A surprise start in the biggest game of a rookie’s life led to a blowout and a rushing record that stands to this day. But the Washington running back was out of the NFL two years later and eventually found himself on the wrong side of the law, watching the Super Bowl from behind bars
AURORA, Colo. — It was a surprise start for Timmy Smith. Only minutes before Super Bowl XXII on Jan. 31, 1988, Washington head coach Joe Gibbs asked Doug Williams, poised to become the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, to deliver the good news to the rookie running back: He’d be starting against the Denver Broncos in place of limping veteran George Rogers.
“Coach wanted me to break the news to him and calm him down,” Williams, now 60, recalls. “I said, ‘Timmy, you’re going to start the Super Bowl,’ and he looked at me like I was crazy. I said if you mess this up, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Timmy did not get his ass kicked.
Instead, he ran for 204 yards—still a Super Bowl record. The bulk of those yards came during a 35-point second-quarter explosion that has yet to be duplicated. After the game, Smith undressed in a haze of ecstasy underneath Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. Before he could get his shoulder pads off, future Hall of Fame linebacker and part-time Good Morning America correspondent Harry Carson all but begged him to appear on the show as soon as possible. David Letterman and the Today show waited on word from the son of a nurse’s aide from Hobbs, N.M.
“I was numb, man,” Smith says. “After that game, I’ve got all these people coming at me, but I wanted to go back on the field. After I got through running over them, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped. Once you get that feeling, it’s unstoppable.”
Yet just two and a half years later, Smith found himself on the wrong end of a historic transaction. In 1990 the woeful Cowboys drafted one Emmitt Smith out of Florida. Timmy Smith, now a veteran of three NFL teams, held on to the job until the beginning of the second week of the season, a week after Emmitt ended his rookie holdout, the longest in NFL history. Emmitt was in, and Timmy was out, for good.
* * *
“I’d never been in trouble before,” Smith says about the day DEA officers cuffed him. “Turning yourself in is the hardest part.”
Smith is sipping cranberry juice and enjoying plates of sautéed shrimp and glowing red-orange buffalo wings that look like they were hand-painted by Salvador Dali. We’re at the Casa Vallarta Restaurant and Tequila Bar in Aurora, Colo., where Smith’s Washington jersey is framed on the wall next to a Tim Tebow shirt. Smith is an honored guest here. He punctuates sentences with a great laugh that bellows from his 300-pound frame, and he speaks with the innocent sincerity of a guy who, upon being drafted in the fifth round, had business cards printed out which read:
“Everybody asks about the Super Bowl, and the NFL,” he says. “Nobody ever asks about the arrest.”
On multiple occasions between April 10, 2005, and Sept. 10, 2005, Smith sold more than half a kilogram of cocaine to an undercover DEA agent in Denver. As a part of subsequent DEA raids, authorities recovered 1,300 grams of cocaine and approximately $100,000 in assets. Timmy’s younger brother, Chris, was also arrested in the sting.
As Smith tells it, he was working as a youth counselor at the time, and making drug transactions on the side in an effort to raise cash for a friend who lost his home in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
“One of my brothers had cocaine, so I made a deal with this dude who was introduced to me by a friend who was a dealer. I took the guy the cocaine maybe twice, and the third time they got my ass.”
The officer, he says, was convincing in his role. He wore cornrows in his hair and sagged his pants the appropriate length.
“I never did any drugs, and I didn’t know much about cocaine,” Smith says. “I didn’t even know how much I gave him. I made a mistake, and I did my time down in Englewood.”
When the DEA made the bust, Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey D. Sweetin of the DEA’s Rocky Mountain Division held a press conference to announce the arrest of a former NFL running back turned drug gofer. Reading from a prepared statement, Smith said, “This case shows the lure of easy money can attract both the downtrodden looking to make a better life and those who have been idolized and envied for living the American dream.
“Greed does not distinguish between rich, poor, notorious and unknown. The Timmy Smiths of the world are not immune from greed, nor are they immune from being held accountable for contributing to the degradation of our communities. The insidious nature of drug trafficking corrupts everything and everyone it touches.”
