F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy." This dark, peculiar idea has haunted me lately, as I have been considering the fact that 50 years ago the greatest hero of my childhood, Bruce Smith of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, won the Heisman Trophy.
He was cast in the mold of a classic old-fashioned romantic idol: blond, wavy-haired, blue-eyed, with chiseled features and a boyish dimpled smile. He was big and fast, a thrilling open-field runner, a triple-threat tailback in the single-wing formation of the day. A Chicago sports-writer once wrote, "Bruce Smith even looks like an All-American when he is sitting on the bench." He was captain of the 1941 Minnesota team, which he led to a second consecutive undefeated season, a second consecutive Big Ten (Big Nine back then) championship and a second consecutive national title. He was celebrated as much for his low-key modesty and for his ability to play despite his many injuries as he was for his game-winning clutch heroics. Four days before the final game of the '41 season, a game with Wisconsin that would clinch the national title, he was on crutches at practice because of a chronically bad knee. But he played in pain, and later his teammate Judd Ringer said, "The whole thing symbolized Bruce Smith to me. He didn't do it theatrically. He just did it, and we won."
We didn't have television in 1941, so this paragon existed visually for me only in blurry black-and-white newspaper photographs and in the wildly dramatic moving pictures that reeled through my mind on autumn Saturdays as I heard of his heroics via radio play-by-play. The Gophers wore golden helmets and golden uniforms in those days, and I visualized them vaguely as a swashbuckling crowd of shining trophy statuettes with Smith being by far the fastest, strongest, smartest—and shiniest—statuette of them all.
In those days, I assumed Minnesota to be a frozen, forgotten outpost. When Smith won the Heisman—the only Minnesotan ever to do so—it was my first realization that the rest of the world even knew there was a Minnesota. When he went to Hollywood in 1942 to star in Smith of Minnesota, a film about his life, it seemed his fame had somehow carried all Minnesotans—me, too—to a higher, nobler plane of existence.
Smith's days of public acclaim pretty much ended in 1941. The war began for the U.S. at the end of the year, and he enlisted in the Navy, played service football for a season or so, got his fighter pilot's wings, saw no combat, then signed to play pro football with a generally woebegone Green Bay Packer team in 1945. He did not shine. He played mostly defense, and as in college, he was frequently injured. He nearly died in 1947 after a vicious kick in the back ruptured a kidney in a game against the Packers' archenemies, the Chicago Bears. He was rushed to a hospital, where a priest gave him last rites.
Smith survived, but his star had fallen. He gave up football at the age of 29, moved back to Minnesota and became a traveling salesman. First he traveled the Midwest for After Six formal wear, then for Foley lawnmowers, then for Hamm's beer. He and his wife, Gloria, had four children, and eventually he tired of being away from his family in Faribault every week from Monday through Friday. In 1964, Hamm's gave him a distributorship in Alexandria, a small town in central Minnesota, and he settled down there. Gloria recalls, "I don't think Bruce ever wanted to do more with his life than he did. He knew that he really had nothing to prove, but he never took the Heisman for granted. People said we used the trophy for a doorstop. That wasn't true. Well, yes, maybe once or twice, when we were moving, we used it to hold a door open. Bruce was always immensely proud of what he had done, but he leaned over backward not to appear conceited."
In the spring of 1967, Smith was told he had cancer. Over the next several months he dwindled away, from more than 200 pounds to 90, but he retained the courage of the hero to the end. Gloria recalls, "He forced himself to live three months longer than any medical man predicted because he wanted to spend the summer with our kids." On Aug. 28, 1967, Bruce Smith died at the age of 47.
As Fitzgerald would probably agree, there are tragedies and there are tragedies. Maybe Bruce Smith wound up more like Willy Loman than Hobey Baker, dying the death of a so-so salesman instead of a widely sung hero, but he was an honorable man, an upright citizen. Compare his kind of tragedy with those of some more recent flawed or fallen idols: Pete Rose, Mike Tyson, Denny McLain. In fact, compare Smith with any one of hundreds of other contemporary "heroes"—selfish, shallow, arrogant people who habitually put their appetites, their egos and their greed ahead of all else.
Nothing about Bruce Smith's life was as sad as that. He is still my hero.