Toiling on the defensive side of the field throughout his professional football career, Dennis Smith didn’t touch the ball very often. He managed 30 interceptions during his years in the NFL, all with the Denver Broncos, but the balls he caught were never intended for him.
Last Friday at his alma mater, he didn’t have to make a standout play to end up with the ball in his hands.
Smith, who played in three Super Bowl games, was presented with a shiny golden football during an assembly at Santa Monica High School to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NFL’s championship game and three Vikings athletes who have participated in it over the years. Dennis Thurman and Mel Kaufman also forged paths from Samohi to the Super Bowl.
“They were all in school in the early to mid-’70s, they all played on the defensive side of the ball and they became the progenitors of the defense and defensive success that carried us through the ’70s and’ 80s,” former Vikings football coach Tebb Kusserow said.
Thurman, a 1974 alumnus who was a three-year varsity starter in football, continued his career at USC and was named an All-American twice before being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. He logged 36 interceptions as a pro and recovered an onside kick in Super Bowl XIII. He is currently the defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills.
Kaufman, an all-CIF linebacker who graduated from Samohi in 1976, helped Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo win a national championship in 1980. He was signed by Washington as an undrafted free agent and played in three Super Bowl games (XVII, XVIII and XXII) during his eight-year career. He died of hemorrhagic pancreatitis at the age of 50.
Giving the assembly’s keynote speech was Smith, a four-time All-Pro selection and six-time Pro Bowl honoree who played in three Super Bowls (XXI, XXII and XXIV) as a member of the Denver Broncos after a standout career at USC.
Before that, Smith was an outstanding defensive back at Samohi who was named the CIF Southern Section’s co-player of the year as a senior in 1976.
“What an amazing person he was when he was on campus,” Kusserow said. “It just gives me so much happiness for you to meet him.”
Smith made sure to dilute the cascade of superlatives, sharing a story about the time he and some high school friends came up with a foolish plan to steal donuts from a display rack at the entrance of a liquor store on Pico Boulevard.
Smith said he agreed to conceal the stolen pastries in his jacket pockets and that he probably wouldn’t have been caught, but he panicked afterward when he saw a police car pull up to a nearby crosswalk. The stolen goods were discovered when he illegally crossed the street behind the police car. He ended up briefly in jail.
“That was me without a plan,” he said. “So, have a plan.”
Smith, whose mother and sisters also went to Samohi, said he was late to school “every day” despite living a couple blocks from campus.
He loved running as a youngster and was one of the fastest kids in the area in the 50-yard dash, and he said he was humbled when he finished last in a 100-yard race.
“I hated losing more than I loved winning,” he said. “I was devastated. A normal person would say, ‘OK, I lost. I’ll get ’em next time.’ Not me. You know what I did? I never ran competitive track again. … It took me a long time to get over that.”
Smith said he got serious about football after receiving some recruiting letters from colleges.
“Find out what you’re good at … and put all your eggs in that basket, or cart, and ride until the wheels fall off,” he said. “I don’t think you can be great at anything if you try to do everything.”
Smith said the work ethic that helped him reach the pros and play in the Super Bowl was developed during his time at Samohi.
“I never remember Coach Kusserow telling us on Monday, ‘Fellas, it’s a big game this week. We really need to win. See you Friday,’” Smith said. “No. You’ve got to practice, plan and prepare for a game in order to be successful.”