Twenty-Nine wide receivers were selected in the 1994 NFL Draft, but Rod Smith was not among them. He eventually signed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent and went on to become one of the greatest players in club history.
Rod’s 68 career Touchdown receptions are the most in NFL history by a player who was not drafted. Stephone Paige, who caught 49 scoring tosses for Kansas City from 1983 to 1991, is second on the list. He has also caught more passes in his career than any other undrafted player in NFL history (849). The Jets’ Wayne Chrebet is second on the list with 580.
Rod was born on May 15, 1970 in Texarkana, Arkansas. At Arkansas Senior High School, Smith played baseball, basketball and lettered twice in football. As a senior in football, he was All-League, All-Area, and All-State. Upon graduating high school, Rod attended Missouri Southern State University where he stood out both Academically and Athletically. He was named Missouri Southern’s Outstanding Graduate in 1994 after completing three degrees; economics and finance, general business, as well as marketing and management.
On the field for the Lions, Smith finished with conference records in career receiving yards (3,043) and Touchdowns (34). He broke the school’s reception record (153), and was named first-team All-America by AP, Kodak, Football Gazette and NCAA Division II sports information directors as a senior. That season, Rod caught 63 passes for 986 yards and 13 Touchdowns, and was a finalist for the Harlon Hill Trophy, given to the top Division II football player.
That is all fine and good. A small town guy from a small Division II school. Any dreams of becoming a Pro football player are a longshot, right?
But wait. To truly understand that motivation to strive for success which is synonymous with Rod Smith, another piece of the puzzle needs telling. During the 1992 season, Missouri Southern was playing Central Missouri. Smith dropped back to field a punt early in the game. Wesley Drummond hit him, with the ball still 10 feet in the air mind you, and at that point Rod’s left knee was gone. The ACL, the MCL, the cartilage . . . all of it.
Not only did he come back from that crippling injury, he played 13 seasons in the League and outplayed 28 drafted Wide Receivers in the 1994 NFL Draft. Not one of those players was an All-Pro and just one (Isaac Bruce) went to the Pro Bowl.
After the draft, Smith was signed by the New England Patriots but he was released soon after. That is when the Broncos signed him. And just like 217 other players in Broncos history, Rod began his career on the Practice Squad. After a year on the PS, Smith appeared in all 16 games
by taking advantage of each opportunity.
“Talent is something you are born with, skill is what you earn. I had to earn my way every single day.”~Rod Smith
New head coach Mike Shanahan saw his name on all the offseason workouts and Rod made the 1995 roster. He contributed primarily on Special Teams that season, but again, an opportunity arose and Smith took advantage of it. During a Week 3 matchup with the Redskins in 1995, the game was knotted at 31 points. With six seconds left in the 4th Quarter, the Broncos Offense stalled at the Redskins 43-yard line. On 4th-and-10, John Elway dropped back and launched a deep pass toward Smith, who leaped over future Hall of Fame Cornerback Darrell Green to grab the game-winning Touchdown as time expired. That was the first catch of his career.
By 1996, he was starting opposite Ed McCaffrey. Thirteen seasons, two Super Bowl Rings and 11,389 yards later, Rod Smith sits at the top of nearly every single Receiving category in franchise history.
Only undrafted player to reach 10,000 receiving yards, and the 24th in history to eclipse that figure.
Has the most catches (849), receiving yards (11,389) and Touchdown receptions (68) of any undrafted Wide Receiver in NFL history.
Holds Broncos franchise records in career receptions, receiving yards and Touchdown catches.
Ranks 1st on Denver’s all-time yards from scrimmage list.
1st on team receiving yards, season with 1,602 (2000)
1st on team, consecutive games with a reception with 124 (1999-2006)
8 seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards, including six consecutive (1997-2002).
2 seasons of at least 100 receptions (2000: 100; 2001: 113). His 113 catches in 2001 led the league.
30 100-yard receiving games in the regular season, including in a career-high 8 games during in 2000.
Only the sixth player in NFL history to have 100 receptions against at least 3 teams (Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders).
AFC Offensive Player of the Week (week 15; 12/17/05 against the Buffalo Bills at Buffalo).
3× Pro Bowl (2000, 2001, 2005)
2× All-Pro (2000, 2001)
2× Super Bowl champion (XXXII, XXXIII)
Division II Hall of Fame (Inducted in 2008)
College Football Hall of Fame (Inducted in 2009)
Denver Broncos 50th Anniversary Team (2009)
Denver Broncos Ring of Fame (2012)
According to the Denver Broncos 2012 Media Guide, Rod also set the team’s career postseason receiving marks with 49 catches for 860 yards and six Touchdowns in 13 playoff games, including Denver’s back-to-back Super Bowl championships following the 1997 and ‘98 seasons.
Following his final game as a Bronco in 2006, Smith was ranked 11th in NFL history in career receptions (849), 17th in career receiving yards (11,389) and tied for 30th in career receiving Touchdowns (68). His string of posting 70 or more catches for 9 consecutive seasons (1997-2005) tied for the 2nd-longest streak in NFL history, and his career reception and receiving yardage totals still lead all undrafted players in league annals.
