Jackie Smith talks extensively about the drop that almost ruined his life
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There are plenty of other places Jackie Smith would rather we start this story. Hell, anywhere else would be better. For a man who considers himself the luckiest ever to live, why choose the one moment when his luck ran out? A moment that he hasn’t talked about—not in depth, not like he does as he drives around his old St. Louis stomping grounds in mid-November—in nearly 40 years?
But, come on. It always starts here, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, on Jan. 21, 1979.
Third-and-three. Ten-yard line. There were two minutes and 46 seconds left in the third quarter of Super Bowl XIII against the Steelers, and the man with more career catches and more receiving yards than anyone else on the field had his hand in the dirt on the right side of the Cowboys’ line. Smith had played in 215 games in his 16-year NFL career, catching nearly 500 balls for 8,000 yards (more than any tight end before him), and he already knew this would be his last. It was going to be the fairy tale ending: The kid from Kentwood, La., who was as surprised as anyone on the day he got drafted, who toiled so long and so hard for the middling St. Louis Cardinals, who retired and then reluctantly came back for one last ride with America’s Team. It was setting up so well for the old vet—older, at 38, than any other player in the game—that the Florence (Ala.) Times Daily predicted Smith would have “the best time of them all. . . no matter how hairy the going gets.”
And for a while, he did. Smith had only been on the field for a handful of snaps, all of them running plays, and this one looked to be more of the same. Trailing 21–14, Dallas lined up with two ends, Smith and Billy Jo Dupree, plus an extra lineman in Andy Frederick. All-world running back Tony Dorsett went in motion to the right and quarterback Roger Staubach ran play-action perfectly to Scott Laidlaw, faking the entire back end of the Steelers’ defense. Then, in came snarling Jack Lambert, barreling through the A gap, aiming to blow up the play, the moment, before it could even happen.
If only. Laidlaw picked up the future Hall of Fame linebacker with a crushing block that stopped Lambert in his tracks, giving Staubach just enough time to operate. With the pocket closing, the QB spotted Smith streaking down the center, into the end zone, without a defender in sight.
“They’re gonna throw it! He’s got him, wide open,” NBC’s Curt Gowdy blurted out on the TV broadcast. The ball rose; traveled 5, 10, 15 yards; and descended into the surest of hands, those of a slipping, stumbling Smith.
“Oh, he dropped it! Drop! Jackie Smith!” Gowdy exploded. “He’s a great human interest story: Fifteen years with the Cardinals, it’s the first time he ever had a chance to go the Super Bowl. And he let a sure touchdown pass get away.”
“Oh, bless his heart,” Verne Lundquist added on the Cowboys’ radio broadcast. “He’s got to be the sickest man in America.”
Smith—laying prostrate on the turf, the ball landing harmlessly to his left—threw his arms and legs out, stiff as a board, fists clenched, and launched himself a good 12 inches off the ground, as if he were levitating. Tom Landry, with his beige sport coat and brown fedora and Ol’ Stone Face nickname, flung his hands straight up toward the heavens, face as pained as anyone could ever remember seeing it. And then there was Staubach, head thrown back in disgust, muttering curses under his breath as the field goal unit came on.
After the game—after the Steelers rattled off 14 straight second-half points and hung on just enough to survive a late Cowboys run, 35–31—Smith spoke to reporters. All of them. For 45 minutes he stood completely undressed in the locker room and answered every question as they besieged him from all angles, trounced on his towel, shoved microphones and notebooks in his face. Smith’s 14-year-old son, Darrell, watched it all unfold while clutching the Instamatic camera he’d brought to the game to capture moments that, later, the family would spend their whole lives trying to forget.
Why did you drop it? Are you embarrassed? Do you think you cost Dallas the game?
“You just feel like you let a lot of people down,” Smith said then. “I hope it won’t haunt me. But it probably will.”
