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Scott Ostler

That Little Voice Just Kept Chanting: 'Stop, Bubba, Stop'

September 09, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

Bubba Smith has sworn off booze. Not drinking it, but selling it.

Bubba never did drink, but he sold a ton of beer by making cute television ads. Not anymore. Bubba has kicked the habit.

As far as I know, Bubba Smith is the first athlete ever, maybe the first person ever, to give up a very lucrative, stupendously easy and really amusing job making beer commercials, just because he decided it was wrong.

Here's how it happened:

"I went back to Michigan State for the homecoming parade last year," Bubba said. "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.

"I was with my brother, Tody, who is my agent. I told him, 'Tody, I'll never do another Lite beer commercial.' He almost (bleeped) on himself."

At the time, the Smith brothers had been dickering with the brewery over a new contract for Bubba.

"(The beer people) thought it was because of the money," Bubba said. "But it didn't have nothing to do with the money. That was hard to give up, especially me, being a black athlete, it's hard to get stuff (commercial endorsements).

"I loved doing the commercials, but I didn't like the effect it was having on a lot of little people. I'm talking about people in school. Kids would come up to me on the street and recite lines from my commercials, verbatim. They knew the lines better than I did. It was scary. Kids start to listen to things you say, you want to tell 'em something that is the truth.

"Doing those commercials, it's like me telling everyone in school, hey, it's cool to have a Lite beer. I'd go to places like Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale on spring breaks (as a spokesman for the brewery), and it was scary to see how drunk those kids were. It was fun talking to the fans, until you see people lying on the beach because they can't make it back to their room, or tearing up a city."

The irony of Bubba making all those beer commercials was that he doesn't drink. Never did. OK, he did drink twice in his life. He remembers those two times vividly, in a hazy sort of way.

His first night as a freshman at Michigan State, Bubba went to a party. He mixed himself a drink. Then the drink mixed him.

"I poured in some vodka, gin, beer, a little bourbon, all in a big glass," Smith says. "I didn't like the taste, so I drank it all in one gulp. It was a real trip. I started to get dizzy. Some guy was dancing with the girl I brought to the party. I weighed about 325 at the time, and I grabbed him, took him out on the porch and threw him off the porch. Then the ground came up and hit me in the face. I went back to my room, laid down, and fell out of the top bunk. I said, 'Never again.'

"I did drink one other time. It was the night before were were shooting a commercial. The ad agency wanted me to hang out with Billy Martin, so he wouldn't get into trouble. We were sitting at the hotel bar and he was drinking vodka martinis. I asked him how they were, and he ordered me a double. We sat there about two hours and I had about 10 of 'em.

"I felt OK, then I got up and looked at the lobby, and it was turning. By the time we got to the elevator we were almost on our knees."

The obvious question is, why would a nondrinker like Bubba spend eight years making beer ads?

The beer people came to him just after he retired from football. He had been a big star--6-8 and 285 pounds--a fast and ferocious defensive end for the Baltimore Colts and then the Raiders. His career was cut about half a decade short by a freak knee injury.

For nearly a year Bubba was a hermit, holed up in his apartment, ordering pizzas, edging up over the 300-pound mark again, feeling lonely and unloved. He had made a lot of money in football, but he had spent a lot. He needed a job. This one looked fine.

"Making those commercials, that was a joy to me," Bubba said. "I told myself I couldn't be doing nothing wrong. It seemed so innocent. You don't see things sometimes until you step back from it. Making those commercials, we were a team . It was like football, without the pain. That was an important part of my life, especially the (annual) reunion commercials. It would be five days of sheer laughter--at the shoot, after the shoot, every night.

"Also, it was also a prideful thing with me. I wanted to make sure we went after Budweiser. So I'm out there hustling like a dog, and we became the third-largest selling brand. Dick (Butkus, Smith's partner in many of the commercials) and I knew the formula. We could go in and run off a commercial in three hours."

When Bubba quit, the brewery went out and hired L.C. Greenwood, another huge, intimidating, black former football player who wears eyeglasses and a mustache. Bubba ripped the tops off beer cans. L.C. rips trees out of the ground.

"(The ad people) don't miss a beat," Bubba said.

Smith lives in L.A., gets a lot of movie and TV acting roles. He lifts weights now, which he never did as a football player, and he weighs about 245 pounds, well below his playing weight.

He has learned how to keep himself in shape. He has learned something else, too.

"As the years wear on, you stop compromising your principles," Bubba said.

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