Jerry Smith Battling AIDS--First Major Athlete to Admit Illness

The Washington Post

The letter arrived at the family house this summer. It invited Jerry Smith, who caught 421 passes for 5,496 yards and 60 touchdowns in 13 seasons as a tight end with the Washington Redskins, to be inducted into the Washington Hall of Stars at RFK Stadium this fall.

In the room at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., where Jerry Smith is fighting the deadly disease AIDS, his mother, Laverne, asked, “Do you think when they find out, they’ll change their mind?”

No, her son whispered to his mother, the committee will not change its mind. It will understand, just as his friends, former teammates and fans will understand.

“It just happened,” Smith, 43, said. “It just happened.”


In the last year, such widely known Americans as actor Rock Hudson, lawyer Roy Cohn and fashion designer Perry Ellis have died of AIDS. Smith is the first known professional athlete--retired or active--known to have the disease. When he played, Smith weighed 210 pounds and blocked 260-pound defensive ends. Now his weight is about 150, and he grows weaker each day.

“I feel a sadness for anyone with a diagnosis of AIDS,” said Jim Graham, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a D.C. treatment and counseling clinic for homosexuals. “My heart goes out to him and the people close to him.

“This disclosure destroys the stereotype that AIDS is a disease of drug addicts and hairdressers. AIDS does attack all manner of people from all walks of life. When the disease strikes someone you know and respect, the viewpoint changes. (Smith has) contributed to that change by this disclosure.”

The last thing in the world Jerry Smith wanted was a life-threatening disease and to have it made public. “Of all that he’s been through, that’s been his biggest fear,” Laverne Smith said last week as her son held the second of two meetings with a reporter in his hospital room.


“I want people to know what I’ve been through and how terrible this disease is,” Jerry Smith said. “Maybe it will help people understand. Maybe it will help with development in research. Maybe something positive will come out of this.”

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, afflicts mostly homosexual men. Between 600,000 and 1.2 million Americans have been exposed to AIDS antibodies since the disease was discovered in 1981. It has killed more than 13,000 people. There are currently about 24,000 cases of AIDS in the U.S.

AIDS is caused by a virus called human T-cell lymphotropic virus, or HTLV-3. It first showed up in homosexual men in Los Angeles and New York in 1981.

The virus is a killing agent, destroying the body’s ability to fight disease. The virus reduces the body’s infection-fighting white blood cells, allowing serious infections to develop.

Although Smith was willing to discuss his struggle with the disease, he would not elaborate on his life style.

Since his retirement from professional football in 1978, Smith has run his own construction company here, opened a restaurant in Texas and worked in the mortgage business. He played golf, and like many retired professional athletes, attempted to keep fit with regular workouts.

But last summer, he said, he began losing weight and noticed he was tiring easily. He said he went to a doctor in Florida and was tested for exposure to the AIDS virus. “The results were negative,” he said. “It threw everyone off.”

The symptoms persisted and in December, Smith entered Holy Cross Hospital, where he was tested again. This time, he said, the test was positive.


During the last eight months he has been in and out of Holy Cross and George Washington University hospitals several times. He said he also attempted to get into a special program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but could not do so “because I did not meet the medical criteria.”

Smith has lost weight steadily and, according to his mother, “hasn’t eaten since June.” He is sustained intravenously and kept comfortable by pain-killing drugs. He looks tired and wan and often drifts into sleep during conversation.

“I’m trying very hard to fight this,” he said. “But I don’t have many good days.”

Smith came to the Redskins from Arizona State as a split end in 1965. In 1966, he was moved to tight end in midseason when Charley Taylor was moved from running back to wide receiver. A year later he caught 67 passes--the most by a tight end in National Football League history at that time--for 849 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was among the top 10 pass receivers in the league for four consecutive seasons, from 1966 to 1969.

In addition to his prowess as a pass receiver, Smith prided himself on his blocking, although at 6 feet 3 inches and 210 pounds, he was smaller than most professional tight ends and often went up against men 50 and 60 pounds heavier.

But his greatest ability was catching the ball--and he did that as well as or better than most pass receivers in the league. He thrived during Vince Lombardi’s one season in Washington, 1969, and when George Allen became coach in 1971 and installed Billy Kilmer as quarterback, Smith adjusted. Although he had fewer receptions, he made the most of them, as his seven touchdowns in 21 catches in the Super Bowl season of 1972 attest.

He retired in 1978, after spending much of the previous season on injured reserve. He is the second-leading receiver in the history of the franchise, behind Taylor.

One of the most recognizable and popular Redskins of his era, Smith also was one of the most respected and private. He had several close friends on the team, particularly defensive back Brig Owens, with whom he roomed for many years at a time when it was uncommon in professional sports for blacks and whites to share a room in training camp or on the road.


Owens, who also is retired from the Redskins and is a player agent, has remained a close friend and is a frequent hospital visitor, as are former teammates Roy Jefferson and Mark Murphy. Other friends and business associates also come by to visit, as do his brother, sister, brother-in-law and mother.

“The support from my relatives, friends, former teammates, doctors and nurses has been unbelievable to me,” Smith said. He said he has heard from Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke, former teammate Bobby Mitchell and the team.

“It’s a shame something like this has to make you appreciate what life is all about,” he said. “You realize how maybe you should have taken life a little slower and spend a little more time with your family and friends.”

Is he angry over what has happened to him?

“Sure,” he replied. “I’m angry for myself, and I’m angry because I don’t want anybody to have to go through this. It’s a hideous disease.”

In a corner of the hospital room, Laverne Smith listens quitely. She doesn’t cry very much anymore. She is in her 60s and trying to be strong.

“You do what you have to do,” she said. “I want him to be as comfortable and happy as possible. You take care of your own.”

Earlier, two friends had visited, both trying to make small talk, remembering the good old days, which weren’t so long ago but on this night seemed like a distant memory. They remembered when this man, who is now in such pain, was a shining light in a roaring stadium, doing the things most men and women can only dream of doing.

“It never crossed my mind anything like this could ever happen,” he said. “No one thinks about getting a long-term disease. Not me, not anyone. I always took care of myself. I worked hard to do things well, to make sure I was prepared. I tried to do things right.”