Smith felt he was being made an example. His brother had a larger role in trafficking, he says, but received only three years probation. When Smith was booked, he says female law enforcement officers took glee in posing beside him while handcuffed for digital photos as if it were “the highlight of their lives.” Jeffrey Dorschner of the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s office describes Smith’s accusation as “apocryphal.” Said Dorschner, “To our knowledge, that didn’t happen.”
Smith would plead guilty to a role as a minor participant in a drug conspiracy and do 18 months at FCI Englewood, a low-security federal correctional institution in Littleton, Colo. Smith says prison was a cakewalk, other than the weekend he spent in solitary confinement after prison authorities heard him and his wife discussing the anti-reflux pills she slipped him during a visit. He was a celebrity inside—men he’d known on the outside who were incarcerated spread knowledge about his identity. He watched Super Bowls XL and XLI behind bars, imagining himself as a younger, thinner man slicing through the AFC’s best defense.
“They would say to me, ‘That was you in ’88?’ ” Smith says.
“Yeah. That was my lucky ass that day.”
* * *
There was a moment when Smith knew his time in the NFL was over. It wasn’t on Sept. 4, 1990, the day Emmitt Smith ended his holdout. It was five days later, on the afternoon of Sept. 9, when Timmy got the start in the season-opener against the Chargers, the team that had cut him in training camp the year before. Smith took a second-quarter handoff and ran smack into rookie linebacker Junior Seau, who was playing in his first game after the Chargers made him the fifth pick in that year’s draft. (Footage of that game can be seen here.)
“It was like running into that wall over there,” says Smith, bursting into laughter as he gestures toward the wood-paneled interior of Casa Vallarta. “I went straight down. At halftime I went and got one of those huge neck rolls. My neck was so bad. Jimmy [Johnson] said, ‘You ready, Timmy?’ I go, ‘Uh, no.’
“They cut me the next morning.”
Twenty years later, after two decades of back pain courtesy of Junior Seau, Smith would have surgery to fuse the C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae. Injuries were a constant theme throughout his career, beginning with his time at Texas Tech, where he missed his junior and senior seasons due to injuries. He says he thought about quitting college football, but in the spring and early summer of 1987, wary of what life after football would hold, he ran hills in the Texas heat every day at noon until the visiting NFL scouts noticed.
Washington and Joe Gibbs took a shot, and Smith spent a season on the practice squad behind Rogers and two other tailbacks. Injuries mounted during the playoffs, and Smith got the nod in a game the Broncos were favored to win by three points. Instead they got shellacked by 32.
“They changed how they ran one play—the counter trey—to attack how we defended it,” says Karl Mecklenburg, a former Broncos linebacker and a member of the team’s Ring of Fame. “A lot of coaches spring a play and go on to other things, but the Redskins kept pounding away at it. Their line was really good. To me it was more their coaching staff taking advantage of what we did as a defense. Timmy Smith was the guy who got the yards.”
Says former Broncos defensive tackle Greg Kragen: “Not to take away from what Timmy did, but we just didn’t play very disciplined defense.”
In the end, it was Doug Williams who won the MVP award for his four-touchdown, 340-yard passing performance. In October 2015, Williams and Smith were invited to homecoming festivities in Landover, Md., during Washington’s Week 7 game against the Buccaneers. Williams teased the 5-11 Smith for his bowling ball shape. Team owner Dan Snyder teased Williams for his questionable MVP award.
“Snyder don’t hold nothing back,” Smith says. “He said, ‘Hey Doug, tell Timmy he should’ve won MVP. You know he should’ve won MVP.’”
“Man, I never even got any commercials,” Smith says, now genuinely bothered. “I should’ve been a co-MVP. I guess they figured I’d be in the league for a long time. When you reach that level and do a hell of a job like that, somehow you’re supposed to be rewarded. I don’t feel bad that I didn’t get it, and I’m happy Doug got it, but the thing is, my record still stands.”
