Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Kill, Bubba, Kill"

When you're seven or eight years old, everybody looks huge.

But for some people, "huge" doesn't nearly describe it.

When I was in grade school in the early and mid-1960s, my parents had season tickets to Michigan State football  games, in the days when the Spartans towered over the college football landscape pretty much as Alabama does  today.

When Mom for whatever reason didn't make it to the games, Dad recruited me as his running mate. So pretty much  from the days I could walk, I knew my way up and down the staircases at Spartan Stadium.

My dad's tickets weren't exactly prime seats, but before some of the games, we would go down to field level near  the players' bench. My dad was 6-foot-2 and looked pretty tall to me, but standing next to some of the players on  Duffy Daugherty's powerhouse teams like George Webster and Charlie Thornhill, he looked positively scrawny.

But next to one in particular, my dad looked like a midget. Like a munchkin.

That player, of course, was Charles "Bubba" Smith.

Smith, who died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 66, was listed in the game program at 6-8 and 300 pounds, and this was in the days when typical offensive and  defensive linemen might be 6-4 and 250 pounds. That's pretty massive compared to your everyday man on the street,  but Bubba Smith loomed over even the other players and made them look tinier still.

Michigan State at the time was riding the crest of a unique wave in college sports history: the fact there were  plenty of talented African-American football players in the South had already been well-established, but the major  colleges in the South were not yet ready to allow them to play.

Daugherty's predecessor, Biggie Munn, had built Michigan State into a powerhouse in the 1950s and Daugherty felt  pressure to maintain the Spartans' status, and he wanted to utilize talent wherever he could find it.

Since most Southern schools would not consider recruiting African-American players, Daugherty capitalized on the  untapped talent source and brought in numerous standouts such as Sherm Lewis, Webster, and Bubba Smith, from  Beaumont, Texas.

Today, Bubba Smith would probably end up at Texas or Texas A&M, and Michigan State would never be on his radar  screen. But the Sixties were the Sixties, and Bubba Smith ended up in East Lansing, a kid from Texas who had never  seen snow until he had to walk through ankle-deep drifts his first November on campus.

Those drifts were probably knee-deep to everybody else. Bubba was a legend from the minute he arrived, the largest  player in college football by a long shot. Even in 1964 when MSU was a disappointing 4-5, Smith was already  building a legend as a nearly unstoppable force on the defensive line.

Smith became a Paul Bunyan figure at MSU, throwing opposing blockers around like rag dolls, tossing running backs  to the turf like sweat socks, and crushing quarterbacks in heaps as they desperately tried to keep up with the  Spartan powerhouse.

He really was that unstoppable force the next two seasons, 1965 and 1966, when the Spartans went 19-1-1 and  grabbed partial shares of two national championships. But a upset loss to UCLA in the 1966 Rose Bowl and the  legendary 10-10 tie against Notre Dame kept the Spartans from unanimous acclaim as one of college football's  greatest teams. I still remember standing with my dad in the bleachers after that Notre Dame game, on a windswept  gray November day, with the empty feeling something memorable had slipped away.

"Kill, Bubba, Kill!!" thundered the crowds at Spartan Stadium, one of the most intimidating chants in all of  college football. Most opponents didn't even bother running toward Smith, which usually delivered them right into  the grasp of Webster, a savage linebacker widely regarded MSU's greatest player ever (with Smith usually one of  the other leading contenders).

The National Football League certainly had no reservations about MSU as the greatest college team ever (up to that  time), taking four Spartans in the first eight picks in the 1967 draft, led by Smith to the Baltimore Colts at No. 1.

Smith quickly became almost as dominant a player in the NFL as he had in college, helping power the Colts to the  Super Bowl, where they became the victims of Joe Namath and the Jets in one of the legendary upsets of all time in  1969. The Colts rebounded back to the Super Bowl in 1971, beating the Dallas Cowboys on a last-second field goal.

After that, injuries and age took their toll on Smith's football skills, and by the end of the decade, he had  retired and drifted into near-obscurity. Following the lead of Detroit Lion Alex Karras, who had hit comic gold as a  role player in "Blazing Saddles," Smith moved into acting, where his massive frame and thunderous deep voice  earned him roles in the "Police Academy" comedy series as well as an amusing series of Miller Lite beer  commercials.

And it's in those roles most people today will remember Bubba Smith, for amusing turns in comedy movies, for  playing looming and sometimes lumbering cops for laughs in hot and sunny California.

But for an eight-year-old kid standing in the bleachers on that gloomy gray day in November 1966 as the skies  darkened in the late afternoon, I'll always remember Bubba Smith as the Goliath-like figure looming above the  other players on the field, steam and smoke rising out of his facemask, as he roared at the Davids wearing Notre  Dame's gold and white to give up the ball in the final seconds of that legendary and eternally empty tie, Paul  Bunyan waiting to swing his axe just one more time.

Joe Howley is a sports design editor for the Daily Tribune. Contact him at


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home