the conference championship. "I had no idea that TD pass would come to me. It was a bootleg roll, and I did a comeback right to the goal line when I saw Danny was not going to throw it to anyone else," Smith said per The Evening Independent. "Catching passes is like riding a bike. It's something you never forget." The Cowboys would blank the Rams the following week by a 28-0 count, setting up a return to the Super Bowl to face the Steelers. But it was Smith's clutch grab against the Falcons that sparked the second-half comeback that made it all possible. "Jackie was the hero of that game," said Staubach. "We wouldn't have even been in the Super Bowl without him." Now Smith was headed to the biggest game of his life, the oldest guy on the team, and the one who took arguably the unlikeliest path to get there. "I looked around [after the NFC Championship] and I wasn't with all those people- Irv Goode, Charley Johnson, Larry Wilson- I'd cranked up with all those years [in St. Louis]. Those guys had worked just as hard as I had and they never had it happen. All those years, we'd come into camp saying, 'This will be the year,' and all we got was frustrated. I had gotten so I almost hated this game [the Super Bowl] because we worked so hard. Now it didn't seem fair that I was the lucky one." But once he finally got there, just seconds after Staubach fired that third-down dart into the end zone in the Super Bowl, Smith wouldn't be considered "the lucky one" any longer.
'Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America.'
https://twitter.com/nypostsports/status/822861238359195649 From the camera angle behind Staubach in the Super Bowl XIII play, Jackie Smith is literally the only man on the screen as the potential game-tying pass crosses over the plane of the goal line. Staubach called the throw "low," adding, "It could have been better." To his credit, Smith knew immediately that he'd have to make an adjustment to get it. "I tried to dig my left foot to turn, and it slipped right out from under me," he said many years later. "It put my body about a foot from where I should have been, and I couldn't get my arms back far enough to compensate." The result was one of the most heartbreakingly-recognizable moments in NFL history. The ball hit Smith in the hands and the hip as he slid to the turf, all alone in the end zone. He tried to overcautiously cradle the ball with his entire body, but it simply bounced away. "Oh, bless his heart," Cowboys radio play-by-play man Verne Lundquist lamented in what has since become an iconic broadcast call. "He's got to be the sickest man in America." Smith famously clenched his entire body in disgust, springing himself off the grass as rigid as a board. On the sideline, the normally stoic-to-a-fault Landry was suddenly the picture of animated anguish. In the Orange Bowl stands, Jackie's wife and mother started to cry. Staubach whipped his head back in frustration and could be seen muttering to himself as he stomped off the field. "I was mad at myself," the Hall of Fame quarterback said. "I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, I screwed up.'" But to nearly everyone else, Jackie Smith had just cost the Cowboys the championship. Catching the pass would have put Dallas within an extra point of tying the game. Instead, they settled for a field goal. Three points instead seven. They would go on to lose Super Bowl XIII by that same four-point margin. "When he dropped that ball," Landry told NBC Sports in a 1993 retrospective, "I think it hurt us worse, with him dropping the ball, than losing the football game. Because everybody really felt for him after that game."
Jan 21, 1979; Miami, FL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys tight end (81) Jackie Smith reacts to dropping a potential touchdown pass from Roger Staubach in the end zone during Super Bowl XIII at the Orange Bowl. The Steelers defeated the Cowboys 35-31. Mandatory Credit: Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY NETWORK
There were, of course, many other moments before that play and in the seventeen minutes of regulation that followed that also determined the outcome. A Staubach interception in Pittsburgh territory just before halftime turned into a Steelers touchdown, a potential 14-point swing. Cowboys defensive tackle Randy White lost the handle on a fourth-quarter fumble recovery that would have given Dallas another possession. A questionable penalty set up a fourth-quarter score by Steelers back Franco Harris on a play in which one of the officials impeded Cowboys safety Charlie Waters from making a tackle. And the No. 2-ranked Dallas defense had an uncharacteristically-bad day, allowing Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw to have the most passing yards of his career to that point. But that drop is the moment that fans remember. Smith is the easiest target for their blame. "To make a big deal out of the drop, like it cost us the game, was ridiculous," Staubach would say afterward. "There were so many other factors in us losing. And we lost to a really great team. I've always been sick about it. It's just wrong that Jackie has taken any kind of blame." But he did. And it started, as told by the Miami News, shortly after the final gun as reporters descended on Smith's locker as he emerged from the showers. "'Why did you drop it?' 'Will this play stand out in your mind 10 years from now?' 'Is this the biggest disappointment of your career?' 'What’s going through your head?' 'Are you embarrassed?' 'Do you think you cost Dallas the game?' 'Tell us about it again, will you?' 'Will you watch the play on films?'" To his credit, Smith maintains he has never watched the replay in the 42 years that have passed. "I know what happened," he would say plainly. "I didn't need to watch it again." But that doesn't mean the gut-wrenching moment hasn't stayed with him.
'This is what they'll remember.'
