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Vikings Say Goodbye to Mr. Smith


The first time sports writer Bob Fortuna saw Robert Smith, here's what Robert Smith was doing: running with a football. A high school sophomore, 16 years old. And not just running.

Running the way O.J. Simpson ran. High strides on long, skinny legs. Strong, smooth, fast. The first time Bob Fortuna saw Robert Smith run, here's what Bob Fortuna said: "Whoooaaa." The sudden sound of serendipitous discovery.

Twelve years later, the telephone rings in Bob Fortuna's home in Euclid, Ohio.

"Where's your dad?" It's Robert Smith talking to Jessica, the sports writer's daughter.

"I don't know."

"Could I talk to your mother, please?"

Donna Fortuna says her husband is covering a gymnastics meet, and she's not sure when he'll be home.

"Have him call me, please. I need to talk to him."

About 9 o'clock that night, as Fortuna tells the story, "Donna says, 'You better call Rob, it sounds serious.' "

For a long time, Robert Smith was the NFL's best invisible running back. Only now have we noticed his transformation from sprinter to the full package. A free agent after eight seasons, he became the subject of high-dollar speculation: $40 million for five seasons, perhaps on a team less dysfunctional than the Vikings?

Fortuna calls him, and Robert Smith says: "I'm going to retire, and I want you to have the story."


Even for his friend, Smith answered no questions. In fact, he retired by e-mail--sort of. When his e-mail showed up garbled, Smith called back to Fortuna, who dictated his farewell to football and thanks to friends.

No fancy news conference. No public displays of sentiment. No contract negotiations by threat of retirement. Just a phone call to the man who'd written him up for the suburban weekly Euclid Sun Journal and now covers scholastic sports for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Such common sense behavior, alien to today's egomaniacal athlete, is in keeping with the character, personality and intelligence of Robert Smith. Leave the trash talk to Randy Moss. Leave the money talk to Deion Sanders. Leave God to Reggie White. Robert Smith became an NFL star the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

He ran for more yards than any Viking ever. He scored touchdowns on runs of 40 yards or longer in six seasons. The Giants' Jason Sehorn called him "Eddie George with another gear." The trauma of life as an NFL running back was such that doctors often explored his knees, and yet Smith running with a football was an act of athleticism so beautiful it moved at least one journalist to drop Smith's name into a sentence with Joe DiMaggio's.

The New York Observer columnist Michael M. Thomas remembered DiMaggio's running style, "effortless, powerful, above all smooth." Then Thomas added, "The way Robert Smith of the Vikings runs reminds me of Joe D."

DiMaggio retired at 36. Beleaguered by heel and knee injuries, he no longer could make the hard work look easy. It would be no surprise to learn that Robert Smith has retired at 28 because he acknowledged two truths athletes often ignore: 1) the hard work was no longer easy, and 2) if you play now, you pay later.

"When Robert hurt his knee this last time," says Paul Serra, once a Euclid High baseball coach and Smith's legal guardian, "he told me, 'I want to be able to walk when I'm 40.' "

After playing hurt the last month of the Vikings season, Smith underwent surgery for the fourth time on that knee. He had left Ohio State eight years earlier with no long-range NFL plans, and Serra says, "Robert always said, 'I'm only one injury away from not doing anything.' "

So Smith has walked away while he still can walk.

Nor is it the first time he walked.

He enrolled at Ohio State with plans to go to medical school, perhaps to study orthopedics. His curiosity encompassed genetic research, molecular biology and astronomy (friends call him "Copernicus"). As admirable as all that is in a student-athlete, there's evidence one coach thought, "And how does that beat Michigan?"

Smith said offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac demanded he miss two classes to attend practice. Rather than bend to what he considered an unreasonable order, Smith sat out his sophomore season. Coincidentally or not, the coach was fired the next winter. Smith then suited up and told The Plain Dealer:

"If I go out this fall and rush for 2,000 yards, if we win the Big Ten championship and I win the Heisman Trophy, if I go on to become a doctor and find a cure for cancer, then become president of the United States, there will still be people that will call me 'that prima donna that got Coach Uzelac fired.' "

There is that. Even now Smith often stands accused of arrogance. Dan Barreiro of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune once quoted Smith on the religious zealotry in the NFL. First Smith said of the evangelizing Reggie White, "I find many of Reggie's comments incredibly ignorant. His statements on gays are embarrassing and speak to how little he knows ... "

As for Cris Carter and Deion Sanders saying religion saved their lives, fine, "But wearing it on your sleeve to where it dominates the whole part of you, to where some guys seem to say they're better than you because of their religious faith, that bothers me."

Smith has created The Robert Smith Foundation supporting children's hospitals and funding cancer research. He might yet become a researcher himself. Bright and articulate, he also might do television football commentary.

The wonder is not that such a man quit football so young.

The wonder is that he played at all.

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