In order to make it in the NFL, a player must possess a strong work ethic.
No one’s work ethic, possibly in the history of the National Football League, was as strong as Rod Smith’s.
Rod Smith, the greatest receiver in the history of the Denver Broncos, receives his great honor of being inducted into the Ring of Fame Sunday during halftime of the team’s home opener against the Houston Texans.
Smith’s story isn’t like most players, though, and his uniqueness makes all that more special.
For the man from Arkansas, the road to fame and fortune wasn’t easy.
Smith played at Missouri Southern State University, breaking conference career records and earning three separate degrees as an undergraduate.
Unfortunately, his phenomenal play at the Division II level went unnoticed in the 1994 draft, as he went completely undrafted. Originally, the New England Patriots did pick him up, only to drop him. The Broncos were next to sign Smith, and the bond has never been broken since.
He went from undrafted rookie and practice squad player, to all-time legend.
His first catch came in 1995, it was a Hail Mary touchdown thrown by John Elway to beat the Redskins at Mile High Stadium 38-31. It was a glimpse of the greatness to soon come.
Once he became a full-time starter at wide receiver in Mike Shanahan’s offense in 1997, Smith ran off six straight seasons of 1,000-plus yards receiving, and six of eight years in all.
In 2000 and 2001, Smith was named an All-Pro; he caught 100 and 113 passes for 1,343-plus yards with eight and 11 touchdowns respectively, and that was with Brian Griese as his quarterback. His 113 receptions led all pass-catchers in 2001, and both Smith and fellow wideout Ed McCaffery each passed the century mark in 2000 as the only duo in Denver history to do so.
Of course, he was an integral member of the Broncos back-to-back Super Bowl winning squads, most memorably catching the 80-yard bomb from Elway in Super Bowl XXXIIII, a play that epitomized Denver’s dominance in that game.
In all, he played from 1995-2006, winning two Super Bowls while being named to three Pro Bowls.
Along the way, he was a consummate professional, never needing to draw attention to himself in negative ways, instead, letting his game speak for him.
He was never bigger, faster or stronger than anyone—at 6′ 200 pounds—but he was intelligent and simply worked harder than nearly everyone else.
He played in a rare way, with sticky hands, always moving upfield instead of dancing, with the smarts to know when to hit the turf and dive under the big hits before they came. It was a reason why he lasted 13 years in the NFL at one of the most physically demanding positions.
It’s also why Smith is the Broncos record holder for receptions (849), receiving yards (11,389) and touchdowns (68). Not only that, his profound production makes Smith the greatest undrafted receiver in the history of the National Football League.
Since his career ended, Smith’s continued to have an impact on the Denver community, trying his hand at everything from radio to real estate and coffee, excelling at it all.
In May, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen—who created the Ring of Fame—said, “Players like Rod don’t come through your door very often, but he came through ours every day with a purpose and hunger to be great. Rod’s production and numbers — as outstanding as they were — paled in comparison to his commitment to winning and the respect he commanded from each and every one of his teammates throughout his career. Emerging from an undrafted player to one of the best to ever play his position, Rod has truly earned his place among the greatest Broncos of all time.
“I am thankful for everything Rod contributed to this franchise during his time with the Broncos, and I congratulate him on his well-deserved election to the Ring of Fame.”
It’s a much deserved honor, and hopefully the stepping stone to the next honor, being inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist. You can follow Rich on facebook and twitter.