How Tommie Smith went from the Olympics to the NFL

Tommie Smith
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When 1968 Olympic 200m champion Tommie Smith returned home from Mexico City, he had no job. He knew why.

“Because of the victory stand,” he said in the new documentary “With Drawn Arms,” which tells his story.

Smith, now 76, is best remembered for raising a black-gloved fist, along with bronze medalist John Carlos, on the medal stand. What happened in Smith’s life after that is just as much a part of the film and detailed in Peter King‘s “Football Morning in America” this week.

“The only job I could get was at All-American Pontiac,” in his home of San Jose, Calif., Smith said in the film.

A large sign in front of the dealership let visitors know they could meet the Olympic gold medalist. Smith put on a red bow tie and greeted them as if he was a salesman.

“But my job was detailing and washing cars,” Smith said. “I was there so people would come in and identify themselves with Tommie Smith. Then I would go back out in the back and continue washing cars.”

One day in 1969, Smith received a call from Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Walsh (who later built a Hall of Fame career guiding the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s). Walsh wanted to know if Smith would like to try out for the team.

Smith had been an elite football player, but that was several years earlier in high school. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Los Angeles Rams in 1967 — and went to a camp as a running back — but the club was just one of the organizations to pass on him after what happened at the Olympics, he said.

Smith took up Walsh on the Bengals’ offer.

“When I got to Cincinnati, first thing they did is introduced me to [Hall of Fame coach] Paul Brown and they took me to the field for a long pass, a streak, they called it then,” Smith told King. “I outran the ball. I didn’t know a lot about football.”

They signed him anyway.

“It was a job,” Smith said. “I made $300 a week.”

Smith played in two games that first season — the last season before the Bengals’ American Football League merged with the NFL — and caught one pass for 41 yards. He separated one of his shoulders on the play. Smith never played another regular season game, getting cut the next year after the preseason.

“The first day back in Cincinnati, when all the players were moving into apartments, I received a call the morning, as soon as my furniture came up,” Smith, one of 43 Olympians to play in the NFL, recalled to King. “It was Bill Walsh telling me that Paul Brown had let me go. I was there in a rented apartment with no money, with a car on empty in the gas tank.”

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