Exclusive with Former Steelers Wide Receiver Dave Smith, 1970-1972

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First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with your time since you retired from the NFL?

I’m in Fairfax, Virginia now. I got involved in corporate marketing and sales engineering with the Dupont Company then with some multinational chemical companies. I spent nine-to-ten years in the advanced national technologies business. But after the meltdown of the strategic arms business I moved back east. I was originally from New York City and ended up in the tradeshow/exhibition marketing business. That was very successful until 9-11. That tanked the entire tradeshow marketing business.

I moved to the Washington, DC area and founded a medical device company. It’s a small start-up. We’re currently in clinical trials for a product that helps with thermoregulation.

I also spent time in broadcasting for a small station for a couple of years as well. And started the All-American Classic college game that pitted small college players that no one would have otherwise heard of against larger college players. We sent 105 players to the NFL that may have otherwise never have gone.

Any NFL guys come out of the game?

Justin Strelczyk was one of those guys. He was a defensive lineman in college but they needed offensive players for the game so one of the coaches pulled him aside and told him he’d teach him how to play offense in fifteen-minutes. Justin said he never played offense before then!

Erik Williams out of Central State was another guy. He told us he never learned to pass block in college, so we taught him how to do that in one of our camps and he ended up getting drafted in the third round.

Eric Swann too. One of the guys we knew who coached at Buffalo told us we needed to take a look at him. He never played in college and wasn’t allowed to play in any of the other college all-star games. But he said since we were a renegade game we could play him there. We brought him in and he and Williams went at it all week. He ended up being a first round draft pick.

Unfortunately we were so successful the college all-star games shut us down. They were threatened by us and told the players they shouldn’t play for us.

So to your college career – you were a very good basketball as well as football player. Why did you choose football?

I played football, basketball, and baseball in high school and college. I was too short to play basketball though. I was a 6’2″ center. So there was no future there. I was aggressive on the boards .I grew up in New York City so that’s how you are there.

Football really chose me. I found out the Steelers drafted me on the second day of the draft after I was ready to go to Fordham Law School. I had an evening job lined up at a settlement house run by nuns. I was ready for law school.

All the teams before the draft told me I was going to be a high draft pick. After the first day I figured it wasn’t going to happen and I looked towards getting my law degree. I was quite surprised when the Steelers called me.

What did they tell you?

Noll said I was the best bargain they ever had. Later on after I retired I began working on a documentary about my college mentor and interviewed Art Rooney Jr. He said. “Dave, I want to tell you. I did all I could then to keep you  a secret. I hoped no one would take you!” I told him “Thanks Artie. You cost me a whole bunch of money!” He said when he watched me play at IUP he thought I should have played at USC or Notre Dame.

It was quite a good tactic. They did quite a bit of that – getting good wide receivers in the draft no one ever heard of.

You started there at the same time as Chuck Noll. What were your first impressions of him?

He had an absolute intelligence. Absolute brilliance. He had the ability to have this multiple intelligence. He could communicate with all kinds of players no matter their backgrounds.

He was extremely understated and soft-spoken. That was a great contrast to me. At the time I brought a lot of New York with me to Western PA!

In fact I went back in 1981 to camp with some guys from Dupont to show them a practice. I starting talking with the Chief and he said “Dave, you were never a bad fellow. You were just ahead of your time.” He was exactly right.

What did he mean by that?

There were many things I did then that weren’t done by players. I refused to wear the standard black shoes. I would wear white shoes. I just went against conventions then.

Let me put it this way. I spoke my mind. I had a bad incident on a Monday Night football game versus Kansas City,  It was a big catch and I was running towards the endzone and as I got near the goal line I raised the ball above my head but slipped and the ball slipped out of my hands and bolted out of the endzone. Johnny Carson made that a big thing on TV.

I had beaten Emmitt Thomas on the play. He actually is the one that later convinced Kansas City to sign me after Pittsburgh. Anyway, after the play I had to walk by the Kansas City bench then Pittsburgh players. They were all on the same side then. I walked by Chuck and he gave me a wry smile. “Do you think you can get us another one?” he asked me. I said I would get him another before the night was out.

