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Jerry Smith Battling AIDS--First Major Athlete to Admit Illness

August 26, 1986|GEORGE SOLOMON | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The letter arrived at the family house this summer. It invited Jerry Smith, who caught 421 passes for 5,496 yards and 60 touchdowns in 13 seasons as a tight end with the Washington Redskins, to be inducted into the Washington Hall of Stars at RFK Stadium this fall.

In the room at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., where Jerry Smith is fighting the deadly disease AIDS, his mother, Laverne, asked, "Do you think when they find out, they'll change their mind?"

No, her son whispered to his mother, the committee will not change its mind. It will understand, just as his friends, former teammates and fans will understand.

"It just happened," Smith, 43, said. "It just happened."

In the last year, such widely known Americans as actor Rock Hudson, lawyer Roy Cohn and fashion designer Perry Ellis have died of AIDS. Smith is the first known professional athlete--retired or active--known to have the disease. When he played, Smith weighed 210 pounds and blocked 260-pound defensive ends. Now his weight is about 150, and he grows weaker each day.

"I feel a sadness for anyone with a diagnosis of AIDS," said Jim Graham, director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a D.C. treatment and counseling clinic for homosexuals. "My heart goes out to him and the people close to him.

"This disclosure destroys the stereotype that AIDS is a disease of drug addicts and hairdressers. AIDS does attack all manner of people from all walks of life. When the disease strikes someone you know and respect, the viewpoint changes. (Smith has) contributed to that change by this disclosure."

The last thing in the world Jerry Smith wanted was a life-threatening disease and to have it made public. "Of all that he's been through, that's been his biggest fear," Laverne Smith said last week as her son held the second of two meetings with a reporter in his hospital room.

"I want people to know what I've been through and how terrible this disease is," Jerry Smith said. "Maybe it will help people understand. Maybe it will help with development in research. Maybe something positive will come out of this."

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, afflicts mostly homosexual men. Between 600,000 and 1.2 million Americans have been exposed to AIDS antibodies since the disease was discovered in 1981. It has killed more than 13,000 people. There are currently about 24,000 cases of AIDS in the U.S.

AIDS is caused by a virus called human T-cell lymphotropic virus, or HTLV-3. It first showed up in homosexual men in Los Angeles and New York in 1981.

The virus is a killing agent, destroying the body's ability to fight disease. The virus reduces the body's infection-fighting white blood cells, allowing serious infections to develop.

Although Smith was willing to discuss his struggle with the disease, he would not elaborate on his life style.

Since his retirement from professional football in 1978, Smith has run his own construction company here, opened a restaurant in Texas and worked in the mortgage business. He played golf, and like many retired professional athletes, attempted to keep fit with regular workouts.

But last summer, he said, he began losing weight and noticed he was tiring easily. He said he went to a doctor in Florida and was tested for exposure to the AIDS virus. "The results were negative," he said. "It threw everyone off."

The symptoms persisted and in December, Smith entered Holy Cross Hospital, where he was tested again. This time, he said, the test was positive.

During the last eight months he has been in and out of Holy Cross and George Washington University hospitals several times. He said he also attempted to get into a special program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but could not do so "because I did not meet the medical criteria."

Smith has lost weight steadily and, according to his mother, "hasn't eaten since June." He is sustained intravenously and kept comfortable by pain-killing drugs. He looks tired and wan and often drifts into sleep during conversation.

"I'm trying very hard to fight this," he said. "But I don't have many good days."

Smith came to the Redskins from Arizona State as a split end in 1965. In 1966, he was moved to tight end in midseason when Charley Taylor was moved from running back to wide receiver. A year later he caught 67 passes--the most by a tight end in National Football League history at that time--for 849 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was among the top 10 pass receivers in the league for four consecutive seasons, from 1966 to 1969.

In addition to his prowess as a pass receiver, Smith prided himself on his blocking, although at 6 feet 3 inches and 210 pounds, he was smaller than most professional tight ends and often went up against men 50 and 60 pounds heavier.

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