Heisman Trophy winner - 1941
The year was 1910. An undefeated Minnesota squad faced off against undefeated Michigan in a game that would decide the national championship. Lucius Smith played tackle and kicked for the Golden Gophers in the game, which Minnesota ended up losing 6-0. It is not clear how or why, but for some reason Lucius felt responsible. Legend has it that he vowed, then and there, to have a son who would avenge the loss.
Lucius did indeed have a son, Bruce Smith, who seemed to be born to take on such an extraordinary objective. And 30 years after his father's bold decree, Bruce walked onto Memorial Stadium's muddied turf to face Michigan in a game that would decide the 1940 national championship.
Late in the first half the Golden Gopher trailed 6-0 - the same score by which they had lost a generation before. Michigan was on the verge of scoring again when the Maroon & Gold's Bob Paffrath intercepted a pass in the end zone. Then, on the next play, Smith received a handoff on a weak-side reverse. He ran into, around and through seven Michigan defenders before he found enough daylight to stop through 80 yards of muck for a touchdown. A minute later, Joe Mernik's point-after kick gave Minnesota a 7-6 advantage. It would prove to be the winning margin, since there was no mor scoring to be had on that rainy Saturday afternoon.
Smith played football from 1939-41, a time when gridiron giants walked campus footpaths around the nation. Gameday spectators, like the biblical Zaccheus, climbed trees and telephone poles outside Memorial Stadium hoping to see football miracles. Smith fulfilled their desires, leading the Golden Gophers to two undefeated national championship seasons in 1940 and 1941. Three times during his junior year in '40, he dazzled fans by scoring game-winning touchdowns when his team was behind.
Smith was a clutch player, a player who could be counted on to sacrifice his body for the good of the team. Against Iowa his senior year in '41, he was held out because of a knee injury. Minnesota did not gain a yard in the first quarter. Realizing that the national championship was on the line, Smith convinced Coach Bernie Bierman to let him play. He touched the ball only nine times that game, but it was enough to set up Minnesota's first three touchdowns and lead the Golden Gophers to a 34-13 victory.
For his on-the-field bravery, Smith won widespread recognition and awards. He earned All-Big Ten and All-America honors in 1941. That year he became the first and only Minnesota player
to receive college football's highest honor, the Heisman Trophy. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1972. But for sports heroes, like everyone else, life goes on long after their playing days are over; and many times, sports figures struggle to be strong people after the cheers of the fans have faded away. Smith, on the other hand, showed even greater strength and earned even higher rewards after he hung up his cleats.
Heisman Trophy History
1940 - George Franck (3rd)
1941 - Bruce Smith (1st)
1952 - Paul Giel (3rd)
1953 - Paul Giel (2nd)
1960 - Tom Brown (2nd)
1961 - Sandy Stephens (4th)
In the spring of 1967, at the age of 47, the All-American was diagnosed with cancer. For months, he suffered without complaining. His weight dwindled from 200 to 90 pounds. Through it all he accompanied the Reverend William Cantwell on his rounds, praying for and talking with youngsters suffering from cancer. Unfamiliar with Smith's football achievements, Cantwell witnessed his courageous suffering and the positive effect his presence had on the children. His wife Gloria later said, "He forced himself to live three months longer than any medical man predicted because he wanted to spend the summer with his kids."
On Aug. 26, 1967, Smith succumbed to his disease. The Reverend nominated the football great for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and continued to invoke Smith's intercession on behalf of young cancer patients long after his death.
In 1977, Bruce Smith's No. 54 became the first Minnesota number to be officially removed from the roster. He is a shining example to which an athlete, or any man or woman, can aspire, both on the field and in everyday life. Smith was, indeed, a true American hero.
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Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Penn State on Saturday, Oct. 1. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network and can be heard on KFAN.
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