CENTERPIECE : Doug Smith Quietly Gives the Rams an Anchor for the Offensive Line

Times Staff Writer

With no incidents or scandals to speak of, and malice toward none, Ram center Doug Smith has peacefully survived almost as many style changes as coaching changes.

In fact, you could blackmail Smith with the threat of wallpapering the locker room with his rookie mug shots of 1978, when Smith's hair raged like a five-alarm fire in a coif best described as early Angela Davis.

And that was only from the neck up. Consider the times.

"Three-piece suits, wide lapels," Smith said ashamedly. "Shirts unbuttoned to your navel. Gold chains."

From disco to rap, Carter to Bush, George Allen to John Robinson, Smith has endured with hardly a peep or a headline. This despite five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances at center, the stuff of heroes in some National Football League cities. Somehow, Smith has always blended in nicely with the drapes.

The Doug Smith Family--wife Debbie and the girls, Jessica and Jenna--might be found on any off-season weekend at a shopping mall near you. Chances are you'd walk right past them.

Some have suggested it's the Randy Cross beer commercial syndrome. Perhaps if Smith dropped a wrapper at South Coast Plaza and reached down to pick it up . . .

"Hey, aren't you Doug Smith of the Rams?"

But he's so anonymous he doesn't even get parts for anonymous players.

Yet, Smith has always been comfortable with his non-image, actually preferring it.

"I like the low profile, from the press to the shopping malls," he said during his 12th Rams' training camp. "Some people recognize me, but I know they're big football fans if they do. But I'd just as soon be at liberty to do that, to go to a concert where nobody knows you're a football player. You can enjoy it like a normal fan, or a normal shopper."

On the field, Smith has become as dependable as your favorite watch. For years, sidekick Dennis Harrah did the talking, Smith the blocking. It worked well enough for Groucho and Harpo.

But Smith looked up recently and found himself hunched over center, very much alone. He's now the second oldest Ram in seniority at 32, trailing only Jackie Slater, two slots down at right tackle.

When Smith broke into the league, George Allen was coaching the Rams, though he lasted only two exhibition games in 1978. Smith will never forget the fear of arriving in Fullerton as a free agent from Bowling Green, his future so much in doubt.

"I graduated from college, got married, had a week honeymoon and came to California," Smith said. "I left my wife in Ohio. My $2,000 signing bonus wasn't enough to pay first and last month's rent for an apartment out here."

Smith still sees the glazed look in every free agent's eyes. Some things don't change, though it seems everything else has.

"I made $27,500 my first year and thought I was rich," Smith said. "I was making more money than my dad at the time, and he was vice president of a company back home, a wholesale grocery company. Now, I make 16 times that and I still don't feel like I have any money."

Smith can look back now and appreciate how close he was to never making it. In 1978, the Rams drafted Colorado center Leon White in the third round. He, not Smith, was to be the team's center. But five knee surgeries in two years took White out of the picture, and the camera suddenly zoomed to Smith, who was running his football race like the famous tortoise.

Smith said he gained confidence by finally ignoring everyone else's press clippings.

"At first, I thought, 'How am I ever going to block Jack Youngblood," he said. "(Running back) Elvis Peacock was our first draft choice. I'd followed him, read the press clippings. I thought, 'How am I going to play on the same team as Elvis Peacock?' You know, $100,000 to sign, that kind of thing. And then I met them and I said these guys aren't stronger than I am, they're not bigger than I am."

In his first exhibition game, Smith was rushed into action to replace Rich Saul, who had dislocated a finger. When he didn't fall on his face, Smith knew he had a chance.

His biggest frustration was not playing in the Rams' only Super Bowl appearance in 1980. Smith had been rotating at guard through the first five games of the 1979 season before tearing a ligament in his knee.

He watched Super Bowl XIV from the sidelines. Again, Smith considers how times have changed.

"I probably would have gotten back in time to play had it happened today," Smith said. "Other than styles, that's another thing that's changed incredibly. It used to be that even a cartilage used to mean a season."

Now, advances in arthroscopic surgery have pared weeks of recovery time. The frustration of that loss and his injury keep Smith coming back each season. He keeps hoping for a second act. This time, he plays in a Super Bowl and the Rams win.

He figures it isn't any more far-fetched than the story of a free agent no one wanted who went on to appear in five consecutive Pro Bowls. It's almost enough to spoil a man.

"I was thinking this morning, "What if you don't get six (Pro Bowls in a row)?" he said. "That puts a little pressure on you. If I don't get six, what am I going to do? And then I said, 'Doug, you're stupid. Be thankful you have five. It's been fantastic, beyond belief for me."

Ram Notes

Free agent Gary Knudson, the team's only healthy tight end entering Saturday night's exhibition game against Denver, bruised his right ankle at Thursday's practice and was carried off the field on a cart. Trainer Jim Anderson said he thinks Knudson will play against the Broncos. Tight end Richard Ashe, though nursing a sore leg, also should be available. If not, free-agent center Rodney Lossow moves to tight end. . . . Eight of the last 10 first-round picks have signed. The two players that haven't are Ram choices Bill Hawkins (21st) and Cleveland Gary (26th). Gary still is seeking a four-year, $4-million contract, though players around him are signing for half that amount. Not surprisingly, the Rams and Gary's agent haven't spoken in days. The team and Hawkins are reportedly closer to a deal, though it might take another week to 10 days.

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