Bruce Smith’s number, 54, became the first officially removed from the roster in 1977.**
December 9, 1941
Halfback Bruce Smith (1920-1967), a college football sensation, becomes Minnesota’s first and only Heisman Trophy winner, then goes to Hollywood to play himself in the film Smith of Minnesota.
Smith was born in Faribault, Minnesota, where he excelled in high school football under the legendary football coach Win Brockmeyer. He then attended the University of Minnesota where he played halfback for the back-to-back national champion Gophers in 1940 and 1941. He received the Heisman two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.*
In 1910, the Minnesota Gophers lost the championship to Michigan 6-0. Tackle Lucius Smith, somehow, blamed himself for the loss. He vowed, allegedly, to have a son who would correct this wrong. Bruce Smith was that son. **
The following excerpt is an amplified account of his infamous “Run of the Century” from the Minneapolis Star Tribune written by Joe Christensen.
“That November battle for the Little Brown Jug needed no hype, pitting No. 2 Minnesota against No. 3 Michigan in Minneapolis. Eventual Heisman winner Tom Harmon threw a touchdown pass, giving the Wolverines the lead, and a crowd of 60,481 shivered beneath wind-swept rain.
“I just remember it was a wet day,” said Smith’s youngest sibling, June, who watched with her family at Memorial Stadium, where tickets cost $2.75 apiece.
Her brother’s No. 54 was barely visible with the mud. He stood in his leather helmet in the days before facemasks, a 6-foot, 195-pound force in Bierman’s single-wing offense.
On the play of the day, if not the century, Sonny Franck took the snap at Minnesota’s 20-yard line, heading right. Franck finished third in that year’s Heisman voting, so the Wolverines crashed toward him. But he quickly handed the ball to Smith on the reverse.
Smith hit the hole, jetted through two linebackers, and made a breathtaking cut left to avoid another tackle, sprinting the final 60 yards untouched. The Gophers held on for a 7-6 triumph.
“Some seven Michigan players took their shots at Bruce … yet he kept those hard-driving legs churning and scored,” Harmon later said. “It was a run that would have to be rated as one of the finest football has ever seen.”
Afterward, instead of hanging around campus to bask in the adulation, Smith followed his postgame ritual — jumping in the family car for the 50-mile drive south to Faribault.” ****
In effect, Bruce received the greatest honor in American college football, the Heisman Trophy, yet he contextualized the relevance of the sport in light of the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II.
“I think America will owe a great debt to the game of football when we finish this thing off,…”. “If 6 million American youngsters like myself are able to take it and come back for more … and fight hard for the honor of our schools, then likewise the same skills can be depended on when we have to fight like blazes to defend our country.” ***
Mr. Smith maintained a certain heroism at the end of his life also. Struck with cancer, he refused self-pity as he went from 200 to 90 pounds, but sought to encourage and pray with others in the same struggle. He made the rounds with Paulist Fr. William Cantwell who nominated Bruce for sainthood after his death on August 26, 1967. ****,*****
Holy One, the life story of Bruce Smith strikes the author with a sense of awe at his example of servant leadership. Throughout the Scriptures we find this archetype written in the lives of its’ authors. We see patriarchs who form and lead tribes because they have practiced following You in obscurity, total dependency, and want. We see the judges who are both human and erring, and yet reflect Your divinity in superhuman moments of brilliance. We see kings succeed because they continually revere and serve You, therefore, are equipped to rule equitably and wisely lead their nation. We see prophets whom You have broken and humiliated externally, often at the hands of their own foolish authorities, yet live as champions of Your conscience and unfailing love. What will You teach us today, Holy Spirit? What lessons are in the life of this amazing football player and human being for us today? How can this Heisman-winner lead us into rest and repentance?
We thank You for his example of redeeming his father’s sense of failure and shame. We freely confess that we sometimes want our kids to succeed for selfish motives. We should be feeding our kids’ souls regardless of outcomes, not them padding our fragile self-concepts. In spite of the motives of Lucius Smith, You allowed his son to succeed in almost the exact conditions where his father failed?! We thank You for this moment of triumph between father and son. Will You give us a passion for the success of our children like Lucius, but detach their lives from our vows, shame, and egos?
So often, heroism is defined in the blink of an eye. Perhaps this is why your Word constantly calls us to character training. The disciplined mind does not waste time in crisis, but instinctually has chosen beforehand how to respond. Maybe this is a part of Smith’s momentary greatness in his “Run of the Century”? His training overtook his consciousness so that he could simply be in the moment! We thank You that a few moments of his serendipitous action blessed his generation of Minnesotans; both on and off the field! We give You thanks for the supreme beauty of seeing a person being themselves; of fulfilling their purpose so completely that it looks easy! Will You help us remember, right now, this day, that no act of momentary greatness can surpass Easter: Your Passion, Your Crucifixion, and Your Resurrection! Will You inspire our youths’ in Minnesota to actively train their total beings so that they can intuitively and instantly respond with authority to moments of dilemma?
It’s notable that Smith, after this astounding battle against Michigan, responded to victory by just going home. He subtly demonstrates to us that a hero already has a life, and does not attempt to get life out of accomplishments. He defined his own success instead of success defining him. Lord, thanks for his example of fulfillment: he came, he saw, he won, and then he rested. Will You bless us to do the same? Will You help us to choose what success looks like to us, and to relax in it?
Eternal Father, Smith is beloved for many things, but another noteworthy attribute of his was a lifestyle of teamwork. He related to the Gophers as he related to the team of Minnesota as resident, and as a team member of the United States to the threat of World War II. He saw that the principals of winning a football game applied to our American team standing up to existential threats. Jesus, thank You that this young man practiced a lifestyle of teamwork. He saw the necessity to rally his neighbors the same way he rallied his team. He chose to believe that winning is possible, therefore, it is. Will You give the same sense of integration and encouragement to our team’s leaders both present and future?
Bright One, thank You for the light shone through the life of number 54. He realized some brilliant insights early in his walk. Conceivably, the greatest moral of this event in state history is that experiencing heroism makes one want to call out other heroes.
Even as he was dying, he sought opportunities to lift up his team to be cancer survivors. He went out under the spiritual authority of his elders, Father Cantwell, and under You!He wanted share Your heart, the heart of a champion; the heart of faith. Thank You for Bruce Smith and his life of faithful servant leadership! Thanks for Cantwell and the ministry of the Paulist Fathers to: reach out, bring peace, and seek unity. Will You release our generations to: live the same heroic life of faith, to choose our response before a trial, and to be prepared for momentary greatness? We really can win this game! Amen!
“But God gave him back to life, having made him free from the pains of death because it was not possible for him to be overcome by it.” Acts 2:24 BBE ******
* P.T.H. cites timeline formerly at this URL: mnhs.org/about/dipity_timeline.htm
The Minnesota Historical Society Web site, http://www.mnhs.org, is fantastic! Check it out! Images are from https://images.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl; again, an amazing resource!
*** Written by Joe Christensen for Minneapolis StarTribune, December 12, 2016. http://www.startribune.com/bruce-smith-among-the-greatest-gophers-lifted-a-heisman-trophy-and-american-spirits-75-years-ago/404527966/?refresh=true