Editor’s Note: This cover story ran in the Sept. 23 Gameday program, when Rod Smith was inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame.
Like 217 other players in Broncos history, Rod Smith began his career on the team’s practice squad.
He ended it like no other player has, finishing with club records for receptions (849), receiving yards (11,389) and receiving touchdowns (68).
The morning of May 17, 2012, Smith’s phone rang. On the other end was Broncos Owner Pat Bowlen, who called to notify the franchise’s all-time leading receiver that he would be inducted as the 23rd member of the team’s Ring of Fame.
“Any time you’re getting a call from one of the best owners in sports – I was excited about it,” Smith said. “I got a chance to speak to Mr. Bowlen and just really thanked him for allowing me and my family to be a part of his family. He allowed me a chance to work for the best organization in all of pro sports.”
The Ring of Fame recognition reflects Smith’s place in the illustrious history of the franchise.
“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,” Bowlen said in a statement. “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.”
Despite a standout college career at Missouri Southern State University, Smith went undrafted in the spring of 1994 and signed with the Broncos as a college free agent.
It was Smith’s unyielding work ethic that fueled his unprecedented rise from an undrafted free agent to one of the top receivers in NFL history.
Smith said that because of the way his career began as an undrafted player out of a Division-II school, he always had the mindset that he’d have to work harder than other players for his spot on the roster.
“I knew where I wanted to go and I knew I was going to outwork everyone else," Smith said. "When they were gone, I was still working. When they were asleep, I was still working. I tell people that all the time -- work works. I wanted to be the best teammate I could be. I knew if I was better, it made our team better.
“You have to clock in and sometimes you don’t clock out,” he continued. “In the NFL, I never clocked out. The day I clocked out was the day I retired.”
After one season on the practice squad, Smith appeared in all 16 games the following year, contributing primarily on special teams.
It was Smith’s eagerness to contribute in any way possible that raised the attention of the team’s coaching staff at the time and led to opportunities to increase his playing time.
“You have no choice,” he said about playing on special teams. “There are only 11 spots on offense and defense. Special teams is where they decide whether they’re going to keep some guys or not. A lot of guys think, ‘Well, I play receiver or I play linebacker.’ No, you play football. That means you play whatever they need you to play to give yourself a chance to make the football team. For me, returning punts, covering kicks – whatever it was, I just wanted to have a chance to be on that football team and that was a spot. You just want to get one of the spots. There are only 53 of them, you need to get one of them. The more you can do, the better your chances.”
Smith took advantage of those chances, beginning with his first NFL reception.
In Week 3 of the 1995 season, Denver and Washington were tied at 31 points apiece. With six seconds left in the game, the Broncos offense faced a fourth-and-10 at the Redskins 43-yard line. Quarterback John Elway dropped back at the Washington 43-yard line and launched a deep pass toward Smith.
Smith leaped over future Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green to haul in the game-winning touchdown as time expired — the first catch of his career.
"I think that not only propelled him in the limelight, but it gave him an opportunity to say, ‘I can honestly do this at this level and play at a high level,'" said Assistant Special Teams Coach Keith Burns, who watched that play from the sideline as Smith's teammate.
When Smith finally did "clock out" 848 catches later, he ranked 11th in NFL history in career receptions, 17th in receiving yards and tied for 30th in receiving touchdowns. All of those numbers are tops among undrafted players in league history.
Smith said that going undrafted gave him motivation to prove to everybody – himself included – that he could play at the NFL level.
“It just meant I was hungry,” he said. “You want to prove people wrong when they don’t draft you and nobody said you were good enough to take with one of these picks. But, what do they know? I played for 14 years. ... My thinking was going out and proving something to myself first and then proving all the critics wrong later.”
After silencing his critics, Smith now gets to share the Ring of Fame honor with everyone that stuck behind him.
“It’s an award that one person gets, but to me, it represents everybody that has ever supported me – from birth through today,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of that and wanted to have my name next to those guys up there who meant a lot to not just that organization but to the community as well,” Smith said. “It’s one of those things where the whole entire community gets an award. They just pick one person to accept it. I’m just glad that I’m the person that they picked.”
Burns entered the league with Smith in 1994, and the two spent 11 seasons together as Broncos teammates.
He said it was Smith’s work ethic that stood out immediately upon seeing him play.
“He never looked at that as any different, whether it was him having to cover a kick or him having to go out there and catch 10 balls in a game, he never wavered,” Burns said. “He was willing to do whatever he had to do to win a game. That, to me, shows his mindset as far as the team concept goes. So to see him go into the Ring of Fame, it’s almost like your brother getting that same accolade.”
For Smith, the only NFL honor left after the Ring of Fame is a bust in Canton, Ohio. Although he’s a member of a crowded position full of players with Hall of Fame credentials, Smith is one of just two receivers in the history of the game to surpass 11,000 receiving yards, 800 receptions and 60 touchdowns, while also averaging 10 or more wins a year and also winning multiple Super Bowls.
The other receiver? Jerry Rice.
“I don’t know why not,” Smith said of his Hall of Fame chances. “If you go off of what is done, if you go off the numbers, the wins – I still believe I have most wins of any starting receiver in the NFL when I played.”
His former quarterback agrees.
"I would hope so, because of the career that he had, the type of guy he is, I hope this is a stepping stone to Canton,” Elway said. “He's one of those guys when you put his numbers up and look at the type of player he was and also the contributions he's made to this community and the organization as a leader, you compare those with any of these other wideouts going into the Hall of Fame and he deserves to be right with them."
“I know there’s a lot of good receivers out there now waiting for that call," Burn added. "It’s just the time thing. He has to wait his turn.”
As he is officially inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame during halftime of today’s game, Smith’s family, friends and former teammates will be on hand to watch him accept the honor. Included in that group will be Elway, who threw that first pass to Smith.
“Rod brought his lunch pail to work each day, took nothing for granted and made himself into an elite player,” Elway said. “He’s a true pro. In addition to being one of the greatest undrafted players of all time, he’s one of the greatest wide receivers to ever play the position.”