A visit with Former Husky Tommie Smith

Jake Browning isn't the first California Player of the Year to come to Washington. Tommie Smith was another, back in 1989, when he left Antelope Valley and arrived in Seattle. He would ultimately become an All Pac-10 safety and play in three Rose Bowls for the Huskies.

But back then, Smith was originally recruited as a tailback. During that first season, he played exclusively on special teams. Unlike many of his fellow Huskies, he didn't redshirt. And one play against USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum helped establish Smith as a star on the rise.  

"After the first punt [of the game] I talked to the coach and told him that I could beat the up back, the personal protector, inside," Smith said. "And he said as long as I didn't get beat on the outside he was okay with it. So [on the second punt] I ended up making a move outside and went inside, and I blocked the punt. As I was going down I rolled over and saw that the ball was rolling toward the end zone. As a matter of fact, Tyrone Rogers was next to me. I picked it up and scored. And the rest is history after that. A great day."

At 6'2" and 220 pounds, Smith was known as a hard-hitting safety with good mobility. The way he was physically built, it didn't take much imagination to envision him at tailback. In fact, during the 1992 season, one Pac-10 coach said, "The best running back in this conference is playing safety for Washington."

So it is perhaps inevitable that comparisons with Husky star Shaq Thompson be made. As we all watched Shaq move from linebacker to tailback this season, running through offenses with a style reminiscent of Eric Dickerson, thoughts of Tommie Smith went through people's minds.

"I heard that Coach Baird said that Shaq was kind of like me, but he made a comment that Shaq was a lot smarter than me," Smith said. "I was like okay, that's fine. He said Shaq didn't get in as much trouble as I did. I was like okay, that doesn't make any sense, but it is what it is.  

"But moving me to tailback was a thought," Smith said. "I was recruited as a tailback, but then I got hurt and moved temporarily to scout team fullback to prepare for Arizona, who had a pretty good athlete at fullback. I was on special teams at the time. But then I finally made the move to safety and stayed there for good."

Smith was part of those notoriously aggressive Husky defenses that helped lead Washington to the 1991 national championship.

When Smith huddled with teammates, and linebacker Dave Hoffmann made the call for "Rover Dog Cover 6", Smith would get fired up.

"That was very exciting, because that would mean I would blitz," Smith said. "I would be like `Oh good, they have faith in me.' It turned out good whenever that play was called. So me and Dave Hoffmann, James Clifford, Chico Fraley, Shane Pahukoa, all the guys, we all bonded together.

"Dave would make the call in the huddle and I would get a big grin on my face. He would smile at me and shake his head. Dave would be like, `Uh-oh, here we go!'"

The play Smith is most remembered for, and the one fans still ask him about, was his demolition of Nebraska quarterback Mike Gant for a safety in Washington's 29-14 win in 1992.

"That night, it was a great atmosphere," Smith said. "First game under the lights at Husky Stadium. We wanted to play well, and of course we won. Nebraska was backed up to their goal line. On that particular play, we called a Rover Dog. And it just so happened that they came out with two tight ends, a fullback, a tailback and a wide receiver, and they were all to the boundary. So I didn't have to disguise the fact that I was blitzing. So me and Shane cheated a little bit. I cheated in before the ball was snapped I came off the backside. Both backs went to the boundary. I was like `There is nobody here to block me, thank you!'

"I hit the quarterback and got the safety. Me and Andy Mason and the whole defense celebrated. And of course, the crowd went crazy. I guess that was the loudest that Husky Stadium has ever been, to this day."

Smith later was teammates with Nebraska running back Kevin Willhite in the CFL. He and Willhite got to talking about that 1992 game.

"Kevin told me I almost broke the quarterback's back," Smith said. "I mean, I'm glad I didn't break his back. They would teach us to go to the backside shoulder so they don't spin out and come back. So I just did what I was taught. And it was effective, which was good."

Smith was asked what he appreciated most about his days at Washington.

"The chemistry we had and the love we had for each other," Smith said. "Like the Seahawks now, they play for each other, and we did the same. Playing for the person next to you. We were like the Seahawks back in the day, the toast of the town."