No one could have known what it would fully become: the letters and phone calls and looks and whispers, the disconnect and depression. Over the years, that dropped pass evolved into something else entirely. In the retelling, those four lost points (Dallas settled for kicker Rafael Septién’s 27-yard field goal) were the critical juncture. The Lundquist call became iconic, the photo of Smith floating in the end zone indelible. Smith’s drop became a black-and-white simplification of a game played in a grey area, an enduring pockmark on a Hall of Fame career.
Never mind that the play call itself was a mistake, that the throw was low and behind, that Smith couldn’t have been expecting the pass, that the Cowboys still got three points out of the drive, that it was still a one-possession game with over 17 minutes of football left and other plays would prove more significant. That didn’t matter. Especially not after Steelers great Lynn Swann, who made the eventual game-winning catch, said of Smith’s drop, “Oh, baby, fellow ain’t got what heroes are made of.”
As these stories go, if you have a hero, you need a goat.
Segway. Jackie Smith is standing on one, the old tight end equipped with a smile and the perspective that comes with four decades of reflection. He’s taking laps around the parking lot of his younger son’s office on the handlebarred grandparent of the hoverboard, easily figuring out how to work this newfangled thing.
“Now you see?” Smith asks, piling back into his black Honda Pilot after the Segways are put away. “I’m just the luckiest guy in the world.” It’s an unseasonably warm Thursday in November and throughout the afternoon Smith, 75 (but still seemingly in football shape, with only his stark white hair revealing his age), has been driving all over St. Louis in an attempt to prove this statement true. That starts with family: Smith’s wife of 53 years, Gerri, plus their four children and 14 grandchildren. The first stop of the day is at a pub on the east side of town called Sportsman’s Park Restaurant, walls bestrewn with photographs of St. Louis sports legends, including many of the Cardinals’ old No. 81. Gerri, 75, and Jackie are reminiscing about the days back when he owned the joint, when the restaurant was called Jackie’s Place. But really it was their place.
The two grew up in neighboring towns, Jackie in Kentwood and Gerri in Osyka, Miss., five miles north. Gerri owned a white Corvette convertible in high school, that’s what Jackie noticed first. Then he registered the girl driving it. But it wasn’t until Jackie went off to college and found his confidence that he would ask Gerri (by then driving a red Mercury convertible) out to dinner. Gerri had a boyfriend, “but I said yes,” she remembers. “I don’t know why.” It would be the second significant stroke of good luck in Jackie’s life.
The first came a year earlier, as a high school senior trying to figure out how he might get into college. Smith had only played two years of football, but boy could he fly. He ran the quarter-mile and competed in both the low and high hurdles for Kentwood High’s track team, and he did well enough that Northwestern State (La.) asked him to run for them. Problem: They couldn’t offer him a scholarship for track alone, and he couldn’t pay for school himself. So they struck a compromise. “They told me, ‘If you go out for the football team and don’t quit, we can give you a full scholarship,’” Smith remembers. “I didn’t even have to play—just don’t quit.”
Over four seasons he caught only a handful of balls on an offense that threw only a handful of times each game. But that didn’t matter to Jack Rockwell, a Cardinals trainer who watched Smith play in a spring game and later recommended him to the St. Louis brass. When the 10th round of the 1963 NFL draft rolled around and the team had run out of players on their board, someone piped up: Hell, just take that redheaded track kid from Louisiana.
“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.”
Whichever it was, Smith heard several weeks later from Charlie Hennigan, the Houston Oilers’ record-breaking receiver and a fellow NSU graduate, who invited Smith to help out at a football camp in Arcadia, La. There the pair would practice one cut over and over until they could no longer see their feet. Hennigan taught Smith about the mechanics of route running, the role his arms played, the rhythm of his feet, how to properly catch a ball. “That was another thing that was just so lucky,” says Smith.
Still, he never thought he would make the team until he was on the field for the Cardinals’ final preseason game, which effectively meant he’d survived the last round of cuts. “I pinched myself on the ass to see if I was awake,” says Smith, who then played the first 121 games of his career without missing a start. From 1964 through ‘73 he racked up 6,743 receiving yards—some 2,200 more than any other tight end in the league over that period. In an era when tight ends were mostly considered glorified sixth blockers, Smith broke the mold. In ’67, he was No. 3 in the NFL—including wideouts—with 1,205 receiving yards, nearly a thousand more than the average at his position that year.