Chuck never raised his voice or cursed. He never looked like he lost control. He was like a general. Playing for guys like that makes you feel like you can do anything. He used to talk to me about law school when I was going to school at Duquesne at night during my time in Pittsburgh.

Any funny moments you remember from your time there?

I remember as a rookie being chosen as a player rep. They used to call me the Locker Room Lawyer. That’s something the media in Pittsburgh jumped on.

I always joked in the locker room. One day I went too far with Preston Pearson and he came after me with a baseball bat. We used to practice with the Pirates then on the same field. One of the guys dared me to say something to Preston and I did and he came after me. I told him, “Preston, hold off on that bat. Let me go get some insurance first before you break my knees, I’ll make more from insurance than I will if I play!’ Everyone laughed. I never really took him seriously. He was always bothered about me and the way I was there.

I also remember going to play putt putt golf in Latrobe. I knew the area well then and took some of the players there. We’d gamble on par three. One time Joe Greene missed a two-foot putt. I was yelling at him about which way to hit it – which way the ball would break. I called him a big dummy and he took the club and tore the green up. I felt bad. I knew the owner and brought those guys in!

I also never sang as a rookie. I went against that tradition. I told them to sing! What mattered to me was what we did on the field. I was seriously trying to make the team. St. Vincent was my backyard.

What happened in 1972 that caused you to be traded after coming off a very good season?

In 1972 I was awarded the Dapper Dan award. At the time my contract didn’t have me making more than $17,000 and there was no free agency in those days. I was locked into the contract and was a frustrated barrister and felt the contract was unconscionable.

They gave me a beautiful plate at the ceremony. When I spoke I said this is a beautiful platter and award, but I’d rather be a free agent. The media took that as a rebuttal of Pittsburgh. Like I didn’t want to be in Pittsburgh. That was hardly the truth. The media went on the attack. Like, who did I think I was?

What I meant was strictly from the monetary standpoint. I learned then that if you don’t start your career at a certain level, if you start off at a low number you’ll always be underpaid. I was locked into a contract I thought I’d never get out of.

The next thing I knew I was traded at the last minute. Lionel Taylor was my wide receivers coach then and he said I got railroaded. They sent me to Houston! Texas was like a developing world. The players had no pride in the way they played. Most had losing attitudes. It was night and day from Pittsburgh.

I realized then that what I said doomed my career. At the pinnacle of my success too.

What happened then?

I was grateful for the experience. But after that the league essentially blackballed me. Sid Gilman told me I’d either play for them or nowhere else. I had gotten an agent – Tony Rozano. He told me I deserved more money and said I should sit out training camp. I asked if he was sure and he said yes. So I sat out camp and Gilman fined me for every day I sat out. I finally showed up, and at the end of each preseason game he wouldn’t let me play in, he’d hand me a check for $0.00.

He told me after that he would send me home. I waited but didn’t hear anything. I wasn’t sure if he was giving me a pink slip, put me on waivers, or what. After a while I started calling teams and they all told me they never heard of me. I knew what was happening then…

It was a dark time for me. I had trouble paying my mortgage and had no idea what I was going to do next. Then Chuck Cooper – the first Black player in the NBA – he got me a job working with young people and that got me started again. I became a citizen instead of a gladiator.

What advice would you give now to kids entering the NFL today?

Get disability insurance, number one! Second, don’t trust agents. And learn to read a balance sheet. Remember family comes first. Leave people who can’t help you – the people who just want to hang on – leave them behind. And treat your first day on the job like it’s your last. Plan for it.

I’m extremely grateful to Chuck Klausing – my college coach and mentor. When I first met him I was ready to go play basketball at Temple. I had a terrible experience at Waynesburg College. He had me transfer to IUP. And to Mr. Francona – the ref then who introduced me to him and told me I needed to get out of Waynesburg.

I’m also grateful to the Rooney family for understanding me and helping me progress as a human being.

Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades To order, just click on the book:

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