Bi-City players made their marks at Super Bowls

Gene Smith could not have imagined the trail he was blazing when he cashed his first paltry check as a professional football player, though 83 years later his name is largely forgotten.

But on Super Sunday when the world is celebrating professional football, Gene Smith's name ought to be mentioned.

Around here, the former Columbus High School lineman has the distinction of being the first local player to make it into the National Football League, and at the University of Georgia the squatty guard became the second Bulldog to play pro ball.

Smith was the first of 41 players from high schools in Columbus and Phenix City to play in the NFL, and there has been a local performer in 21 of the 47 Super Bowls.

In today's game, there isn't a hometown guy on the roster of either the San Francisco 49ers or the Baltimore Ravens, but Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw is from nearby Eufaula, Ala.

After all these years, Smith's name seldom comes up, but he was a true pioneer. In 1930, he played for two different teams in an NFL that was still in diapers and struggling to survive the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Google hasn't forgotten him. Do a search for him and you get a summary of his brief pro career. It says he was a 5-foot-9, 190-pound guard from Georgia. Visit ghsfha.org and the historic site for high school football in Georgia verifies he's from Columbus.

Little is known about Smith's career at Columbus High, where he played one season for Everett Strupper, a former Georgia Tech All-American. Strupper was remembered as the speedy half-back who scored a lot of the points in the Yellow Jackets' 222-0 win over Cumberland way back in 1916.

Smith was co-captain of the Blue Devils in 1922 and was voted the Best Boy Athlete in 1923. When he was a junior, the Blue Devils were 8-1 and claimed their first state title.

Wealthy Columbus businessman George "Kid" Woodruff was coaching the University of Georgia for $1 a year when Smith joined the Bulldogs. Smith was a starter for three years and was named to the All-Southern team in 1927. He was a member of the Bulldog team that upset Yale in New Haven and left with memories of defeating Auburn three straight years at Memorial Stadium back in Columbus.

There was no Super Bowl, no SportsCenter, no millionaire quarterbacks -- and linebackers weren't accused of taking performance enhancing drugs -- when the 190-pound guard joined the Frankford Yellow Jackets in Philadelphia, Pa.

Four years before he signed, Frankford won the league championship, but by the time Smith showed up in Pennsylvania, it was a team with a roster full of rookies and a bank account short on money.

Smith played one game with Frankford before he got a better offer from the Portsmouth Spartans -- a forerunner of today's Detroit Lions. The Green Bay Packers were sponsoring the franchise and it was the Spartans' first season in the NFL -- a fledgling league founded in 1920.

Bulldog teammate Tom Nash Sr. was an end for the Packers and the first Georgia player in the NFL.

Smith put on a leather helmet with the Ohio team for four games, leaving professional football after a five-game career. He died in 1979 in Atlanta and may have never realized that he was his old hometown's first NFL player.

Football's biggest stage

A former high school coach is impressed that 41 local guys have made it to football's biggest stage.

"I didn't know there were that many," Sammy Howard said. "That's an impressive number."

Howard has been around Bi-City football since he was a scatback at Central High in the 1950s. He knows that talent is not the only thing on the resume of the 41 who played in the NFL.

"It takes ability, that's for sure. Ability can overcome so many other things. But it also takes determination and luck. You can't look at a young player and predict how far he will go. I can think of so many young men who had the ability but were injured. That's where the luck comes in."

After winning a state championship in Mississippi, Howard was head coach at Hardaway High and Glenwood School. Later, he became president of CB&T of Russell County and served as mayor of Phenix City.

Only one of his former Glenwood players ended up in the NFL: punter Lewis Colbert of Glenwood, who spent three years with the Kansas City Chiefs.

At Hardaway, Howard coached wide receiver Robert Steele when the future Dallas Cowboy was a sophomore. "I never dreamed Robert would make it but he really matured as a junior and senior. That shows you can't always judge who will make it and who won't."

Steele, now a financial adviser in Atlanta, was a holder and special teams performer for the Cowboys in the 1978 Super Bowl.

Smith was not the only local player from the NFL's early years. Former Jordan High tackle Bob Davis played for the Boston Yanks in 1948. It was his only year of pro ball and the final season for the beleaguered franchise.

Davis, a member of the Georgia Tech football hall of fame, left the NFL for the textile business and served as mayor of Columbus in 1956.

Central-Phenix City has sent the most graduates into the NFL with nine, including current Red Devils head coach Woodrow Lowe.

That list does not include Mayor Eddie Lowe, the coach's little brother, who spent nearly a decade in the Canadian Football League. It does include Reggie Lowe, the mayor's son, who played a season with the Jaguars.

Carver High head coach Dell McGee spent a season in the NFL, but former Tiger coach Wallace Davis produced the most Super Bowl participants among local schools.

Davis tutored Nate Odomes of the Buffalo Bills and Brenston Buckner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers, along with Rod Hood of the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. That group does not include former Carver defensive back Daryll (DJ) Jones, who was on the Denver Broncos inactive roster for the 1987 game.

Among them, Odomes, Buckner and Hood played in eight different Super Bowls. Super Sundays are not among Odomes' favorite memories, though, because the Bills came up short in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993.

Of the 13 Bi-City players in past Super Bowls, only two have championship rings: Jordan's Chuck Hurston with Kansas City in 1969 and Spencer's Otis Sistrunk in 1976 with Oakland. Hurston did have the honor of being a starter in the very first Super Bowl in 1966.

Howard said fans should be proud that so many local players made it all the way to the pinnacle of the game.

"When people look at football players on the sideline they look like gladiators. They're wearing pretty uniforms and shiny helmets and thousands of people are in the stands.

"They don't realize what it takes to get to that moment," the former coach said. "That's especially true for the fellows who are fortunate enough to play professional football."