TAMPA — It has been 47 years since the Los Angeles Rams selected running back Larry Smith with the No. 8 pick in the 1969 draft, and to this day, it remains the highest that any player from Tampa has been selected.
The Rams are back in Los Angeles after 21 seasons in St. Louis, but Smith remains in his hometown of Tampa, where he'll be pulling for the Bucs on Sunday when his old team comes to town.
"Oh, I'm a Bucs fan. Gators and Bucs. I'm pretty much a homer," said the white-haired Smith, 69, from the 37th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa, where he has worked for 28 years as a real estate attorney with Hill Ward Henderson. "I'm with the home team now."
He has vivid memories of Los Angeles in 1969, a far cry from small-town Tampa and Robinson High School. He flew out after the draft and was immediately challenged to run the 40-yard dash against Tommie Smith, who had won gold in the 200 meters in the 1968 Olympics. Yes, that Tommie Smith, the one who with John Carlos staged the iconic gloved-fist raised protest during that national anthem at the Mexico City Games.
He was a Rams draft pick.
"I did okay," Larry Smith said of his challenge race with the Olympian.
Coach George Allen had moved the Rams' practice facility to Long Beach to avoid the distractions of Hollywood, but Smith remembers them well. His rookie year, Rams stars Merlin Olsen and Roman Gabriel had filmed The Undefeated with John Wayne, among his first brushes with celebrity.
"John Wayne and his posse used to come out to practices from time to time. That was interesting," Smith said. "Ronald Reagan flew in in a helicopter when he was governor. It was quite an experience to live in a big city."
Smith sold his extra tickets each week to a college teammate's godmother, actor Jean Peters, who was married to billionaire Howard Hughes. The Rams opened 11-0 with Smith as a rookie running back, losing to the Vikings in the playoffs. He played with future Hall of Famers in Olsen, Deacon Jones, Tom Mack and Jack Youngblood, with Allen enshrined in Canton as well.
Smith played in a different NFL —— he was a top-10 draft pick, but had a salary modest enough that he went back to Gainesville and got his master's degree in business after his rookie season. After football was over, Smith got his law degree from Stetson, and he has worked in real estate law ever since.
The NFL season was only 14 games back then, but there were six preseason games, and teams got by with a 40-man roster instead of the current 53.
"They didn't pay anybody much back when we played," he said. "My first contract was not very substantial. I don't know that there were many guys were making six figures on a team. Maybe two. Maybe the quarterback."
His first Rams coaching staff included a slew of talented young assistants like Ted Marchibroda, Dick Vermeil and Howard Schnellenberger, but Smith was out of football after six seasons, playing one with the Redskins to reunite with Allen.
Smith is glad to see the Rams back in Los Angeles ("I never understood why they would leave") and said he doesn't resent the high salaries of today's NFL players, who can literally retire at age 30 and not need a second career.
"I'm happy for them," he said. "They need to be paid. It's a dangerous game. It's a great sport, and they're trying to make it safer, and they are."
He has been a season-ticket holder with the Gators for more than 40 years, and will go back to Gainesville on Nov. 19, when the university recognizes the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Gators, when he played with the likes of Steve Spurrier.
In Smith's senior year, 1968, the Gators opened the season in his hometown as Florida played Air Force at Tampa Stadium; he scored two touchdowns in a 23-20 victory. He leaves his scores out in recalling the game, pointing out that Youngblood subbed in as kicker and hit a field goal that wound up the winning margin.
Smith went back to Los Angeles in 2007 for a 40-year reunion, and the Rams e-mailed invitations to all their former players, inviting them to visit a practice. He hopes to get back for another reunion when their new stadium is completed.
"We're thinking about it, just to say hello to old friends," he said.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman