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Football legend Bubba Smith dies at 66

As an All-America defensive end at Michigan State, Bubba Smith, top, would inspire chants of “Kill, Bubba, kill!”

Associated Press (1966)

As an All-America defensive end at Michigan State, Bubba Smith, top, would inspire chants of “Kill, Bubba, kill!”

LOS ANGELES — Bubba Smith, a former All-Pro football player turned actor and commercial pitchman who delighted TV viewers by wrenching off the tops of "easy-opening cans" of beer, was found dead Wednesday at his Los Angeles home. He was 66.

The cause of death has not been determined, the Los Angeles County coroner's office said.

A caretaker found Mr. Smith at his home in Los Angeles' Baldwin Hills section, police said.

The top overall pick in 1967 after a sensational career at Michigan State, the 6-foot-7, 280-pound defensive lineman spent five seasons with the Colts — winning a Super Bowl in 1971 — and two seasons each with the Raiders and Oilers. His career was derailed by a knee injury sustained during a 1972 preseason game in Tampa.

He ended up at Michigan State after his beloved home-state Texas Longhorns turned him away because he was black. He and other prominent Southern black players who couldn't play closer to home because of racial intolerance were a big part of the Spartans' rise to power.

Mr. Smith was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

One of the most feared defensive players, Mr. Smith often drew two blockers yet made two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team.

"He was simply a good guy," former Michigan State teammate Robert Viney said in a statement. "His size made him an intimidating figure, but he was a real gentle­man. He was a hell of a player."

After football, Mr. Smith joined other former pro athletes who appeared as themselves in commercials for Miller Lite beer.

As an actor his most memorable role was playing Moses Hightower, the soft-spoken officer in the Police Academy movie series. He also appeared in TV series, including Good Times, Charlie's Angels and Half Nelson.

Born Charles Aaron Smith, he played in high school for his father, Willie Ray Smith, in Beaumont, Texas.

"Bubba Smith was a great Spartan," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said in a statement. "As both a football player and later as an actor, Bubba was a great ambassador for the university."

Mr. Smith, whose No. 95 Spartans jersey was retired in 2006, was part of two of the most famous games ever played. In 1966, he was at Michigan State when the Spartans and Notre Dame, both undefeated, played to a 10-10 tie. Michigan State finished second behind the top-ranked Fighting Irish.

In 1969, he played for the Colts against the Jets in Super Bowl III. Led by Joe Namath, the Jets of the AFL upset the NFL champion Colts 16-7 in Miami.

"I will shed some tears tonight because I've lost a great friend," Viney said. "He never sought the spotlight. He was a humble man. As I remember him, I recall the chants of 'Kill, Bubba, kill' from the crowd in Spartan Stadium. He will be missed."

In Miller Lite TV spots, he and fellow NFL veteran Dick Butkus were cast as inept golfers and polo players. Mr. Smith was also featured solo in one commercial extolling the virtues of the beer, beaming into the camera, "I also love the easy-opening cans," while ripping off the top of the can.

Despite a lucrative contract and widespread popularity, he walked away from the job.

"I went back to Michigan State for the homecoming parade last year," Mr. Smith told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "I was the grand marshal and I was riding in the back seat of this car. The people were yelling, but they weren't saying, 'Go, State, go!' One side of the street was yelling, 'Tastes great!' and the other side was yelling 'Less filling!'

"Then we go to the stadium. The older folks are yelling 'Kill, Bubba, kill!' But the students are yelling 'Tastes great! Less filling!' Everyone in the stands is drunk. It was like I was contributing to alcohol, and I don't drink. It made me realize I was doing something I didn't want to do."

After an Aug. 27, 1972, preseason game against the Steelers at Tampa Stadium, Mr. Smith sued the NFL, two game officials (one of whom was the down-marker holder) and the Tampa Sports Authority for $2.5 million, claiming their negligence led to his knee injury when he got tangled in a down marker and chain.

He lost the suit, which took nearly six years in Tampa federal courts. He missed the 1972 season and due to continued problems with his knee, was never the same player again. A Colts executive told Sports Illustrated at the time it was "one of the worst knee injuries our team doctor had ever seen."

Football legend Bubba Smith dies at 66 08/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2011 12:25am]
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