Favre trade chip embraces role in Packers lore

Two decades after his last NFL game, Tony Smith is the answer to a trivia question

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GREEN BAY - History forgot Tony Smith long ago. Brushed away remnants of his career. Two decades after his last NFL game, he is the answer to a trivia question. A thin Google search. A bust.

His incidental role in the Green Bay Packers’ resurrection grew with time. Subconsciously, you have thought about Tony Smith often. You have thanked the football gods for his existence. You just don’t know it.

The man on the wrong side of a franchise-altering trade doesn’t get glory. He gets grief. Regret could have crushed him. Bitterness could have sprouted. Somehow, Tony Smith embraced his footnote in Packers lore.

“If it wasn’t for me,” he tells Packers fans, “you wouldn’t have Brett Favre. He never would’ve been a Packer, probably. What do you think of that?”

Tony Smith became a pawn in one of the NFL’s most unexpected success stories. Brett Favre for a first-round pick? Ron Wolf couldn’t say yes fast enough before the 1992 draft. Atlanta Falcons player personnel executive Ken Herock couldn’t say no.

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The Packers got a three-time MVP. A Super Bowl champion. A gunslinger who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 6.

The Falcons, eventually, drafted a running back. He played three seasons. Carried the football 87 times.

Then Tony Smith vanished, never appearing in another NFL game.

He didn’t expect his career to flop. Not so suddenly, so emphatically. Twenty-four years ago, he was a quick, versatile, promising rookie. He shared Southern Mississippi’s backfield with Favre for two seasons. In 1990, Smith ran for 62 yards and two touchdowns in a shocking upset at Alabama.

Favre famously fell to the draft’s second round, No. 33 overall. Hardly anyone objected. The Hall of Fame wasn’t forecast in his future. He just as easily could have fallen out of the league.

Smith was selected No. 19 the next spring. The first tailback in his draft. Nobody predicted he would bust. He just as easily could’ve set a new template for the modern tailback. Big. Fast. A dual threat.

“Could turn out to be the best running back in the draft,” the Chicago Sun-Times predicted in 1992.

“Great receiver out of the backfield,” Herock remembered.

“We thought he was going to be one of those special guys,” said June Jones, Smith’s offensive coordinator before becoming his head coach.

Instead, history forgot him. All that remains is trivia: Which player did the Falcons draft with the pick they obtained for Brett Favre? His name is Tony Smith.

This is his untold story.

***

The voice booming through the phone is upbeat and impossibly pleasant. A jolt of energy. Tony Smith, 46 years young, can talk as fast as he once ran.

Twenty-four years ago, he ran awfully fast.

“He was an unbelievable athlete,” Jones gushed. “I liked his size. I thought he would be a big back, but could run like a little, quick guy. He had an ability to catch the ball, and we were throwing it all over the yard in those days.

“We thought that he would be the perfect back for what we did.”

Not everybody agreed.

Jerry Glanville, the Falcons' head coach in 1992, had reservations about his team targeting a running back that high in the draft. His concerns were legitimate. Deion Sanders was one year from free agency, and already there were doubts the Falcons would retain the NFL’s best cornerback.

Glanville wanted a corner. Herock had other plans. His team needed a dynamic runner, he said. The Falcons had no 1,000-yard rushers for three seasons. In 1991, none of their tailbacks hit 500.

In Smith, Herock saw a potential workhorse.

“Ken was always a guy who took the best player available,” Jones said.

Before he did, Herock made another trade. This one, almost nobody remembers. The Falcons dropped two spots, swapping first-round picks with the Dallas Cowboys.

Dallas drafted Texas A&M cornerback Kevin Smith at No. 17. A player the Falcons needed. Smith played eight seasons before a bad back forced him to retire at age 29. He excelled in coverage.

The Falcons drafted Tony Smith. His career started “on the wrong foot” because, Jones believes, Glanville was upset the Falcons didn’t take a corner. Herock said his rookie had a rough training camp.

“Jerry always had to prove backs were tough enough,” Herock said. “This kid wasn’t going to be a power, run-over-you guy. He was a make-you-miss. Jerry didn’t like that, and in training camp, he literally almost ruined him, beat him up.

“It was like every play, he wanted him to take a beating. We were going, ‘Oh my god, this guy will never get through it.’ The kid never did make it.”

Glanville doesn’t deny his displeasure. It took “about 10 plays” to figure out Smith “couldn’t play dead,” he said. In his previous head-coaching gig with Houston, Glanville said, he picked his players. He demanded tailbacks run downhill — through contact, not around it.

Smith, a receiver early in his college career, was not the bruiser Glanville coveted.

“Only Kenny Herock,” Glanville said, “would take a wide receiver that was moved to running back. I would never do that in 100 years. I’d never take a running back that before contact runs out of bounds. I’d rather have a guy not as fast, not as quick, but a guy that will bring it on you and bang you around a little bit.”

Camp was contentious. Smith only made things worse.

A five-day holdout delayed his arrival. Eventually, he signed a three-year, $2.5 million deal, the richest running back contract in franchise history at that time, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report. In hindsight, the extra money wasn’t worth it.

Smith remembers his bludgeoning. In his mind, the hard hits were because of his holdout. Smith felt a “target on my back” as soon as he arrived, he said. Teammates shouted “fresh legs” and “new money” during practice. They tested him immediately.

