In the little world of football, the name Bubba invokes the same kind of terror Geronimo did on the old West, or Attila in pre-medieval Europe, or Capone in prohibition Chicago.
It’s a name to empty a room, increase the pulse, raise the blood pressure, promote panic in the streets. It’s a name that has gone into the language to symbolize a creature so awesome that if you saw it swimming ashore in New York Harbor, you’d evacuate the city.
That’s because the original was such an imposing specimen of strength and manhood that he struck terror into the hearts of two generations of football backs and linemen.
Bubba Smith was one of the scenic wonders of North America when he first ambled out of the thickets of Beaumont, Tex., to play big-time football. No one had ever seen anything this big and this fast outside of a cage before. Strong men shuddered. Civilians crossed the street when they saw him coming. Authorities wondered if they should declare martial law.
On the football field he was as destructive as a glacier. Bullets would bounce off him. He stopped growing at just under 7 feet and weighed well under 400 pounds in his stocking feet. The rumor was, Michigan State hadn’t recruited him, they had trapped him in the snows of Mount Everest.
The student body battle cry at home games was “Kill, Bubba, Kill!” and the word was they fed him chickens live, or slid his food under the door and ran. Rival teams insisted on his rabies shots before a game.
Which was all very strange. Because inside that awesome physique was the world’s biggest collection of warm fudge. Without his helmet on, Bubba Smith was just a big pussycat of a man who wanted nothing more than to be loved. It pained him when people blanched at introduction or hastily began looking around for the exits. There was no evidence that he had ever hurt anybody on purpose. Accidentally was another story.
He even put a condition on his recruitment that he be roomed with a white student, non-athlete. “I had never talked to a white person growing up in Beaumont,” he recalls. “I think that’s why people were scared of me. I used to get up close and stare at them.
“My roommate was like 5-1 and from the Upper Peninsula (of Michigan). He had never seen any black person up close. We were the original odd couple. The day he came into the room, I was in the upper bunk. I just kind of unraveled down and his eyes kept getting bigger. He later told me: ‘I thought you were never going to stop.’ ”
A year or so later, when Michigan State came to the Rose Bowl, a journalist was to wisecrack that the university had sent a group photo of Bubba Smith for the press room wall.
Bubba’s college roommate “used to clean up the room and tidy up the books and do the laundry and just kind of wait on me till, one day, I said, ‘Hey! This is not right! Let me do it.’
“Then, one day, I heard him telling some friends, ‘Bubba is no trouble. He cleans the room and does the washing and lets me use the car whenever I want.’ Then I came in the room and he gives me this funny look. But I just said, ‘Listen, if you want to use the car, go ahead. Where’s the laundry, I’m going to go down and do a load.’ ”
The de-mythologizing of Bubba Smith hit a snag when he hit the pros--he was the No. 1 draft choice of the draft--and began tossing quarterbacks around like confetti. On the field, he was an avenging archangel. Off it, birds would light on his head.
Bubba played on the most famous Michigan State team of all time, the one that made Notre Dame play for a 10-10 tie, even though the Irish had the ball last, and the one that managed to lose in the 1966 Rose Bowl, to UCLA, despite the presence of Bubba, Clint Jones, Jess Phillips, George Webster or half the next season’s all-pro team.
Defeat still rankles Bubba--the inexplicable Rose Bowl loss of ’66 and the equally incomprehensible Super Bowl defeat of his Baltimore Colts by Joe Namath’s Jets of 1969. That Super Bowl loss still hurts so much that Bubba darkly puts it down to a fix, which he suggests ought to have been exposed like the 1919 World Series. If you think Bubba is wrong in this, you tell him.
It’s customary at this point to say, “Bubba’s career was cut short by a sideline accident.” It’s true that his football career was cut short when he tripped over the sideline chains at Miami and tore up a knee.
“No one was ever more depressed than I was,” he said. “Here I had this degree and education, but I was in a fit of depression. I thought my life was over.”
Still, Bubba’s real career was more like started by that accident.
To be sure, there had been a few movie roles, mostly where Bubba stood guarding the gang’s hideout, smashing his fist into his palm--as if he needed this additional evidence of menace--until, one day, a chance to make a local beer commercial came up.
Bubba’s agent counseled patience. “There’s a Lite beer commercial campaign coming up with ex-athletes you might fit right into,” he said.
There was. And Bubba did.
First came the famous commercial with Bubba opining, “What I like about this are these easy-opening cans” as he ripped the top off a can of beer with his bare hands. Next came the pairing up with Dick Butkus. “They found they had so many ex-jocks signed up, they began pairing us off,” he said.
The Butkus-Bubba pairing was a match made in ad-man’s heaven and the two became as familiar a show biz combo as Veloz and Yolanda, or Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Instant box office. Their latest appearance is in the two-hour made-for-TV movie called “Half-Nelson,” which will be shown on NBC March 29.
The soft-spoken giant who made Bubba a synonym for stark terror, now hopes to make it a word representing suave elegance. Even though it’s not likely he will get any old Ronald Colman roles, it still must be eye-opening to his old adversaries on the line of scrimmage to look at that soft-hearted lug on the screen and try to equate him with the monster they remember.
No doubt they will say: “That’s a great makeup job because that sure as hell ain’t the Smith I remember. Until he tears somebody’s head off that ain’t any Bubba I ever knew.”