He was a starting wide receiver of the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl championships in 1997 and 1998. In the Broncos’ 34–19 win in Super Bowl XXXIII, Smith had 5 receptions for 152 yards (the 4th highest total in Super Bowl history), including an 80-yard Touchdown reception. He was a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2004.
A hip injury that he suffered in 2006 required a complete hip replacement and Rod announced his formal retirement from professional football on July 24, 2008. With two Super Bowls, three Pro Bowls, and a controversy-free career noted for professionalism, Smith left the Broncos as one of the most well-loved players of all time.
RING OF FAME
In May of 2012 it was announced that Rod would become the 23rd member of the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame. He joined Lionel Taylor and Haven Moses as the only wide receivers enshrined. The ceremony took place on Sunday, Sept. 23, at halftime of the Broncos’ game against the Houston Texans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Other Ring of Famers on hand included Rich Jackson (inducted in 1984), Charley Johnson (1986), Billy Thompson (1987), Randy Gradishar (1989), Louis Wright (1993), Karl Mecklenburg (2001), Steve Atwater (2005) and Terrell Davis (2007).
Before the ceremony, I had the chance to sit in on a teleconference with Rod and even asked a question.
On what kept him in the league for 14 years:
“My Drive. The hard part wasn’t making it in the NFL, it was staying in the NFL. I outworked everyone to keep my job. When they were sleeping, I was working. I did that each and every day.”
On the statistics he assembled as a Bronco:
“All I cared about were the Wins. I’m proud of what I accomplished, but the “W’s” were all that really mattered.”
Rod talked a little about topping the next guy and I had the chance to ask him a question.
KK: Speaking of “topping,” how are you going to top Shannon Sharpe’s skydiving stunt on his Induction day?
“I ain’t gonna do anything stupid like that. I’m not going to jump off anything higher than 3 or 4 feet.” I don’t know, I haven’t thought about that. It’ll have to be something special. Mr. Bowlen is paying for it, but I’ll tell you right now, I am definitely not jumping out of an airplane. I’m putting that word out right now. Maybe a long fancy car or something. I’m sure it’ll be something nice.”
On the Hall of Fame:
“I don’t get a vote, otherwise I’d vote for me. What do you base it on, catches? I got those. Yards? I got those too. Touchdowns? I mean, why not? My numbers are better than a lot of guts in there.”
“I blocked for some Running Backs that gained a lot of yards. That is something I’m real proud of. Me and [Ed] McCaffery were real good blockers. It’s all about the team.”
Andrew Mason (Max Broncos) asked the final question.
AM: Tell us about your very first catch, that 43-yard Touchdown in the last minute of the Week 3 contest against the Washington Redskins to win the game?
“Ah man, I was playing Special Teams and I stunk. Redskins Strong Safety James Washington had knocked our other Wide Receivers out of the game. We only carried 4 receivers active for the game, so I had to play. I just did what I had to do to put myself in a position to make a play and do the best I could to help my team win. I told my coach that I was terrible all game. I’m just glad we won. Later on I got a call from James. He told me if it wasn’t for him, I’d would never have had the career I had. (Chuckles)”
HALL OF FAME WORTHY
For Rod Smith, the only NFL honor left is a place in Canton. There are currently 21 Wide Receivers with busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are also 14 current members of the Hall of Fame who were undrafted, and he deserves to be number 15 on that list. Rod’s numbers are comparable to those Wide Receivers. Statistically, he would rank in the top 10 in games played, receptions, receiving yards and NFL Championships. His 68 Touchdowns rank 11th among Hall of Famers.
“Some of the guys that are there, I can promise you this, my numbers are better than some of the guys there,” Smith said about his Hall-of-Fame chances. “I know we played in a different era but at the same time I think that winning has something to do with it, I think your character off of the field should have something to do with it because it’s an elite group.”
In a results-oriented business, he produced. In games he played, Smith’s teams went 126-70, good for a winning percentage of .643. Only one wide receiver currently in the Hall of Fame — Fred Biletnikoff — had a higher career winning percentage.
But one other thing that sets Rod apart, is that he 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.
That’s right. The greatest Wide Receiver of all-time. Now tell me again that there is no such thing as ‘East Coast Bias’ when it comes to HOF candidates.
“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.”
“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.”
“Yes. Easy. His numbers, his work ethic, what he’s done in the community, everything about this guy screams Hall of Fame. One day, I look to see him in there.”
“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.”
Former Broncos head coach Wade Phillips,
“I don’t remember whether we thought about drafting him, but we didn’t like him enough to take him and neither did anyone else. Everybody missed on a great player. If we knew then what we know now, he’d have been a first-rounder.”
Former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan,
“The thing about Rod is he always handled himself like you would want a true pro to handle himself. He always put the team ahead of himself. He has influenced so many people through the years. I’ll always be indebted to him for what he did for this organization.”
Cornerback Champ Bailey,
“You have to respect a guy who works for everything he’s got. Nobody expected him to have 800-plus catches and go to a few Pro Bowls. Nobody even expected him to make the team.”
“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.”
John Elway sums it all up like this:
“Rod brought his lunch pail to work each day, took nothing for granted and made himself into an elite player. 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.”
– Kaptain Kirk