For most of his 14-year career with the Broncos, wide receiver Rod Smith simply watched Pat Bowlen from afar, noticing him on the sideline at practices but not really getting to know him. After all, Bowlen was the owner. Smith was a player.
“I’m always cautious of who’s the boss,” Smith said. “I’ve always been cautious of who’s running things. Pat always had this real mysterious-type presence, especially when I was younger.”
But as Smith’s career as a Bronco started to wind down, the wall between him and Bowlen began to fall. Smith began peppering his boss with questions — about the team, about running the franchise, about life.
The business relationship evolved into a friendship.
“The thing was,” Smith said, “he was paying attention the whole time. He watched me grow up in the organization he built.”
Throughout his career with the Broncos, in which he set franchise marks in receptions (849), receiving yards (11,389) and touchdown catches (68), Smith also earned three Pro Bowl appearances. He was a starter on the Broncos’ two Super Bowl-winning teams, in 1997 and 1998. He was inducted in the team’s Ring of Fame in 2012.
But one of his fondest NFL memories doesn’t involve a ring or a trophy or any kind of personal accolade. It involves Bowlen. And it came after Smith retired.
“I was over there watching practice one day and, I can’t remember who it was, but he came over and said, ‘Hey, man, Pat wants to see you in his office,’ ” Smith recounted. “I had been retired for a couple years at that point, so when I hear Pat wants to see me in his office, I’m like ‘Ah, man, what’d I do?’ I’m scared walking up there, like I’m going to the principal’s office.
“We sat there for like 45 minutes just talking about life and kids and the team. It was the coolest 45 minutes. That will always be one of my fondest memories in the NFL, sitting down with the owner of the Broncos, having a family conversation.”
Smith played his entire career with the Broncos. In talking to other players throughout the league, he learned how unusual Bowlen was in his approach to the job and the team.
“The owner usually only shows up when there’s a problem,” Smith said. “Pat was always around, but he’d let you do your job. He let Coach (Mike) Shanahan coach the team. He let John Elway do his thing. To me, that’s what made the organization great, because the owner isn’t in the way. He’s not in the spotlight, but he makes sure things got taken care of.”
Even in retirement, Smith has found the Broncos have ensured the focus stays on the players. The alumni, he said, are regarded as family.
“I honestly believe I’m living the way I am right now because of that man and the way he handled things,” Smith said.
Cowboys backup running back Rod Smith made a name for himself during Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension in 2017. Here are 10 things to know about the Cowboys’ backup running back.
Rod Smith was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on Jan. 10, 1992. He starred at Fort Wayne’s Paul Harding High, rushing for 6,625 yards and 66 touchdowns to earn All-State honors. He then played for Ohio State and bounced around NFL rosters, joining the Cowboys in October 2015 after the Seahawks waived him. Seattle had initially signed Smith as an undrafted free agent on May 2, 2015.
Rod’s younger brother Jaylon Smith plays linebacker for the Cowboys, you might have heard. Smith’s dramatic knee injury in Notre Dame’s bowl game dropped him from a top pick to the Cowboys’ second rounder in 2016. As he worked his entire year for his nerve to regenerate, Jaylon received much press. All along, Rod flew under the radar.
“We understood it was going to be possible when Jerry [Jones] called me that night [of the draft], but for it to really happen, it’s a great feeling,” Rod said of playing with his brother.
Smith didn’t get much playing time in his first two years as an NFL player, or even in much of this year. He carried the ball 23 times for 99 yards in his first 28 games. But the last three games, he’s exploded. Beginning with the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving loss to the Chargers, Smith has four touchdowns in three games. He’s carried the ball 24 times for 115 yards averaging 4.6 yards a carry.
“I was stoked, super excited for him, happy for him, proud of him,” Jaylon told him after his first career TD. “That’s what I told him when he came to the sideline. He’s worked so hard, he’s been through so much, he’s always kept his eyes on the prize.”
Here’s a look back at that push:
Rod has been with the Cowboys – at least on the practice squad – since October 2015, before the Cowboys took Zeke with the fourth pick overall in 2016. But the two running backs’ team bonds date back further. Smith played for Ohio State from 2011-14, with Elliott joining the team in 2013.
Zeke was exuberant on Twitter after Smith’s two touchdowns against the Giants, tweeting “BOOBIE !” first followed by an explanation. He also tweeted “LET HIM SPINNNN!”
Smith’s response, per SportsDay Cowboys insider Kate Hairopoulos: “Can’t wait til you get back, brother. Just waiting on you. I know you ready, let’s do it.
Smith played four full seasons at running back, totaling 549 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground plus another 94 yards and two scores in the passing game. But he also ran into trouble as a Buckeye. Per an Oct. 2014 article in The Columbus Dispatch, Smith was kicked off the team for failing a drug test. He’d already missed much of spring practice for academic issues but, the article said, he “worked his way back into good graces this summer. Coaches had praised his maturation and described him as a leader among the running backs.”
When Elliott began dominating the offense at Ohio State, Smith began making more of his name on special teams — something he’d continue to do in the NFL.
“Rod’s getting experience,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said the Monday after Smith’s first career TD. “He hasn’t played a lot. He’s really coming along as a running back in his pro career at times and he was pretty raw coming out of college.”
Linehan said Smith has become effective not just in the run game but also on third downs and in pass protection. Throw in special teams, and he’s contributing to the roster meaningfully.
“He’s a good matchup in the pass protection game, has good hands and a nice feel of the passing game,” Linehan said. “So his experience that he’s getting is on the job. He was doing a little bit of that for us when he was below Zeke but now he’s got kind of a full-time role.”
Smith set an NFL record in the Cowboys’ 30-10 victory over the Giants. He became the first player in league history with a touchdown reception for over 80 yards and a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter of a single game.
Smith has a pretty unique touchdown dance. After he scored a touchdown in Dallas’ 38-14 win over the Redskins, Smith laid down in the end zone and acted like he was taking a nap in the end zone with the ball as a pillow. Jaylon even wanted to get in on the fun.
The Cowboys had options at running back after Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension began. Many thought the team would split the reps at running back between Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden. The Cowboys ended up going with Smith over McFadden and never looked back after he scored his first career touchdown against the Chargers on Thanksgiving. McFadden was released a few days later.
“Rod is versatile,” Stephen Jones said during his regular radio interview with 105.3 The Fan’s G-BAG Nation. “He obviously brings some explosiveness back there. He also catches the ball well out of the backfield, has some speed, and then of course he has the dimension the other two don’t have, which is he’s a really good special-teams player playing his role.
Smith wasn’t always a running back for the Cowboys. The team tried to move him to fullback early in his career. Dallas even cut Smith midway through the 2016 season.