Jan 21,1979; Miami, FL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys tight end #81 Jackie Smith reacts to dropping a potential touchdown pass in the end zone during Super Bowl XIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers defeated the Cowboys 35-31 at the Orange Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Photo By Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports © Copyright 1979 Malcolm Emmons
The media badgered him for his reaction. Fans hounded him for an explanation, in phone calls, in letters, in person. His family cried with him. Even Steelers receiver Lynn Swann piled on in his own postgame interview, mocking, "Oh baby, fella ain't got what heroes are made of." Smith had already made the decision the night before the Super Bowl that it would be his final game. The dropped touchdown is the note he left on. "You just feel like you let a lot of people down," Smith said at the time. "I hope it won't haunt me. But it probably will. I've still got what I've done, who I've met, but I hate going out like this. All these years, all the wait, and this is what they'll remember." Sixteen seasons. Five Pro Bowls. Nearly eight thousand yards on 480 catches. A grand total of three of them with the Cowboys, to help put them in the Super Bowl. And that one mind-boggling incompletion. For many years and even now, the drop is the thing that most people use to define Smith. It took him over 35 years- until the 2016 SI interview with Baskin- to open up about it on the record. He says he had to deal with it daily, every time he introduced himself. People came at his wife. People came at his children. The darkness and depression, even the disconnect from his family, they were all very real for a long time. "I don’t think I saw Jackie for two or three years after that game; he just disappeared," offered Dierdorf, his old Cardinals teammate. "That catch came really close to ruining his entire life." "It made me think about how fragile all of this is: fame, notoriety," Smith explained. "How much work it takes to get there, and how little work it is to take it all away. It can be taken away with something as frivolous as missing a [expletive] pass." Football, though, by and large, never let the drop define Smith. His career receiving yardage total stood as the tight end record until 1990. He was inducted into both the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame followed in 1994; his career average of 16.5 yards per reception is still tops among all tight ends in Canton. Oddly enough, though, the longtime Cardinals great is not a member of that club's Ring of Honor. Still the third-best receiver in team history in terms of receiving yards (and sixth in both receptions and touchdown catches), he is the only Cardinals Hall of Famer not similarly honored by the team itself. The slight supposedly stems from comments he made about the Bidwell family [owners of the franchise] upon his coming out of retirement to sign with the Cowboys. The wedge driven between Smith and the Cardinals organization has lasted to this day. He says his relationship with the franchise is "beyond strained." The club, in its defense, points out that two large photos of Smith hang in their Glendale stadium and that Smith has been invited to alumni events. Nevertheless, Smith remains a significant character in the histories of both teams he played for: the Cardinals for his prolific and long-lived career, and the Cowboys for being both the hero and the unfortunate scapegoat of his short-lived Super Bowl season. In 2017, Smith even performed the national anthem at the Hall of Fame Game between the two clubs.
Football Hall of Famer Jackie Smith is pictured holding his bust at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, July 30, 1994. (AP Photo/Bruce Zake)
It is remarkable that while his bronze bust resides in Canton, Smith is not fully embraced by either team he played for. He is still a fan favorite in both St. Louis and Arizona, but has seemingly been all but blackballed by the club itself. In Dallas, many fans still cast him as a pariah, even though the organization quickly dismissed the Super Bowl blunder. Landry even tried to talk Smith into returning to the Cowboys for a 17th NFL season. In a letter- which Smith still has framed- Landry wrote that he didn't believe the dropped pass to be "the turning point in the football game," and promised that Smith "will always be considered a Cowboy in the eyes of all of us who had the pleasure of working with you." In his Hall of Fame speech in 1994, Smith called his season in Dallas "the most enjoyable single year I ever spent in football." He did not directly reference the play he's most remembered for, but he did close his remarks that day with this: "The Pro Football Hall of Fame is a place where my great-great-grandchildren can come, where grandpa can forever remain young and forever catch passes." Few football fans- and not a single member of the Cowboys faithful- can not immediately assume he's talking about one would-be catch of one low pass in particular. "I'd really like to have that back," Smith said in 1979 after the infamous Super Bowl gaffe. "But I guess it doesn't work out that way." Smith, 81, still lives in St. Louis, but also feels a strong affinity for the Cowboys. He had his NFC Championship ring- the ring made possible by the only three receptions he ever made for the team- broken into several pieces, one for each of his children. "Family is what's really important," he told Baskin in the SI piece. "Not football. Not some drop. I'm still the luckiest guy in the world." This offseason, Cowboys Wire is reaching back into the archives in a series called Stars of the Cowboys' Past. We'll re-acquaint readers with the stories of some of the franchise's players who have shone brightly during the 60-year history of America's Team. 1/13: Larry Cole 1/28: Eddie LeBaron 2/10: Rayfield Wright 2/25: Dat Nguyen 3/18: Everson Walls 4/4: Toni Fritsch 4/24: Calvin Hill 5/9: Bill Bates You can suggest future Stars of the Cowboys' Past by following Todd on Twitter at @ToddBrock24f7.