Force was with Chiefs


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Jan 22, 2006
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Force was with Chiefs
Neil Smith, who will enter team’s Hall of Fame, created havoc
The Kansas City Star

If Chiefs football from the first half of the 1990s could be reduced to its essence, what’s left would be third down and long.

Such situations were to be savored. Everyone was aware of what awaited. A race to the quarterback, Derrick Thomas from one side and Neil Smith from the other.

“We changed the way the game was going to be played,” Smith said. “The quarterback can’t sit back there and hold the ball. Somebody was going to get you.”

Smith was the one to get there first almost as often as Thomas. He finished his Chiefs career second on the club’s all-time sack list behind the late Thomas.

He was recognized for those contributions at the annual 101 banquet Saturday night at the Westin Crown Center hotel when owner Lamar Hunt introduced Smith as this year’s entrant to the Chiefs Hall of Fame.

“We’ve never had anything like them with the Chiefs,” Hunt said in a recent interview. “And we had the privilege of watching them game after game for a lot of years.”

Playing in the sometimes considerable shadow of Thomas, Smith was a considerable force in his own right during his nine-year Chiefs career that ended in 1996. Smith is not only second in sacks with 86, but he led the league in 1993 with 15. He played five times in the Pro Bowl.

Smith’s long, angular body was built for pass rushing and general disruption. His long arms and huge wingspan made Smith a premier player in the arts of batting passes, causing fumbles and blocking kicks.

Together with Thomas and others, Smith began in 1989 an era of Chiefs popularity in Kansas City that has yet to end.

The Chiefs thought in early 1997 that Smith was on the decline, so they released him. He proved that to be a mistaken notion by playing three seasons with Denver, where he helped the Broncos to two Super Bowl titles, and one with San Diego.

Through it all, Smith never lost his love for Kansas City or the Chiefs. He maintained his home in Blue Springs and his interest in Copeland’s, an Overland Park restaurant.

Today, Smith is part-owner of the Arena Football League’s Kansas City Brigade. He occupies an office at the Brigade’s administrative headquarters in Merriam on Shawnee Mission Parkway.

His second-floor office is obvious to passers-by. It’s the one with the large red Nebraska flag in the window.

It was in that office on a recent afternoon that Smith talked about the significance of entering the Chiefs Hall of Fame. “It didn’t become a goal for me until Derrick Thomas got here,” said Smith, who joined the Chiefs in 1988, a year before Thomas. “When he walked in, he said, ‘Homes — he would call me Homes and he would call me Smitty — we’re going to be up there on that (Arrowhead Stadium) wall together.’ That’s when I started to think that we could do some good things and it might happen.”

Thomas entered the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2001, less than a year after his death. It then became only a matter of time for Smith.

‘They complemented one another extremely well,” former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “It was hard for people to be able to protect against both Neil and Derrick. They kind of fed off one another. There was always this competition between them, which was excellent for us and for them.

“Everybody always thought of Neil as a pass rusher, but he played the run pretty well. I always thought he never got the credit that he deserved for that part of the game.”

For a time in the early ’90s, Smith’s sack numbers matched those of the other top pass rushers, including Thomas.

“Bruce Smith was as quick as a cat,” said former Chiefs offensive tackle John Alt, who frequently practiced against Neil Smith. “Lawrence Taylor was unbelievable coming off the edge. Reggie White had the great rip move. I don’t think Neil had any one thing you had to watch for. He had a little bit of everything, and he used it well.”

Smith may not have had the signature move in the pass rush, but he had several elsewhere. His post-sack, celebratory golf swing — it later evolved into a baseball swing — sent the Arrowhead crowd into a fervor.

He carried a distinctive game-day look late in his career by wearing a Band-Aid across his nose, a move mimicked by plenty of Chiefs fans. His pre-snap flinch move, designed to get the opposing lineman out of his stance prematurely, worked so well that the NFL eventually legislated against it with what is known as the Neil Smith rule.

Smith’s one regret is that he didn’t get to finish his career with the Chiefs.

Smith admitted to conflicting emotions after he and his Broncos beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead in a titanic playoff struggle after the 1997 season.

“I went over to the (Chiefs) locker room after the game,” Smith said. “There was a lot of disappointment. Guys were sitting in there hurt, destroyed. I was hurting a little bit. Those were my friends.”

Those wounds have mostly healed now, but they were deep at the time. After beating the Chiefs in the playoffs, Smith and the Broncos went to Pittsburgh for the AFC championship game against the Steelers.

Immediately after the game, a Denver victory, Smith spotted a familiar Kansas City reporter and gleefully shouted, “Ask Marty what he thinks of me now.”

“That was the most (painful) thing that happened in my career. Marty told me he really thought my career was at the end. He thought I had already peaked and my better years were behind me.”

Today, Hunt shared the regret.

“The only thing I’m sorry about is that he got a Super Bowl ring with Denver and didn’t get one for the Chiefs,” Hunt said. “He’s proud of those two rings but I think in his heart, he really believes in red and gold.”
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