“Even though they understood the business of it way better than I did at the time,” Smith said, “they still weren’t OK with me missing five days of camp. They’d already been there, they already were tired, they already were worn out, and here I come in as fresh legs.

“I probably took some of the hardest licks in practice against my own guys than I did playing against opponents. It was an interesting time, I’ll tell you. Pretty intense.”

The season started. Smith stalled.

Three weeks later, Brett Favre replaced Don Majkowski against the Cincinnati Bengals. He threw a 35-yard, game-winning touchdown pass to Kitrick Taylor with 13 seconds left. In Green Bay, a legend was born.

In Atlanta, a rookie waited for his chance. It never came.

***

Smith gutted through his first season. He flashed enough potential as a return specialist to earn a regular role, even as a part-time running back. But things got worse.

With the football in his hands, Smith was electric. He led the NFL with a 31.6-yard average per return through the first four games in 1993. On “Monday Night Football,” he returned a punt 97 yards for a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Smith expected to earn a starting job. He wasn’t alone. Fans wrote the local newspaper, demanding Glanville give him more carries. Or any carries.

Smith never played a snap on offense in 1993.

“We were going to play the best guy,” Jones said. “That’s what coaches do. I think we just felt we had a couple better players.”

As he faded, frustration built. Smith told reporters he wasn’t used properly. He needed the football more, not less.

He didn’t know it then, but his last carry came as a rookie.

It’s easy to see a situation unravel in retrospect. Herock picked the wrong year to draft a running back. He considered selecting Indiana’s Vaughn Dunbar, drafted No. 21. Dunbar was another bust, finished in three years.

Edgar Bennett was the only tailback from that class to hit the career 3,000-yard mark, rushing 3,992 in seven seasons. He was the Packers’ fourth-round pick. His quarterback made him better.

By 1994, Favre was a two-time Pro Bowler. He tossed one of the most memorable passes of his career, that 40-yard, cross-field strike to Sterling Sharpe, an impossible throw giving the Packers an improbable playoff win in Detroit.

Favre laid a foundation. Ascended. Marked his place in history.

Smith was a free agent. Done in Atlanta. On the day he left, Smith said, he cried.

“It was a bit devastating,” Smith said. “It really, really was.”

***

He reached the end of his NFL career, but Smith didn’t recognize it. A running back doesn’t give himself up. He has to be tackled.

After Atlanta, Smith had a fresh start. He was an original member of the Carolina Panthers, an expansion franchise in 1995. Smith entered training camp in the best shape of his life, he said. He had a starting job.

He just couldn’t afford to get injured in preseason.

So when Smith planted his right leg in Soldier Field’s thick grass, and his long spikes stuck, he found disaster. Smith snapped his tibia and fibula, a gruesome broken leg. His season was over.

“When they wrapped me up,” Smith remembered, “my foot stayed planted. The guys knew right then. They didn’t even pile on me, they didn’t do anything. They just laid me right down, because immediately when it snapped, I felt it and they heard it.

“That changed some things. After that injury, it scared me. I’d never had anything that major happen before, and it was just so devastating because I saw my ride as a starter at that time.”

Favre won his first of three straight MVPs in 1995. He was a rock star. The NFL’s best quarterback, if not its best player.

Smith watched on injured reserve. With his leg not quite healthy for 1996, the Panthers released him. He tried to revive his NFL career, playing in Canada with the Toronto Argonauts in 1998. Smith made the Philadelphia Eagles’ off-season roster in 1999.

In minicamp, Smith “popped” his hamstring. Another injury. Eagles coach Andy Reid released him May 4, a date he’ll never forget. Smith’s first child was born the same day.

Smith never would have retired voluntarily, he said. He needed the game stripped from him. Finally, in the spring of 1999, he was tackled.

“I was about as relieved as I had been in many, many years,” Smith said. “I was completely relieved. At some point you just have to know when your time has come. I knew then I was done.”

***

They never discussed how their careers crossed. Never reminisced. The last time Smith spoke with his college quarterback, he said, was 1992. Before Favre left Atlanta.

“It’s been a lot of years,” Smith said.

Resentment could’ve consumed him. The first time he heard the term “bust,” Smith said, it came from a friend. His buddy was watching one of those top 10 countdown shows. Smith made the cut.

Yes, Smith said, it was a tough label. Felt like that training camp beating all over again. In time, he learned to move on.

“I didn’t go into the game to be a bust on purpose,” Smith said. “Sometimes, things just work out that way, you know. That’s just what it was. Now, it’s no big deal to me at this point. I’ve outgrown it.”

Smith still lives in Charlotte, his last real NFL town. He still hosts youth football camps. Twenty-four years later, he remains the last Southern Mississippi player drafted in the first round.

Years ago, Smith’s neighbors were big Packers fans, the kind that hang flags outside their home. One day, he told them who he was. Explained his incidental role in the franchise’s resurrection.

“They were just floored,” Smith said. “They were Googling, trying to find out things, trying to see what’s what, and I was like, ‘You know what, I didn’t realize how significant this story is until I actually told the story.’ That’s when it really dawned on me. It’s pretty impactful.”

He doesn’t know where he’ll be Aug. 6. But he knows what he’ll be doing.

Somewhere, Tony Smith will find a television. He will watch the final piece of history unfold. Smith said he hadn’t thought about driving up to Canton, but wouldn’t that be fitting.

There is no resurrection without him. No Brett Favre in Green Bay. His career may be forgotten, but Smith’s footnote in Packers lore keeps growing.

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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