ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — How you do anything is how you do everything.
Rod Smith has long held that message to be true.
On the field, Smith was a Ring of Famer for the Broncos. On the field, he set — and still holds — nearly every franchise receiving record. On the field, he went from undrafted unknown to beloved superstar.
He was just as impactful in the Denver community.
Smith's work was recognized by the Broncos in both 2004 and 2006, as he became the first Bronco to be nominated multiple times for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The honor, which has been awarded each year since 1970 and was renamed in 1999 after the late Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, is given each year to a player with a substantial positive impact on the community.
In the history of the award, though, it has been exceedingly rare for a player to earn a nomination for the honor on more than one occasion.
Just three players have joined Smith as multiple time nominees for the Broncos: Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey (2008, '09), linebacker Wesley Woodyard (2010, '11, '13) and, now, current Broncos All-Pro safety Justin Simmons (2019, '20).
"Those guys to me are what the Denver Broncos are about," Smith told DenverBroncos.com this week. "Of course, Champ Bailey is Champ Bailey: a Hall of Famer, an amazing guy. Wesley Woodyard was undrafted like myself. … He and I talked a lot when he was here because he's an undrafted guy trying to prove himself and he still found time to make sure he gave [via] the 16 Ways Foundation. [He] still does stuff. And that's the thing. [Since] Justin Simmons has been in Denver, I literally have watched this kid literally just give. That's in his spirit. That's who he is.
"… It's in him. All of us, it's in us. We've been givers our whole life. And so the award is just kind of a way for other people to kind of acknowledge it, I guess. … I know for him it'll be a great honor, for him to be a multiple-time winner."
Simmons, Smith, Bailey and Woodyard played different positions and peaked at different times, but they are all connected by a thread of service that has remained in the Broncos' locker room across generations of players. Bailey arrived in Denver via trade as Smith was being recognized as the team's Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee for the first time. When Bailey was a veteran, he passed on his spirit of giving to players like Woodyard and Chris Harris Jr., who was the Broncos' nominee in 2017. Simmons, in turn, learned from Harris.
"I remember when I first got in the city," Woodyard told DenverBroncos.com this week. "Of course, I knew about Rod — more just being by him defeating my Falcons in the Super Bowl. Soon as I touched down, it was like people that you automatically heard about. Like, yeah, you had heard about [John] Elway, T.D. [Terrell Davis], of course Champ was the big man. And you know, you hear about Rod Smith doing work in the community, as soon as you touch down. That's what you search for as a man. Like, 'All right, I want to change this world. Who do I need to be around? Who do I need to support? Who do I need to learn from?' As soon as I got to Denver, that was one of the first people that I heard about. So immediately you kind of gravitate toward the people who you know are doing the things that you want to do in the community. And at that time, I highly was influenced by Rod and Champ, just by the legacy and the work that they placed, for me. And that's what it's all about, man. … Rod passed [a torch] on down to Champ, Champ passed it on down to me, and now the torches that we were able to pass continue to spread throughout the locker room, and Justin is a great young man.
"I don't know him personally, but I know him from playing against him. I know what kind of character he is, and I'm sure he falls in line just like the other two guys that were mentioned, two-time Walter Payton Man of the Year. So that's a great group to be a part of. I know for a fact one of these days us four are going to sit down and talk about how we're going to make the Denver community a better place and just continue to spread that love and that joy and that wealth throughout the community."
Though their contributions would be impressive regardless of their on-field play, Smith recognizes that success on the football field gives credibility to their message.
"You're going to get more publicity toward the award if you're a person that's outstanding in both ways," Smith said. "You don't just have one. And that Justin's played just about every snap since he's been in the NFL, to me, is freaking amazing. I love his demeanor about how he goes about doing his business. … [As] a captain, a leader of that team, definitely deserving of the Pro Bowl with his play … I think the award does fit the character of the person on the field too. You can't do one without the other."
That's true of Bailey, as well. The latest Bronco to be enshrined in the Ring of Fame became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2019 after a career in which he made 12 Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team All-Pro. He believes his community work was not independent of his Hall of Fame career but rather a key component.
"I think it's a combination of all that," Bailey told DenverBroncos.com this week. "When I think of 'Hall of Famer,' when I look at every Hall of Famer, most of them have a good track record of what they did in the community. It's always a good thing to be looked at by society as somebody who gave a [darn]. I think that that's always going to reign supreme. Like, yeah, people think the Hall of Fame is just about what I did on the playing field — and most of it is — but what makes me feel good is that I gave back to the people that are less fortunate. I tried to do my part and continue to do my part."
During his enshrinement speech in Canton in 2019, Bailey devoted a portion of his speech to raise issues of racial inequity and social injustices. Simmons, who has been outspoken this year and spoke at several protests against racism and policy brutality, took notice when he saw Bailey address those issues.
"I heard a lot about Champ and the things that he was doing," Simmons said this week. "It was easy to follow some of the things that he was doing. I loved the ground that he stood on. Obviously, his play spoke for itself. He's a Hall of Famer, and he also followed that up in the community with Hall of Fame community-type work. We're seeing a lot of players stepping up to the plate in terms of racism in America and racial inequality. If you go back and look at Champ's work, he's been doing that his whole career and standing firm on that foundation. It's cool to be able to see that from the types of guys that you're looking up to. Those are legacies that you're chasing after, in a sense. It's cool to have someone like that to look up to. It makes everything a little bit easier.
"… I've met Champ once or twice. I haven't talked in depth, but I've met him. Hearing that speech and the legacy and impact that [former Broncos linebacker] Brandon Marshall and D.T. [Demaryius Thomas] left here, in terms of what they stood for, they just left something with me that made me want to stand for what I believe in and stand on that foundation. I'm so thankful for those guys because it takes one person to step up and speak out, and you never know who gets inspired by that. I was one of the guys that was inspired, for sure."
Simmons received this year's Walter Payton nomination in part because of his commitment to combating social injustices that include racial inequity and police brutality. Simmons has been a vocal proponent of the cause and has initiated reform via the team's Inspire Change program and state legislative efforts. The fifth-year player also participated in a national Youth for Change Town Hall in coordination with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the NFL Foundation.
"I think when I played and now that he's playing, it's definitely a different impression you give when you're speaking out about the inequities in society," Bailey said of Simmons. "… I couldn't imagine doing what Justin's doing or saying what he's saying while I was playing.
"… People are more receptive to it, but, you know, you put that credit to all those guys that came before him, that took those chances. One thing evident in history is sports always leads the way. … It's always some sports athlete risking something on behalf of all his people. It's always been like that. I'm not surprised. I'm just glad that we've got guys that are brave enough to speak up and take that stand like Justin. I commend him for it. It takes a lot of guts. You've got to feel real good about yourself, because even today, now that it's not as frowned upon, there's still guys that are hesitant to go down that road."
Simmons' penchant for service — along with his stellar on-field play — has helped him earn a spot in the team's history, one he undoubtedly deserves alongside Smith, Woodyard and Bailey.
The All-Pro safety said this week that he was humbled by his second nomination for the award. But his three peers — along with countless others in community — know how deserving he is of the honor.
"He's on another level in the community," Woodyard said. "I can say this humbly: To be named Walter Payton Man of the Year, you are the man in that community. Like, everybody has to go through you. When you're doing the community work, everybody has to stop and give you appreciation right now. Every move that he wants to make in that community, there's no red lights, no yellow lights. All green lights. He's a guy that's going to change that community, and so I just want to challenge Denver community to support and uplift everything that he's fighting for."