Commentary : Jerry Smith’s Most Courageous Performance

The Washington Post

In the 50-year history of the Washington Redskins, only two men scored more touchdowns than Jerry Smith. Only two regulars ever played in more games. Only one receiver caught more passes.

Many a Redskin all-pro, like Bobby Mitchell or Larry Brown, never equaled Smith’s 60 visits to the end zone.

Yet, in his 13 seasons, you never heard too much about Jerry Smith. He was shy and quiet. Though he didn’t avoid publicity, he was lukewarm toward it.


You’ll hear plenty about him now.

And you should.

In a career full of brave performances, Smith never had a more courageous play than the one he made on Tuesday when he became the first well-known American athlete to say he had AIDS at a time when the public was unaware of it.

It was an act of heroism. And a significant one.

Smith, who is hospitalized and has lost 60 pounds, could have simply said nothing. He’d have been remembered as the star who caught more passes in a season (67 in ‘67) than any tight end previously. He’d have been recalled as handsome, popular, gifted and clutch. To the huge majority of those who’d met him--who only knew his famous face, not his private self--it would all’ve been simple and glamorous.

Most gravely ill men would leave it that way. Why add pain to pain?

Instead, Smith thought his honesty might help somebody else.

He’s right. His story helps further at least three worthy goals.

It helps keep AIDS and AIDS research in the public eye at a time when it needs to be kept there.

It helps reduce the social stigma of the disease for those who have it and for the people who care for them. If Rock Hudson and Jerry Smith can get AIDS, then anybody--somebody in our own lives--can get it. It’s not shameful and remote; it’s a real and present danger to millions.


Perhaps most important, Smith’s candor, with the weight of his estimable life and career behind it, attacks and undermines the stereotyping in our society.

Smith’s mother told Washington Post sports editor George Solomon that she wondered whether her son still would be inducted into the Washington Hall of Stars at RFK Stadium this fall after news of his disease became known.

Smith told her not to worry. He would be. Because, as he’s discovered increasingly in the last awful year, when people are faced with issues of sufficient seriousness and immediacy, they often are able to step beyond cliched thinking and personal biases.

They are capable of understanding.

What the whole AIDS discussion may help us grasp is that gays--whom this disease primarily affects--are basically like everybody else. They range from saintly to murderous, from artist to all-pro, the same as people of any race, creed, color or sex. Well-known and well-liked AIDS victims force the population to realize that gays are individuals who have to be dealt with one at a time, judged on their overall merits, like anybody else.

For many of the Redskins of 1965 to 1977, Smith offered a life lesson.

“If you love a guy, you love him. That’s all there is to it. ‘Jerry G.’ has been a very dear friend almost 20 years, “ said Redskins assistant general manager and NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell. “I don’t remember too many days in all that time when I didn’t think about the guy. Jerry was always a very private person, and everybody respected his privacy, but he had a lot of friends. One of the highlights in our house for Gwen and me was having him over to dinner. Around the people he knew well, he was a very fun guy.”

Mitchell was not surprised at Smith’s courage this week. “He could have left it like it was, not said anything, and 99% of the people would always have remembered him as a great all-pro . . . But this is just like him. He was always our Mr. Clutch, the guy who’d made the tough third-down catch over the middle in traffic and just never dropped the ball.

“Maybe this will help people understand some things better. This guy is such a great guy, he deserves any decent response he gets.”

Is that what Mitchell really believes will happen?

“You got to show me. In my life, I haven’t seen anything bad that goes away very fast,” said Mitchell. “Progress is slow. About the only thing that ever unites us quickly is war . . .

“I don’t know how pro athletes will react to this,” said Mitchell. “It scares jocks more. It takes a little longer because we grow up so wrapped in macho and it takes a long time to strip it away.”

Redskin fans will remember Smith sliding on his knees in the end zone to catch a grass-high bullet from Sonny Jurgensen or balancing on the sideline stripe by his toes to snag a Billy Kilmer pass on his fingertips.

Smith’s teammates will remember his foolishness, like taking Jurgensen out to drink a few “milkshakes,” so the redhead would throw him more passes. Mitchell sums him up for many when he says, “Jerry’s just a real super dude.”

In the long run, however, Smith will probably not be remembered best for his many catches or his many friends.

Now, he will be remembered most vividly for two other things. He had AIDS and he had the courage to say so.