Dove Valley is neither car dealership nor franchise sit-down eatery, so there are no “Employee of the Month” plaques adorning the walls of Broncos headquarters.
If there were, Rod Smith’s name might be the only one on them for the last 14 years.
It’s not that others haven’t worked diligently to ensure Broncos success. It’s not that others haven’t at times provided just a little more on the playing field than the Broncos’ beloved No. 80.
But Smith came to set the example. His perfect attendance for offseason workouts was the stuff of legend. It might take a few years for Smith to become Ring of Fame-eligible, but his name and jersey number might find a home in the team’s strength and conditioning center, thanks to a baker’s dozen years of 100 percent attendance that would often leave rookies and newcomers a tad awestruck.
“Even when he was on the practice squad, you could see the desire and the determination that he had to be good — to be great,” tight end Shannon Sharpe said in 2003. “And he worked every day. There was no job that he wouldn’t do. They put him at wide receiver, he’d take all the reps on scout team and he was always the opposing team’s best receiver, and he got better, and he worked at it.”
What elicited Sharpe’s comment was one of the most memorable moments of Smith’s career, a November 2003 game against the San Diego Chargers when he returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in a 37-8 romp.
Such work was hardly Smith’s forté. Prior to that season, Smith hadn’t returned a punt in six years, even though he’d done it so well early in his career that he was the league’s all-time leader in punt-return average for a spell.
But that day somehow encapsulated his career. He contributed in a manner that was not only unexpected, but unusual; one doesn’t see many receivers with 600 catches jogging onto the field to catch a punt, to stand like a buoy amidst a choppy sea of opposing helmets.
That day, he hit the 600-reception milestone and returned the punt for a score.
“I’ve tried to be consistent throughout my career of what I give them every day,” Smith said in the locker room late that afternoon. “And it hasn’t changed since Day One, when I came into the Broncos facility to sign my contract as a free agent.”
And it wouldn’t change last year, in spite of circumstances that would have conspired to force the contrary.
Even after a hip injury left him watching from the sidelines, Smith’s commitment to the organization never wavered. For every game, he was there — as coach, counselor and teammate. For every practice, he was there, guiding Brandon Marshall, Brandon Stokley and the other receivers who pick up his torch.
But being consigned to the sideline was an emotional pain so great it might have exceeded the physical pain with which he dealt first in playing through the hip injury for three seasons, then in his lengthy rehabilitation.
He might have been able to handle it if the Broncos had won last year. But with it being the first losing season this century, Smith chafed and ached, unable to do much to reverse the spin and get the Broncos sailing to the playoffs once again.
“If we were going to get our butt kicked I wanted to get mine kicked too,” he said on Dec. 28. “It feels like you’re on the side watching everybody take blows, and that’s hard for me. That’s the worst part of the whole deal. If we’re going down I wanted to go down with them, I wanted to be dirty like everybody else. But I’m taking my lumps on the sideline.”
For more of what he said that day, click on the video below:
But he was nevertheless there. Success begins with showing up — even when you don’t necessarily have to. Smith could have done his rehabilitation work and gone home; instead he donned a coaches’ parka and joined his teammates and coaches on the field during the week and on the sidelines during games.
It hurt him to be out of uniform. It would have hurt him even more not to try to somehow help the team, even when his balky hip kept him from doing so in the manner to which he and the Broncos had been accustomed from that warm early autumn afternoon against the Washington Redskins 12 years earlier, when he caught the last-second touchdown pass that launched a brilliant career.
If children ask me about a player they should emulate, I always cite Smith.
He isn’t perfect, and he knows it. He doesn’t shirk from areas in which he struggled; he attacks them as though they were opposing defenders, works through them and emerges at the other side a more complete and honorable player — and, more importantly, a man. He’s intelligent, educated and well-read. He understands and embraces the world outside his sport, even as he trained his focus to be laser-sharp within it.
I’ve never seen any player command respect in the locker room the way Smith did. And every last smidgen of it is richly deserved.