Reflecting on the Legendary Rod Smith.

Rod Smith will eternally be one of the most popular and highly regarded Broncos’ players of all time.  Smith, born May 15 1970, played his entire 13 year career with the Denver Broncos as a wide receiver.  When he retired in 2008, he had caught more passes for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone else in Broncos history.  His professional career is remarkable especially after being an undrafted unknown.  It took Smith one year from signing with the Broncos, to demonstrating the talents that would mark a career culminating in 2 Super Bowl victories, numerous accolades and awards, including his selection into the Broncos’s Ring of Fame in 2012, his first year of eligibility.

There’s no way anybody who didn’t live inside this organization could appreciate what Rod has done. He was very inspirational. A leader by example. He was a superstar, but he felt he had to prove it to everybody every day.           Pat Bowlen

Smith’s ascension to legendary Broncos WR was marked by significant adversity.   When he came to the Broncos, Smith came from a tiny school, Missouri Southern, which was unknown for producing NFL talent.  His first check from the Broncos was a $5,000 dollar signing bonus. His odds of developing into a franchise WR seemed almost impossible.

Circumstance almost snatched away any dreams Smith had for the NFL before he even began.  Three games into the 1992 college season, Smith was the target of a deliberate, vicious hit that blew his ACL, MCL and destroyed his cartilage. There was real fear Smith might even lose his leg, the injuries were so severe. Pro scouts had started coming to watch the highly talented Smith, and that attention evaporated with such a profound injury.  This gory injury; however, became the catalyst for a world-class career.  His college coach said that Smith’s incredible God given talent was stripped from him with that terrible hit. Even so, his work ethic and fire drove Smith to not be defeated by his injury.

Wade Phillips was the Broncos Head Coach in 1994, an he has said he doesn’t even remember what Smith’s scouting info was.  Obviously Phillips and every other team in the NFL let him fall through the ranks. Reflecting back, Phillips is quoted as saying if Broncos’ knew what Smith was capable of, he would clearly have been a first round pick. When Phillips was fired after the ’94 season, it was unclear if Smith would even be returning to the practice squad.

Fortunately, his incredible work ethic caught the attention of new Head Coach Mike Shannahan.  Shanny started noticing a very distinct pattern–one player who came EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. of the off season conditioning program: Rod Smith.  This dedication to the grind also introduced Smith to another Bronco Legend in the making, Simon Fletcher. Fletcher, impressed with his young teammate, told Smith he was going to make the team. Smith assured Fletcher he was trying everything possible to do so.  What Fletcher told Smith next added additional fuel to his quest:

And Simon pulled me aside and said, ‘No, you never try. Speak that you’re going to make it. Say that you’re going to be on this football team.’…And I never forgot that. I still use that information to this day.

This dogged determination assured Smith secured a roster spot in 1995.  Within a year, Smith was starting for the Broncos opposite Ed McCaffrey, and an all-franchise tandem was born.  Shannahan reflected at Smith’s retirement how much he was challenged initially for this decision to promote Smith.  Few understood his quiet exceptionalism and leadership potential, and worried as Shanny cut two former first round receives to promote Smith to a top spot.

For every statistical accomplishment, Smith will always be revered within the Broncos’ organization and with his teammates for his leadership.  Smith never rested on any laurels, and appreciated every day of opportunity to play in the NFL.  His humble devotion to the team was reflected in numerous ways.  Unlike most players at the WR position, Smith opted for an unusual compensation package.  According to Smith’s agent, Rod saw his performance numbers as a by-product of team success.  Individual stats simply didn’t motivate him. Instead, Smith set incentives in his contract linked to team achievement, wins and playoff appearances.

Even in his last season, on the physically unable to perform list, Smith was voted Team Captain.  Smith, one of the least flashy Broncos’ offensive stars of all time, was never known for dances or demonstrations, because he never wanted to focus to shift from the team to himself.  At his retirement, Shannahan and the Broncos offered Smith virtually any job within the Broncos’ organization.

The thing about Rod is he always handled himself like you would want a true pro to handle himself. He always put the team ahead of himself. He has influenced so many people through the years. I’ll always be indebted to him for what he did for this organization.                                                                                 Mike Shannahan

Smith was finally sidelined with a hip injury in 2006, which required a total hip replacement.  After additional surgery was needed in 2007, Smith was put on IR before retiring in February 2008.  Almost 10 years after his retirement, Smith’s  849 career receptions and 11,389 receiving yards still ranked him 27th and 31st all-time for all receivers in the NFL. Smith had eight seasons in his 14 year career with at least 1,000 receiving yards. Smith was the first undrafted player to reach 10,000 receiving yards, as well.  Almost 10 years into retirement Smith still hold numerous records for the Broncos’ organization:

As of 2017’s NFL off-season, Rod Smith held at least 11 Broncos franchise records, including:

  • Receptions: career (849), season (113 in 2001)
  • Receiving Yds: career (11,389), playoffs (860)
  • Receiving TDs: career (68), playoffs (6)
  • Total TDs: career (71)
  • Yds from Scrimmage: career (11,737)
  • All Purpose Yds: career (12,488)
  • Games with 1+ TD scored: career (66)
  • Seasons with 1000+ receiving yards: career (8)

Smith had a remarkable career when measured in total, with great individual and team accomplishments. The  undrafted Smith, who won Super Bowls, and was selected multiple Pro Bowls, demonstrated great durability in his professional career.  Smith never missed an off season practice (totaling more than 600) or season in his professional career.  He outlasted almost all the players drafted in 1994, including the four first round WR drafted that year.  Smith’s storied career is the stuff of Broncos’ legend.

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