From the early 1980’s to the mid-90’s, if you were a Wide Receiver playing against the Denver Broncos, you had your head on a swivel. Otherwise you might as well be at the Dentist, because you were going to get “drilled” by one of two Defensive Backs. Here is one half of one of the hardest hitting Safety tandems in NFL history, I give you, Dennis Smith.
Dennis was born February 3, 1959 in Santa Monica, California and coincidentally attended Santa Monica High, where he excelled in football. Smith played Wide Receiver and Defensive Back and was the CIF Southern Section Co-Player of the Year in 1976. Dennis also ran on the track & field team at Santa Monica and broke the HS high jump record in 1977. The school inducted him into it’s Hall of Fame for athletes and “symbolically” retired his number.
Smith didn’t go far to attend college. He ran track and starred in football for USC as a Safety.
A consensus All-America choice as a senior at USC in 1980, Dennis played in two Rose Bowls and won a national championship in 1978 for the Trojans, who had a secondary which included future NFL All-Pros Ronnie Lott and Joey Browner. Smith lettered four times in football and three times in track. He posted 205 career Tackles and 16 Interceptions and ended up in the USC Ring of Fame in 2001.
Dennis was selected in the 1st round (15th overall) by the Denver Broncos in the 1981 NFL Draft, new head coach Dan Reeves very first pick.
“That turned out to be an awesome pick for us” notes Reeves. “I’ve seen some great Safeties through the years, but Dennis combined the speed and size and his hitting ability”
Smith played his rookie season at Left Cornerback opposite Aaron Kyle and splitting starts with Louis Wright and Mike Harden, while Steve Foley and Billy Thompson manned the Safety spots. The next season, Dennis established himself as the starting Strong Safety, making 65 Tackles, 2 Sacks and 1 Interception in 8 games (1982 was a strike year). In 1983, he had a career high 5 Sacks, 4 picks and 114 Tackles, the first of five 100+ Tackle seasons. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t get a Pro Bowl nod that season, but to be fair Kenny Easley (3 SK, 9 INT’s) had an All-Pro year.
Dennis played 14 seasons, all with the Broncos and is regarded one of the most feared and hardest hitting Safeties in the NFL. Considering the guys he played with (Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater), it’s no wonder he hasn’t had more acclaim. The guys he played around know better though.
Karl Mecklenburg called Smith:
“A guy that was as tough of an individual as you’d ever see. There were players across the league who were just scared to death of Dennis. He would knock somebody out every 3rd or 4th game—out cold. He knocked me out cold one time by accident. I remember seeing the ball, and the next thing I saw was the trainer.”
Even the guy he played next to for 6 years, Steve Atwater was amazed:
“He was an old throwback guy and one of the hardest hitters I’ve ever witnessed in my life. He was full speed. He had no fear. In a game against the Colts, I’m running to the ball fast and Dennis, he comes flying by me and knocks the Fullback (250 lb. Roosevelt Potts) out cold.”
As far as which one is better, Atwater replies:
“Dennis took me under his wing and tried to teach me everything he knew. Some of the stuff he did, I couldn’t do.”
“To be honest with you,” former Denver coach Mike Shanahan once said, “Dennis Smith is the hardest hitter I’ve ever been around. On any team. Bar none.”
Dennis is one of just five players in Broncos history to play at least 14 seasons with the club, behind John Elway (16). Tom Nalen and Jason Elam (15), Tom Jackson and Smith (14). He finished with 1,171 Tackles, 30 Interceptions and 15 Sacks, 17 Fumble Recoveries, including one for a Touchdown on Special Teams and one Defensive Touchdown from 1981-94.
6th all-time in games played with the franchise (184)
6th all-time in games started (170)
Career-high 5 Sacks (1983)
Career-high 5 Interceptions (1991)
Career-high 120 Tackles (1992)
5 seasons with at least 100 Tackles
Played in 3 Super Bowls (XXI in 1986, XXII in ‘87, XXIV in ‘89)
All-AFC four times (1984- 86, ’98)
4-Time All-NFL choice (1985-86, ‘89, ‘93)
6-Time Pro Bowl selection (1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993)
Named the club’s most inspirational player in 1992
Denver Broncos Ring of Fame (2001)
Colorado Hall of Fame (2006)
Denver Broncos 50th Anniversary Team (2009)
Dennis Smith was a key part of seven playoff teams, five division champions and three Super Bowl teams. The amount of passion Smith brought to the game can’t be underestimated. In week one of the 1986 season at home against the Raiders, Smith played with a broken bone in his shoulder.
Perhaps the most memorable game Dennis played occurred at Mile High Stadium on Nov. 17, 1985. Along with Cornerback Louis Wright, Smith was involved in one of the strangest series of events in Broncos history.
The Broncos were tied 24-24 in Overtime with the visiting Chargers 24-24. San Diego was about to kick the game-winning field goal, and it looked like Smith had blocked the attempt and Wright recovered it. But the Broncos had called a timeout prior to the snap, which nullified the play.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. But wait, it gets even weirder.
The Bolts line up for the “Do over.” This time, Kicker Bob Thomas’ attempt deflects off Smith’s arm. Louis Wright grabbed the ball and raced 60 yards to score the game-winning Touchdown. Broncos win.
“It’s the most bizarre game I’ve ever played in,” Smith said afterward.
Bizarre? Maybe. I call it “The Mile High Mystique.”
Dennis played his last game on Christmas Eve in 1994 as one of the most ferocious hitters in NFL History. Here’s proof:
I for one, am sure glad Mr. Smith went to Denver.
– Kaptain Kirk