Broncos receiver Rod Smith broke out a pair of dark, designer shades and his two Super Bowl rings for the occasion, wearing one on each hand.
The rings were a reminder of what once was, the shades to hide the tears.
Smith stepped into a room full of family, friends and teammates Thursday and announced his NFL career was done.
He tried to tell a joke to start things off, but his usual wisecracks failed him. Instead, he pulled a tissue from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes.
Saying farewell wasn’t easy.
“I gave them everything I had,” Smith said as he choked up while announcing his retirement.
For that, Broncos president and CEO Pat Bowlen was truly appreciative, calling Smith the best Broncos player not named John Elway that he’s ever had play for him.
“If I ever get anybody like you or like John again, I’m going
to be very fortunate,” Bowlen said.
Smith, 38, had been on the reserve/retired list since February and has had two hip operations in the past year and a half. He’s the franchise’s career leader in every major receiving category.
“Rod is the only person I’ve ever been around on a consistent basis, day in and day out, that never cared about his stats,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “All Rod talked about was winning.”
His numbers were nice, though. Smith holds franchise records for career receptions (849), yards receiving (11,389), touchdown catches (68), touchdowns (71) and 100-yard games (31).
The former Missouri Southern star also leads undrafted players in every major receiving category.
As for his immediate future, that’s easy — yard work. Lots of it. That will be followed by spending time with his kids and finishing up a few real estate ventures.
“From Day 1 when I came into this building, I’ve always thought about the end,” Smith said. “I never knew when it was going to be. I’ve always prepared myself for life after football. But football kept getting in the way – for 14 years, thank God.
“I’m going to miss the locker room. If I didn’t do anything else, I hope I was a great teammate. All I ever wanted to do was win.”
The Broncos would welcome Smith’s return to the team as a coach. Either that or as a mentor for the young receivers, a role he’s already serving with Brandon Marshall, accompanying him to a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently to discuss Marshall’s string of off-the-field legal troubles.
“I would like him to be involved in some capacity,” Shanahan said. “Right now, I think it’s a little bit too soon for him, but we would always have a spot if he wants to come back in some capacity, and I hope he does.”
Smith knew his career was finished the day after the Broncos beat Minnesota 22-19 in overtime to close out the season.
It was his body that made the decision for him. The left hip just wouldn’t allow him to put in the work that he’s revered for his entire career.
“The same thing that got me into the league is the same thing that got me out of the league, which is grinding, going to work hard every day, putting in work,” he said. “Could I possibly play football? Possibly. Do I want to get myself in that kind of shape? It’s hard, man. I can’t see me playing football this year being better for my body in the long run … I’m happy with (the decision). Honestly. I know I’m crying so it doesn’t seem like I’m happy. Trust me, I’m very happy.”
After all, he’s got loads of memories. His favorites include Terrell Davis rushing for 2,008 yards in 1998 and Elway throwing his 300th touchdown pass. He felt like he played a role in both, blocking downfield for Davis and hauling in his fair share of Elway’s darts.
He also has a picture hanging in his basement of himself, Elway and Ed McCaffrey jumping around like kids after clinching a 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers in the 1998 Super Bowl.
“That’s why you play sports – so the 12-year-old comes out in you,” he said. “No one can take those memories away from you.”
Shanahan knew there was something special about Smith shortly after the coach’s arrival in 1995. He was watching film, and this practice squad player kept burning the first-team defense.
“You keep looking and saying, ‘Why can’t they cover this guy?”‘ Shanahan said. “Then you say, ‘Holy cow, I’ve got myself a football player.”‘
Smith was promoted from the practice squad that season. His first career catch went for a 43-yard game-winning touchdown as he outjumped Washington’s Darrell Green for the ball as time expired.
It was merely a preview.
“Anytime you are able to get a player like Rod Smith when you start out as a young coach, you really don’t know how lucky you are,” Shanahan said. “I am just so proud to have a guy like this.”
So, should Smith be in the Hall of Fame?
“You’re darn right he should,” Shanahan said.
Broncos assistant coach and good friend Keith Burns supported that argument.
“If it’s numbers they go off of, he’s a shoo-in,” Burns said. “If they’re looking at the person, he’s a shoo-in. So, where does he not qualify to be in the Hall of Fame?”
Smith would love to join Elway and offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman in Canton, Ohio. But it’s out of his control.
“I did everything I could,” he said.
Credit: Associated Press