“He was the baddest dude you ever played with; you’d have to shoot him to stop him,” says Tim Van Galder, Smith’s teammate for three seasons with the Cardinals. “Nobody messed with Jackie Smith.”
“I’ve never seen him tired, never seen him out of breath,” says Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf, a teammate of eight seasons and one of Smith’s closest friends. “It was like he had something inside of him that was forever trying to burst out.”
Smith himself can’t quite describe what that thing was—the thing that pushed him to win every sprint or take on one more defender. But that’s not what he wants to talk about. That’s not why he’s driving circles around St. Louis this afternoon. Today, he simply wants to show off his kids.
That’s why he was on that Segway, visiting his son Greg, 41, at the office where the younger Smith is Vice-President of Sales for OneSpace, a company that helps place freelance writers. The Segways—like the old school telephone booth, the working scoreboard, the Nascar car and the full-size replicas of the Simpsons and the Millennium Falcon—are superfluous symbols of success; they’re here just. . . because.
Earlier in the afternoon Smith was peacocking at the St. Louis chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, where his oldest daughter, Angie, 49, is a development coordinator. (“If I was as tough as her, I’d still be playing on Sundays,” Jackie jokes.) Her outfit, which works with local schools to prevent drug use, serves over 70,000 kids each year and, Jackie points out, made waves last February with a controversial Super Bowl ad. From there he shepherded his guest to Danforth Elementary, where his second daughter, Sheri, 45, is the principal. Danforth neighbors the town of Ferguson, and 98% of its student body qualifies as underprivileged. Sheri is working to “change the culture and the climate [of the school] from the foundation up,” she says proudly. At nights she works on earning her doctorate.
“Why should I be interested in my career? Why should anyone? These guys are serious about trying to make a difference,” Jackie says of his kids. “That’s much bigger than anything I did.”
The phone at Jackie’s Place rang on a Tuesday in late September, 1978. Smith, by then 38, had retired at the end of the ’77 season following 15 years with the Cardinals, five of which ended with Pro Bowl trips. He’d played his final few seasons with a lingering spinal injury that made his arms go numb whenever he got hit, and his last year was cut short when the arch in one foot was crushed. Just before the ’78 season began, Cardinals coach Bud Wilkinson had reached out to see if Smith would be interested in returning. The old vet had agreed and went in for a physical, but a week passed without any news; when he called the team, they informed him he’d failed his physical. (The following year, the Chicago Tribune reported that Smith never actually failed the physical, rather that St. Louis owner Bill Bidwill simply declined to resign the fan favorite.) Smith went back into civilian life, sold a little real estate, worked at his restaurant. But then Tom Landry called.
When Smith picked up and the voice on the other end identified himself, Smith thought he was being pranked, and he hung up. The phone rang again. “You in shape?” Landry asked. “No,” Smith answered, honestly.
Well, the old coach explained, the Cowboys had just lost their tight end, Jay Saldi, to injury; what would you think about coming down to Dallas to take a physical? Smith turned to his wife.
“Pack your bags,” Gerri said. “Let’s go.”
That night, while everyone else slept, Smith threw on a couple sweatshirts and ran laps around the lake behind his house. He would be the oldest guy on the team, but he wanted to prove he could still play a little.
Smith flew to Dallas, where he passed his physical. He flew back, packed up his home and then joined the Cowboys in Week 5, playing all 12 remaining games for a team—the reigning champions; No. 1 in both offensive and defensive yards in ‘77—that was expected to return to the Super Bowl. “He was so well respected,” says Staubach, “it was an easy transition.”
Even at 38, Smith could still run a 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. He would push so hard during the team’s post-meeting, pre-practice one-mile warm-up 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.
