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An inspiration to us all

GRANT'S TOMB:

February 09, 2001|By CHRIS GRANT, Sports Editor

One of the most refreshing things I have ever seen in sports has to be Minnesota Viking Robert Smith's announcement that he would retire.

Smith, one of the NFL's great backs, will walk away from the game at the age of 28. He has sustained injuries, but none so severe as to force him to retire. He is coming off a career season and he is an unrestricted free agent. Thus, if he wanted to, he could get paid.

However, he has chosen a different path and I think that is what makes this all seem so important. He has eschewed millions of dollars in hopes of finding personal satisfaction.

This isn't supposed to be the way things work. Athletes today are supposed to take as much money as they possibly can and play for as long as they possibly can to get even more of that money. They are supposed to be living the American dream and getting paid handsomely to do it.

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But not Robert Smith.

Yes, he did live the dream. He lived it quite nicely for seven seasons and he lived it well. He scored 32 touchdowns in his career and he led the NFL in rushing last season. But he obviously wanted more than the fame and money the NFL offered him, he wanted personal satisfaction.

Smith has not been specific as to where this satisfaction will come from. There is speculation he will attend medical school, but that doesn't really matter. For whatever he does, he will be doing what he wants to do and that is what's most important.

A few years back Detroit Lion running back Barry Sanders left the NFL after another successful campaign, and some have tried to compare his departure to Smith's. But I think they've missed the point. Smith left to pursue other options. Sanders left because he didn't like his coach (Bobby Ross).

There is no similarity between the two other than they left at the top of their respective games. Sanders was an example of the spoiled athlete. He tried hard to get out of his Detroit Lions contract and latch onto another team, but he couldn't. Smith, on the other hand, could play for any team he wanted to. He simply doesn't want to.

This brings me to another point, and that point is knowing when to give up. I remember when I was a kid I had a football card of NFL great Johnny Unitas and he was wearing a San Diego Chargers' uniform. Well, I knew a bit about football lore, thus I knew that the aforementioned Unitas played his ball for the Colts. So I took that card to my father and asked him if it was some sort of mistake. He told me no, that Unitas had indeed spent time with the Chargers. Well, I felt this to be a bit of a sham, Johnny Unitas a Charger, that can't be right.

As I've grown I realized it wasn't right. Unitas was just hanging on, trying to capture a bit of the glory he had taken in his youth. And this is not the way any premier athlete should be remembered. Who wants to think of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing in his final seasons with the Lakers? That wasn't the Kareem everyone knew and feared (or loathed, take your pick). No, it was simply a used-up old carcass masquerading as the NBA's all-time leading scorer.

There's no way Kareem ever wanted to be thought of that way. Now Robert Smith has guaranteed that he won't ever be viewed with such disregard. He has made sure that in the mind of every fan who ever watched him break a 75-yard touchdown romp he will always be capable of just such feats.

So let me just say kudos to Robert Smith. It seems as if we hardly knew you. But what we did know should be marveled at, especially the final run of your NFL career.

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