On a visit to Lincoln and Memorial Stadium, Neil Smith takes time to sign autographs for fans.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Neil Smith Defines Blackshirts’ Very Essence

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Neil Smith had some time in Los Angeles before heading to the set of the NFL Network studio that would launch last Tuesday night’s latest installment of “A Football Life” Series. The 44-minute documentary focuses on former Alabama All-America linebacker and perennial Kansas City Chief All-Pro Derrick Thomas, a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer who died 13½ years ago from the severe injuries sustained in a car accident two weeks earlier. Thomas was 33. Smith, a former Nebraska All-America defensive lineman and 6-time Pro Bowler, was Thomas’ best friend and former teammate. That’s why he was asked to become “The Face” for Thomas’ “Third and Long Foundation” following Derrick’s death and why the NFL Network invited Smith to be live and in-studio Tuesday night, so Smith could talk about the life-changing impact of a football legend who was visionary enough to launch a foundation that helps teach inner city kids how to read.

Talk about irony. Few people outside of Nebraska’s inner circle know how difficult it was for Smith to grow up in the inner city of New Orleans. Because he had so much trouble learning how to read himself, Smith likely never would have landed a Division I scholarship if Jack Pierce had not spotted him on a grainy piece of film while analyzing the performance of one of Smith’s prep teammates. Pierce, then a Husker assistant football coach and now a Nebraska athletic fund-raiser, couldn’t believe what he was seeing – a smallish but quick defender tracking down and then tackling quarterbacks, running backs and receivers with speed and tenacity. If truth be told, however, few schools would have recruited Smith even if they had spotted him on that grainy piece of film. His academic deficiencies were as real as his raw talent. Recruiting a college football prospect from an inner-city school project would take more research, time, thought and consideration than most schools were willing to give.

Mom’s Top Wish: Family’s First College Diploma

But a certain blessing emerged in this particular case. Lutisha Smith, a single parent and Neil’s mom, loved meeting and talking to Pierce, who had a simple pitch and a classic dream for her son to consider. The simple pitch was explaining how Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne would emphasize her son’s education so he could build his own bridge onto the field. The classic dream was explaining the ultimate punch line for a head coach with a soft spot in his heart for kids who grew up disadvantaged. That punch line revolved around Smith learning how to work so hard that he would become the first person in his family to earn a college diploma. Smith’s journey to Lincoln and his four-year stay at Nebraska could be described as disappointing at times but rarely disheartening. Somehow, through certain pain and persistence, he created his own niche after three years of academic struggle and ultra-challenging competition. He needed every bit of those 36 months to grow up, which, in turn, enabled him to weave together the tapestry of his life.

Smith has no doubt about what became the true springboard that helped him navigate through every trial and tribulation that came his way. It goes all the way back to an April afternoon during Spring Football before his senior season. On a day he least expected it, Charlie McBride, his position coach and defensive coordinator, handed Smith his first Blackshirt. It was low-key moment, if not unceremonious. Smith remembers McBride telling him he’d earned that Blackshirt and advised him to live up to its standards because they had been set in stone by everyone who wore the same jersey over the last 25 years. “Play for your team, not yourself,” McBride told him. “Give everyone around you the best you have in you every single practice every single game. Make that Blackshirt mean something.”

Blackshirt Became Turning Point of Smith’s Life

Tuesday, Smith called that simple moment “the turning point of my life”. Describing the day he earned a Blackshirt that he never relinquished still stuns him, still chokes him up. The idea had been locked in his mind and was safe in his heart and then suddenly, McBride says a few important sentences and leaves the room so one of his favorite projects can soak it all in on his own. Looking backwards, McBride’s decision was one small step in a different colored practice jersey but one giant leap in Husker history. Smith’s transition from often unaccountable player to supremely driven athlete was like running in place one moment and then sprinting up a speedy escalator the next. It may have been the quickest injection of confidence any single Nebraska player has ever experienced … a mindset so transformative that Smith transitioned from being a non-starting junior to a senior captain, First-Team All-American, 1988 Fiesta Bowl Defensive Player of the Game and the second pick in the first-round as a Kansas City Chief. Smith played 14 years in the NFL, made All-Pro six times, won two Super Bowl Championship rings and last month, Big Red fans voted him one of Nebraska’s Top Eight Blackshirts of all time to help celebrate 50 Blackshirts over the last 50 years.

Last weekend, Smith missed getting recognized on the field for that honor and the appreciation of another sold-out Memorial Stadium crowd that goes with it. He had to back out because his mom was sick in Houston, and he had to return to Kansas City to give Third and Long Foundation donors a sneak preview of the Derrick Thomas documentary produced by NFLFilms. Make no mistake, though. Neil Smith defines the very essence of the Blackshirts as captivatingly as anyone we’ve ever interviewed, even if his descriptions come off the cuff and straight from his heart on a cell phone call while he walks around Los Angeles before heading to the NFL Network studio. The rest of this story uses Smith’s words verbatim. They are gleaned from a 40-minute interview filled with strong feelings, passionate memories and sincere hopes for the future.

Played Behind Skow, Noonan, Spachman in 1980s

“Becoming a Blackshirt changed my life and the way I approached everything,” Smith said. “Getting one is so personal, so encouraging and so empowering. When we played, you never got one unless you paid the supreme price. I waited a long time for mine. Even though I never redshirted, I didn’t get it in those first three years because I didn’t deserve it. Jim Skow, Danny Noonan and Chris Spachman all played ahead of me. All three deserved that Blackshirt. They were all Lifters of the Year. They worked harder than me and sacrificed more than I did. Coach McBride gave me my Blackshirt at just the right time because I had finally put the work into what was required to earn it. I followed those three guys as Lifter of the Year, and the second I got my Blackshirt, I knew it wasn’t just given to me. I also knew that I was never going to give it up.

“Earning a Blackshirt is about doing all the hard work and making the commitment to max yourself out every day, not just on Saturday. I didn’t have the habits required, but once I developed those habits, I knew I was on my way. The day Coach McBride gave me my Blackshirt was the most inspirational day of my life. It was bigger than any college or pro game I ever played in. I’d reached the point where I took advantage of the opportunity that Coach Osborne, Coach McBride and Coach Pierce provided. For me, getting a Blackshirt was bigger than being an All-American, an All-Pro or a Super Bowl champion. It was bigger because if I didn’t change my ways to seize my opportunity, none of those other things would have happened. Once I earned that respect, it was my time to shine.

Smith Envisions, Targets Taking Graduation Walk

“That Blackshirt was the biggest goal I ever accomplished. It was the crossroad for the rest of my life. Looking back at everything that day meant and the blessing that it’s been in my life, I have to rethink the other goal my mom wanted me to achieve … that college diploma. Because I was a Blackshirt, I still have the drive in me to get it done. I have a few aches and pains and an occasional migraine, but I see myself as a 40-year-old who will turn 48 next April. That degree is the biggest goal I ever had. I was within 17 hours of getting it when the Chiefs drafted me. I put it off over the next 14 years, making it even harder than it was. I’ve finally started taking a couple online courses so that my mom – she’s 77 now – can see me make that walk someday in a cap and a gown. It may take me three years like it took me to get that Blackshirt, but I’m going to get it done and make that walk. I owe it to my coaches, my teammates, and most of all, my mom. That piece of paper means more to her than anything, so I’m going to get it for her and everyone else who’s helped me along the way.”

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