“I just thought I was in heaven to be able to work my ass off down there,” Smith says of playing in Dallas during the season when the America’s Team nickname was born. “It was such an honor.”
And while he did not have a single catch in the regular season, did not start a single game, Smith—still one of the league’s premier blocking tight ends—proved an integral part of the Cowboys’ rushing offense. Landry even presented him with the game ball after a win over the Eagles. Dallas went 12–4, won the NFC East and earned a postseason bye.
The fairy tale ending was all set up. And then the playoffs began.
“You didn’t know what else to do,” says Gerri. “You just cried for Jackie. It was the worst thing we could ever imagine.”
In the divisional round against the Falcons, the Cowboys were down by one touchdown, third quarter, two tight ends on the field, including Smith, who found himself in the end zone. Backup Danny White, playing in relief of a concussed Staubach, rolled far right—almost a broken play—and threw off-balance. Smith, contorting his body back toward the goal line, boxing out the defender behind him, reached for it, dragging his toes to stay inbounds.
Touchdown. Tie game. The tight end cradled the ball tightly in both arms, not wanting to let go as teammates mobbed him. “Catching passes is like riding a bike,” Smith later said after Dallas completed the comeback for a 27–20 win. “It’s something you never forget.”
“Jackie was the hero of that game,” says Staubach. “We wouldn’t have even been in the Super Bowl without him.” The veteran QB would be back for the conference championship, a win over the L.A. Rams, and later for the Super Bowl. Gerri, Darrell and Angie would be there, too, as would Jackie’s mother, Hazel, to experience what was shaping up to be the final flourish on Jackie’s illustrious career. That is, until the Cowboys got down to the Steelers’ 10-yard line with 2:46 left in the third quarter, trailing by seven. That’s when Landry called the wrong play.
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. 47 QB Pass Y Corner.
The play design was for a fake to Laidlaw while two receivers ran to the pylons and Dorsett slipped out to the flat. Those were the first three options. Option No. 4—the safety valve, really—was Smith, who was meant to run all the way to the back of the end zone, turn around and wait. In the few times the Cowboys had practiced the play, only once had Smith been the recipient. And now he would have to run a 20-yard pattern, not the 10-yard one he’d practiced? “We shouldn’t have ever called that play,” says Staubach. “We can blame what happened on coach Landry.”
What happened was the most famous drop in NFL history. Looking back, Staubach wishes he had held onto the ball a little longer, allowing Smith to finish his route—but then he felt the pocket closing, and Smith was wide open. . . . If he took just a little off the ball, he figured, Smith could adjust.
“All of a sudden I look and Roger throws me the ball,” says Smith. “I tried to dig my left foot to turn, and it slipped right out from under me. 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.”
Staubach knows how it looked when he walked off the field cursing under his breath, but he swears that anger wasn’t directed toward Smith. “I was mad at myself,” he says. “I’m thinking: Oh my God, I screwed up.” He points out several other plays that had just as much impact on the outcome of the game. There was the interception he threw right before halftime, with the Cowboys nearing the red zone. That one turned into, potentially, a 14-point swing when Terry Bradshaw marched the Steelers down the field and threw a touchdown to Rocky Bleier with 26 seconds left. There was the questionable pass interference call that set up Franco Harris’s fourth-quarter TD run, on which referee Art Demmas (unintentionally) impeded would-be-tackler Charlie Waters. There was Randy White’s lost fumble of a fourth-quarter kickoff return. And then there was the fact that Dallas’s No. 2-ranked defense allowed Bradshaw to throw for 318 passing yards, the most of any game in his then-eight-year career.
“To make a big deal out of the drop, like it cost us the game, was ridiculous,” says Staubach. “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.”
For his part, Smith says he’s never watched a replay of the drop. “I know what happened,” he says. “I didn’t need to watch it again.” But he does remember the exact moment—the one when the iconic photograph was taken, when he levitated off the ground. He remembers what he was thinking. How the hell did you drop that ball?
