Nov. 4, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Forget his 48 consecutive starts. Jeff Smith qualifies as a Tennessee legend simply by association.
From 1992-95, Smith started all 48 games of his career on the offensive line. But even more notably, the Meigs County native snapped the ball to a pair of future Hall of Famers and a U.S. congressman.
"Fortunately, I was able to play with both Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning," said Smith, who will be honored as a Legend of the Game before Saturday's Homecoming kickoff against Middle Tennessee (TV: FoxSports Tennessee, 7 p.m. ET). "Two great quarterbacks. Different as night and day in their styles, but that's what made it so much fun."
Shuler was Heisman Trophy runner-up, SEC Player of the Year and now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from North Carolina's 11th District. Manning is a four-time NFL most valuable player who no doubt is headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The other future hall of famer who played behind Smith in the early 1990s? Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton.
"We all knew Todd was going on to be a great baseball player, that's for sure," Smith said. "We knew for a fact that football wasn't going to be his cup of tea after college."
"We had Jerry going in to start the season and he got injured," Smith said. "Then Todd came in and we finally found a little bit of a groove and started cooking a little bit. If we would have had one or two more possessions, I think we would have ended up winning that game."
Reserve Branndon Stewart also played that day, as did Manning, who eventually broke into the starting lineup for keeps in place of Helton.
"Peyton stepped it up a little bit down the stretch and we ended up finishing that season pretty good," Smith said. "That helped us build for 1995, my senior year, when we finished 11-1 and ended up No. 2 in the (coaches) poll. That was a great year for us and I had a lot of fun. We won a lot of football games."
"Our offensive line coach, Steve Marshall, used to say we would put a little `Shuler Magic' on them, and Peyton was more like plugging in a computer," Smith said. "If you told Peyton what to do, he would get it done. He's been doing that for years now, so no surprise there.
"You could tell when Peyton was in the game, the way he studied and the way he carried himself, that he was going to be a good one."
Smith arrived in Knoxville from Decatur after starting for five seasons - five, beginning in eighth grade - at Meigs County High School. After a redshirt season in 1991, he started four more years for the Vols and finished with the maximum number of 48 consecutive starts.
"One year, I ended up playing every position but left tackle," said Smith, who was All-SEC in 1993 and 1995. "That was one good thing about our offensive line: we all could play any place on the line. A spell here and there if a guy would go down, we would move guys around and that's kind of the way our group was.
"Playing center or guard didn't matter to me. We just wanted the best five guys out there."
A huge milestone for Smith and his teammates up front came in 1994 when the Vols line helped tailback James Stewart become Tennessee's all-time leading rusher with 2,890 yards.
Efforts like those led the Kansas City Chiefs to choose Smith in the seventh round of the 1996 NFL Draft, and he spent four seasons there playing alongside stars like Derrick Thomas and Marcus Allen. Smith's first season of real playing time was 1997, when the Chiefs went 13-3 and won the AFC West.
"That was really interesting," he said. "We lived in Glasgow for 4½ months and played our games in Edinburgh, so we had a train ride or bus ride over for games. We played in an 80,000-seat rugby stadium and about 10,000 people showed up for games. They didn't quite understand American football over there. They couldn't understand why we started and stopped and huddled up. It was too slow for them.
"But it was a great experience. I got to play golf at St. Andrews, see Loch Ness. We played in London. We played in Barcelona. I got to see a lot of culture for a country boy from Meigs County."
Smith said he remembers that year most because of the amount of football he played with the combined seasons in Europe and the States.
"I think I ended up playing 37 or 38 football games that year, counting preseason and everything," he said with a laugh. "The World League was in the spring and summer, and then I came back and played the whole year with the Chiefs and we made the playoffs. It was a long season but it was worth it."
"I decided to hang it up," he said. "I had had a couple of knee surgeries and needed another one. I thought I would get out while I could still move pretty well.
"I enjoyed it and had my fun with it. I thought it was time to move on and pursue a so-called normal life, I guess."
Smith today lives in Knoxville and works for AstraZeneca as a pharmaceutical sales representative. He says this weekend's honor will bring back a ton of tremendous memories.
"I told my wife that my being a legend means one of two things: either I'm getting old or I was a pretty good football player at one time," Smith said. "I like to think the latter.
"It's a great honor. My parents are coming and my whole family will be there. Thinking back to when I was a 19-year-old kid running through the T knowing I was about to start my first game in front of 95,000 people, it was pretty special."