On July 24, a few hours from this writing, veteran Denver Broncos receiver Rod Smith will announce his retirement. His decision is hardly shocking. Indeed, ESPN calls the declaration a "formality," since Smith didn't play at all last season in the wake of hip surgery -- and his productivity had declined, at least from a yards-per-catch standpoint, in the couple of years prior to that. But even if Smith winds up staying with the team in some capacity (which is pretty likely, since he'd been offered the chance to serve as the receivers coach earlier this year), his on-field absence will sting, if only because his workmanlike attitude and relentless drive to make the most of his abilities served as an example to his fellow athletes, many of whom were more naturally gifted than he was.
Smith's story is inspirational in and of itself: He wasn't even drafted out of Missouri Southern, but as the aforementioned ESPN piece points out, he holds Broncos records for career receptions (849), yards receiving (11,389), touchdown catches (68), touchdowns (71) and 100-yard games (31). He's made a mistake or two along the way -- note a domestic violence accusation in 2000 that was mentioned in this June 27 blog -- but he's emerged as a genuine role model who didn't shy away from blistering his team when he could tell the squad wasn't playing to its potential. Moreover, he never exempted himself from such censure.
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If Smith becomes a Broncos coach, he'll be able to impart his philosophy to players like Brandon Marshall, whose abundant talents don't seem to include common sense -- but he can no longer do so with actions instead of words. Although players such as Champ Bailey and John Lynch have this ability, neither has exercised it with the gravitas and intensity that Smith demonstrated during his long and highly successful career. Let's hope either these two or someone else steps up -- because if they don't, the Broncos will have an even more difficult time transcending mediocrity during the 2008 campaign. -- Michael Roberts