In the stands, Jackie’s son Darrell buried his face in his hands. Smith’s wife and mother burst into tears. “You didn’t know what else to do,” says Gerri. “You just cried for Jackie. It was the worst thing we could ever imagine.”
Angie remembers seeing her dad in their hotel room later that night, fielding phone calls from friends and acquaintances—anyone who had a phone, it felt like. She doesn’t remember what they talked about, “just how sad he was.”
The following day, the family boarded the Cowboys’ team plane to fly back to Dallas. In her seat, Gerri spotted a newspaper. The headline: JACKIE SMITH, SCAPEGOAT. “I started bawling, and I couldn’t stop,” she says. “I cried for two days.”
And Smith? Thirty-seven years later, he is quick to note that, no matter what, he should have caught the ball. That 99 times out of 100, he would have caught the ball.
“Eventually,” he says, “my luck had to run out.”
“It made me think about how fragile all of this is—fame, notoriety. 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 goddamned pass.”
Smith’s prediction to reporters in the locker room after the game proved prophetic. The play would haunt him. How could it not?
“It was always fresh on people’s minds. I had to contend with it daily,” he says. “I was very depressed, not feeling very good, not wanting to talk to people. I was laboring trying to put it into perspective.”
Even if he managed to forget that dark moment, every time he left his house someone would remind him. When he met a new face, he could see the person connecting the dots—I know him from somewhere. He could hear them whispering. Eventually he got used to people prefacing their introductions with, I know you don’t want to talk about this but. . . And those were the people with tact.
Others would yell, sometimes in front of Smith’s wife, sometimes in front of his kids. They’d shout profane variations of How could you drop that thing? They’d call his house and his business, telling him he blew the game, the season. After Smith opened a Häagen-Dazs store in St. Louis, one fan called the shop and berated him with particular relentlessness. Only at the end of the conversation did the caller reveal that he’d lost $20,000 betting on the Cowboys.
It was difficult for Smith to understand how some fans—the same people who’d praised him for so long—could turn their backs so easily. How could they boil down an entire football game, really an entire season, into something as simple as one dropped pass? It was, he felt, as if they thought he could have just chosen to catch the ball, but had decided not to. “They look at [catching passes] like a physical feat and not a mental exercise,” Smith says. “Like athletes aren’t real people.”
Smith had trouble reconciling what he calls “the psyche that’s been woven into the athletic world” with his own reality. In his mind, that year with the Cowboys was a success: He returned from retirement and managed to stay healthy for an entire season; he contributed on an all-time great team; and he played in the Super Bowl, a rarefied honor. But to everyone else, he sensed, the season was a failure. He was a failure.
“It made me think about how fragile all of this is—fame, notoriety,” Smith says. “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 goddamned pass.”
He wouldn’t—maybe couldn’t—admit it at the time, but it all weighed on him heavily. He tried to just wait out the storm, not realizing how long it would persist. Naturally reticent, Smith recoiled even further. He didn’t want his family and friends to know just how much it all hurt. But they saw it. They lived it.
“It was like he was disconnected from us, the kids and me,” says Gerri. “It affected him in so many ways—in his heart and in his soul.”
“I don’t think I saw Jackie for two or three years after that game; he just disappeared,” says Dierdorf, his old friend from St. Louis. “That catch came really close to ruining his entire life.”
Smith’s children had to contend with the drop as well. Greg, his younger son, would go on to play football at Dartmouth, where he would hear it on the field: Oh, Smith—your dad’s the one who dropped the ball in the end zone! His older son, Darrell, would hear it so many times, in all phases of his life, that it would become for him a barometer of character, whether a new acquaintance brought up the play.
Angie, the oldest daughter, ran track in high school, and she would hear taunts whenever her dad came to watch her race. “One time we were walking to the car and [some kid] said something about a dropped pass,” she recalls. “I turned around just kicked the s--- out of [that person].”
“That’s how cruel people can be,” says Gerri. “That happened our whole lives.”