The summer after the Super Bowl, Smith showed up to training camp out of shape, at least by Gibbs’ standards. He started eight games in the 1988 season, rushing for 470 yards and a measly 3.0 per carry. He was released the following offseason.
“Now, Timmy would tell you this,” says Williams. “Timmy did not come back the following season ready to go. He was young, and had just come off a record-setting Super Bowl. I don’t know that he really understood what the game was all about—and that it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.”
Says Smith: “They said I looked overweight in Washington… You see the Green Bay running back, Eddie Lacy? Now that’s overweight.”
In 1989 former Washington offensive coordinator Dan Henning invited Smith to San Diego, where he was the head coach. He remembered Smith’s fanatical effort in the practices leading up to the Super Bowl, and that remarkable performance. Henning ultimately was let down.
“He wasn’t as into it,” Henning says. “Once you get pretty good, you don’t think you have to be as prepared in terms of all the things you need to do as a professional.”
Smith says he was released that year after his then-girlfriend hit herself over the head with a phone and accused him of striking her.
“I was dating this lady, and she got pissed off at me,” Smith says. “She hit herself over the head with a phone. She called the police on me. And somebody she knew called the head coach and said I held his daughter hostage, and that was it. They never got the facts.”
Henning, now retired at 73, doesn’t quite remember it that way.
“I knew there were some issues, and there were rumors about Timmy hanging with the wrong kind of crowd,” Henning says, “but I do not remember that. Of course, I’m a septuagenarian now, so I may be affected by memory loss.
“What I know is that during 1987 he worked hard, and he stepped up and had the best week of Super Bowl practice I’ve ever seen, and nobody had a more magnificent Super Bowl than Timmy Smith had.”
* * *
“The thing I miss most from professional football is the adrenaline,” says Mecklenburg, now 55 and living in the Denver area. “I’ve since become a professional speaker and I get on stage in front of a bunch of people and I get the adrenaline, and nobody tries to hurt me. I think when athletes get out of sports, there’s that search for adrenaline. Some guys I know went straight into law enforcement, and I suspect that guys who go the other way are looking for the same.”
If that’s what Smith was searching for, the thrill ride came to an abrupt halt that day in 2005 when the handcuffs clicked. Since then he says he’s lived a pretty average life with his wife in a quiet subdivision in Aurora, three doors down from a police officer. He’s a salesman for an energy services company called CETCO, making trips down to places like Midland, Texas, and Hobbs, N.M., where he grew up as one of seven siblings with a single mother (his father lived in California and stayed in touch). It was in humble Hobbs that Smith believed he’d emerge as a basketball star, until a football coach pulled him aside and asked how tall he was, then asked if he figured he could guard Magic Johnson. No? Well, then you ought to concentrate on football.
When Smith isn’t traveling to the southwest, he’s at home with his wife, tending to his Rottweiler mix or keeping tabs on his six adult children. His seventh child, a daughter, died in her sleep six years ago of an asthma attack, at 26, Smith says, and her mother died just several weeks ago of cancer.
On Sundays during NFL season he watches games at Casa Vallarta among Broncos fans and cringes when Ickey Woods, who played from ’88 to ’91 for the Bengals, appears on TV commercials doing the ‘Ickey Shuffle’ for Geico. “How did Ickey get a commercial and I didn’t!?” Smith shouts, laughing.
Smith’s ‘Cabbage Patch’ touchdown celebration didn’t quite catch on, despite its appearance on late-night TV.
That was a different kid on Letterman, soft-spoken and unassuming, wearing a black sweatsuit with a gold chain around his neck and a Super Bowl hat on his head. This Timmy Smith, the man in the Mexican restaurant, knows every inch of the grainy Letterman clip, and of the Super Bowl highlights that are so prevalent this time of year. He knows glory, and regret, and mediocrity, and what it is to sleep in a cage.
“In the end,” he says, “every day above ground is a good day.”
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