Athlete, Actor, Everyman: Appreciating Bubba Smith Charles Aaron "Bubba" Smith died this Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 66. NPR's Todd Holzman has this remembrance of the man whose imposing presence on the field belied his gentle spirit, even in the turbulent era of the late '60s.
NPR logo Athlete, Actor, Everyman: Appreciating Bubba Smith

Athlete, Actor, Everyman: Appreciating Bubba Smith

Michigan State University football player Bubba Smith spent five seasons with the Baltimore Colts and two seasons each with Oakland and Houston. He died Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 66. Michigan State University/AP hide caption

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Michigan State University/AP

Michigan State University football player Bubba Smith spent five seasons with the Baltimore Colts and two seasons each with Oakland and Houston. He died Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 66.

Michigan State University/AP

Todd Holzman is a supervising senior editor for NPR digital news.

I was 8 in 1966, when Charles Aaron "Bubba" Smith played in the Game of the Century, against Notre Dame. He was an All-American football player for Michigan State University, a Herculean figure out of Beaumont, Texas. Six-foot-7, about 265 pounds. Even on a tiny black-and-white TV screen, you could pick him out. He was just that much bigger than anybody else on the field.

"Kill, Bubba, kill," they shouted from the stands. That was never what Bubba was about, though it was an easy association to make in a violent sport and a volatile time; an era in which we still embraced myths rather than realities.

But there is much, much more to Bubba Smith than football. At that age, in my lily-white community, I knew almost no black people. So what I saw of them was on TV — raging, rioting, being mistreated, being arrested, sometimes even being elected. People who were scary and impressive and astonishing, but seemed in no way like me.

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YouTube

And then there were athletes and entertainers, some of them using the moment of social change to advance issues, some of them just trying to make a buck.

Bubba was far from the only powerful black figure on the sports landscape, and certainly not the most important or famous. We already had Jim Brown in Cleveland, and Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA, and of course we had Muhammad Ali in the ring. All those men — and many others like them — stepped outside the lines and made their thoughts known as American society struggled to adjust to the notion that civil rights ought to be colorblind.

Now what Bubba did there in the late 1960s and beyond was a bit different from what others did. And this is why I celebrate him today. He decided to go along to get along. He saw that a smile was a comfort in troubled times.

He turned the "Kill, Bubba, kill" thing into a punch line instead of a threat. Even while he continued to hammer other people on the field with his great skills and strengths, he found a life outside football that put him right at the intersection of sports and pop culture.

In a world of violence and fear, we needed to know giants can be gentle. Bubba proved that. He was an engaging, funny and lovable figure who just happened to be living in a body that could have intimidated anyone on Earth.

He advanced that image in ads for Lite Beer from Miller that my generation remembers. Many play on Bubba's outsized nature, and the quiet threat of that looming black power. Here are two:

Bubba also went on to Police Academy movies, using his imposing bulk and cheerful face for many laughs. Again cast as the giant who was not a threat ... unless he decided to be.

Todd Holzman remembers watching Bubba Smith with his father, both on the field and on TV. His favorite Smith line: "If a nuclear bomb were dropped, the only two things that would survive are AstroTurf and Don Shula." Courtesy of Todd Holzman hide caption

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Courtesy of Todd Holzman

And then he showed up on Married With Children, as Al Bundy's nemesis, "Spare Tire Dixon." Yes, I know it's Married With Children, but you're going to laugh at this scene, I think. And then, I swear, you might cry a little.

May I suggest that Bubba sent a profound signal by going along to get along? This is a message that not all of us felt comfortable with in those days of change — and many still don't. And I respect that, too. We are not living in a post-racial society, as far as I can tell. We have far to go and I hope we get there.

This I know: To get there, we have to climb above the anger and set aside the fear and TALK to each other.

And I could imagine talking to Bubba Smith. I damn sure wanted to have a beer with him. He seemed to be everyman in a body that nobody else had. And as I peer back into that time and reflect on my Midwestern, small-town perspective, I don't think it's going too far to say that Bubba Smith — in word and deed — advanced an idea that we needed then and need today:

Can't we all get along?