When he retired that off-season, Smith was indisputably the greatest tight end ever to play the professional game. It would be 12 more years before Ozzie Newsome eclipsed his record for career receiving yards by a tight end; 16 years before he was fitted for that iconic gold blazer in Canton. But one play, one moment—his last and his worst—became the enduring image. It overshadowed everything that came before it, forcing him to efface the sport that he loved from his life.
Or at least try. Smith never really could escape it. Every year around this time, it comes back up, like a bad dream.
“It does still matter to him,” says Angie. “In the back of his mind it’s like, Man, if that would have just gone differently. He was so hurt by what happened, he suffered so much. He wanted it to be different.”
If only that was it, the end of the pain.
What Smith says hurt most after all these years—more even than the drop—is the way things ended with the Cardinals, the team to whom he gave a decade and a half of his life, fighting through injuries just to experience, what, another 4–9 season? And for that he got. . . what? From where he sits, his old team has cut all ties because of some in-the-heat-of-the-moment comments he made on TV about the organization and about the Bidwill family as he was on his way to Dallas. Now, nearly 40 years later, Smith says his relationship with the franchise is beyond strained. It is nonexistent. Fact: He is the only pro football Hall of Famer in Cardinals history not to be memorialized in the team’s Ring of Honor. (A team spokesperson points out that there are two large photos of Smith at the Cardinals' stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and that Smith has been invited to alumni events.) Smith’s grandchildren see that and they ask him why.
“What do I tell them?” Smith shrugs. “I don’t need to be revered or anything. But to not acknowledge that I even played? It’s embarrassing.”
“Football is a means to an end; it is not the end itself.”
Eventually, real life went on after the drop.
Landry wrote Smith a letter, which the old ballplayer still has, framed. That helped the healing. The coach (who later died, in 2000, of leukemia) had asked Smith to come back to the Cowboys, to be a part of their team. He wrote that he didn’t consider the drop to be “the turning point in the football game,” that “you will always be considered a Cowboy in the eyes of all of us who had the pleasure of working with you.” The correspondence helps to explain how, even after the drop and its fallout, Smith still considers that season to be the best, most enjoyable one he ever had playing football.
But back home his wife and kids still loved him; they needed him to come back, to be the husband and father they knew. And so he walked away from the game. He had his NFC championship ring broken into pieces, which he distributed among his children.
Eventually, the real world took over again. About a decade after Jackie’s last game, Greg was diagnosed with adolescent diabetes. Then Angie’s first husband passed away. These were the moments that provided Smith the perspective he needed. “Football is a means to an end; it is not the end itself,” he says. “Yes, it allowed me to enjoy and experience things I would not have been able to otherwise, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But there is so much more to life.”
These days, when Smith is stopped on the street—and this is no hyperbole; it happened on four separate occasions during one November afternoon—it’s for a handshake and some gratitude. “The great Jackie Smith!” “The Stan Musial of football in St. Louis!”
So yes, things eventually returned to normal. After bouncing around a few different post-football jobs, Smith explored a passion for fishing in the 1990s and landed with an international boating manufacturer, Hobie Cat, where he helped develop the popular Mirage Pro Angler.
On that balmy day in November, after he finishes visiting his children, he decides to stop by his office. He wants to show off the boat, a small single-person kayak with underwater foot pedals, which in turn evinces the pride and enjoyment of being part of a team again.
What Smith doesn’t do much of these days is watch football. “I’m not a very good fan,” he says. Instead he spends his time fishing, hunting, cooking and reading—and more than occasionally quoting Emerson. Sometimes he’ll even build up the courage, at charity events, at funerals, to show off that deep baritone and belt out some tunes—maybe Sinatra, maybe “Oh Danny Boy.”
His only regret: that it took him so many years to attain this state of contentment. “Too soon old, too late smart,” he groans. Now he wants to spend as much time with his wife, children, and grandchildren as he can.
“Family is what’s really important,” Smith says, winding around the streets of St. Louis in his SUV as the sun begins to set. “Not football. Not some drop. I’m still the luckiest guy in the world.”