While it’s an honor, it doesn’t quite measure the true weight of Smith’s contributions to the Broncos from 1994-2008.
There are no “Employee of the Month” plaques displayed anywhere at Broncos headquarters. If there were, they would have been useless, because for more than a decade, the only name displayed would have been Rod Smith’s.
And if it sounds like I’ve written something similar before, I have, in August 2003:
Other companies have plaques with pictures, honoring their Employees of the Month. For the most dutiful of corporate servants, there are repeated spots on the plaques over the years, enough to allow observers to view just how that loyal worker’s hairline receded over the years. There’s no such plaque in the Broncos’ office — just the media guide, which hadn’t borne a player’s picture on the front since the year after Terrell Davis earned league MVP honors. That is, until this year, when Smith graced the cover.
Smith was a leader in every way. Vocally — not just in huddles and on the sideline, but in the locker room, where he would offer advice on pass-catching, financial planning, weight training, or an opinion on any subject you could imagine.
The leadership Smith brought to the receiving corps — and to the offense as a whole — was irreplaceable. Only now, with Peyton Manning aboard, have the Broncos recaptured that presence on the offensive side of the locker room. The accountability Manning demands from his offensive teammates hasn’t been heard around the Broncos since Smith was there, prodding his younger comrades to lift one more set, take one more extra repetition or watch one more play in the film room.
Smith also had a memory like an elephant’s — and if you didn’t realize this before, you might have when you saw his tweet from April 26, during the NFL Draft:
TheREALrodSmith: Did I get drafted yet? I’m still waiting.
There were certain points Smith would never let you forget — starting with passing through the entire 1994 draft without his phone ringing. The chip stayed on his shoulder his entire career, and based on that tweet, it remains there today.
He also always wanted to make sure that when you wrote stories about him, you didn’t forget the year on the practice squad — the 7-9 season of 1994 under Wade Phillips. The NFL dictates that a year spent there doesn’t count toward a player’s experience, thus, Smith’s career was deemed to have begun in 1995, meaning that in, for example, 2004, he was a “10-season veteran.” Smith disagreed, so whenever possible, I always tried for a workaround; I would mention that his career began in 1994, or that he was in his “11th season with the organization,” or whatever applied.
You could trust Smith because he had a sharp edge to him. When I see nothing but a smooth, polished demeanor, I find myself questionining their motives; once I see the razor come out — be it in frustration, anger, exasperation — I know that’s someone I can trust. You’d see it from Smith when he received a question that irked him — or occasionally when you’d ask him for a minute and he’d bellow, “HELL, NO!”
But invariably, a couple of seconds later, he’d look back at you, smile and ask, “What you want?” Then he’d pour his heart, soul and guts into your tape recorder.
Just don’t call Smith an “overachiever,” which was the word most often applied to him. He hated that. As he said in August 2003:
“What makes you an overachiever? I never understood that word — overachiever. That means you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be able to do, because obviously we were able to do it. It’s just a matter of having the right opportunities.
“You don’t know when you’re going to get them, so you’ve got to be prepared for them at all times. You never know when this game is going to end, so you’ve got to go like it’s your last day. And that’s the way I’ve approached it. Every day I come in here, I look to make sure that my name’s in my locker. That means I’ve got another day.”
He could overcome being undrafted. He could overcome the critiques that he was too small and too slow to achieve NFL success.
The only thing he couldn’t overcome was a balky hip that began bothering him in 2004 but didn’t force him to miss substantial action until 2007. As he said as that last, lost season closed:
“Honestly, I (played) for a while without knowing it was probably doing more damage than good to (the hip). My mentality is what kept me here this long, being able to withstand pain and play hurt, but when you get injured, it’s a different thing. That same tenacity that helped me stay in the league this long is probably going to take me out of the league.”
He knew as he walked away that he wouldn’t be around Broncos headquarters much after that. The team would have loved for him to have transitioned to the coaching staff; he was already a de facto receivers coach, anyway, but whenever the subject arose, he always balked at the notion of working coaches’ hours.
But no Bronco ever put more time and energy into maximizing his potential than Smith. The hours he kept as a player were enough.
I maintain that No. 80 should be retired from circulation with the Broncos. Even though the Pro Football Hall of Fame is likely beyond his reach, he remains the Broncos’ standard for diligence, character and leadership.
The Ring of Fame will have to do. But as as hallowed a place in Broncos lore as it is, it just doesn’t seem enough to provide an accurate measurement of what Smith meant to the organization.