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Bubba Smith: A Generational Icon

By Robert Bao, Editor

  • Published: 01/02/2012
Bubba Smith in Spartan Stadium when his number was retired.

Former MSU All-American Defensive End Charles Aaron “Bubba” Smith was more than a freakish football player, although he certainly was that—a 6-8, 285 behemoth who was athletic and fast enough to chase down running backs from behind.

To those of us who chanted “Kill, Bubba, Kill!” in Spartan Stadium, he came to symbolize a special era in MSU history.  Bubba was bigger than life, the most prominent figure on a two-time national championship team.  He attracted the spotlight at a time when MSU was establishing itself nationally—as the newest member of the Big Ten, as a former agricultural college then boasting the nation’s fastest cyclotron and a record number of National Merit Scholars, and as a dynamic place of Bubba-size growth under the leadership of John Hannah.

MSU might have had better players on the team, such as George “Mickey” Webster—a player so versatile Duffy Daugherty created the “roverback” position.  Or perhaps fellow Texan Gene Washington, who also excelled in track.  Or Charlie Thornhill, whose nickname “Mad Dog” may have inspired fear. 

  But no one attracted attention—or parking tickets—quite like Bubba.  Not only did he drive a white Riviera with “Bubba” plates, he once parked his “Bubba-mobile” in President Hannah’s reserved space.  He had a terrific, at times errant sense of humor, and that comedic flair certainly helped establish his Moses Hightower character in the Police Academy movie series.  He was beloved by the Spartan nation.  A sign I once saw in Spartan Stadium said it all: “Bubba for Pope.”

Bubba starred in the years just preceding the student unrest and social uprisings that characterized the end of the 1960s decade and beyond.  But he clearly was socially conscious, given his eventual refusal to appear in a series of very popular beer ads. He also played a vital role in the desegregation of football in America.

Bubba hailed from Beaumont, Texas, but was not allowed to play for the University of Texas because of his race.  At that time, many of the top black players in the south were recruited by Duffy Daugherty, whose dominant 1965 and 1966 teams had multiple African American starters. This success may have prompted teams like Texas and Alabama to desegregate.

Bubba was the first player chosen in the 1967 NFL draft, followed by three Spartan teammates in the next seven picks. (Interestingly, Bubba was also drafted that year by the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets in the 11th round—ahead of classmate and MSU basketball star Matt Aitch, who was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the 13th round.)  He won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Colts and made two Pro Bowls.  In 2006, MSU retired his No. 95.  Next year, the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year award will bear his name.

Over the years, I came to know Bubba.  I’m very impressed with how smart, witty and personable he was.  I was saddened on Aug. 3 to learn of his passing at his Los Angeles home.  He was 66.

But Bubba Smith, an icon for his era, will be reunited with many friends and fans—including former teammates Charles Wedemeyer, Dick Kenney, Don Japinga, Tony Conti, and of course, Webster and Thornhill.

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