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Friday January 25, 2013

Wild 'Grizzly' bore a heavy cross

Carrying the scars of racism and a broken home, tempestuous CFL lineman and real estate mogul quenched his rage with religion

Special to The Globe and Mail

Reformed badass Bruce Smith, CFL lineman and defensive captain of the Toronto Argonauts from 1976 to 1979, wrote the following in his self-published memoir: "The seeds from fatherlessness, planted in my youth, produced ugly fruits of anger, hostility, cruelty, greed and unforgiveness." He later wrote, "I finally discovered what I had really longed for and that was peace, a sense of purpose and joy." Bruce Smith died on Jan. 3 in Toronto of pancreatic cancer. He was 63.

Even in boyhood, the former football star was big and strong. Smith eventually grew to be 6 feet 2 inches and 235 pounds of explosive rage, the camouflage for his deep well of shame and inferiority. A self-described bully, he was known as "Grizzly" by teammates in Hamilton, Edmonton and Toronto.

Aggression served Smith well on the football field. It didn't serve him well in life. It wasn't until 1994 when Smith got to the root of his anger and sought spiritual help that he reformed. In 2000, he became a chaplain at King-Bay Chaplaincy, a free Christian-based counselling service for anyone in need of help and a friendly ear. Tom Caldwell of Caldwell Securities, and Chair of the Chaplaincy, says Smith was extremely good at it.

"When people asked me about Bruce's background I'd tell them he used to be a captain of the Toronto Argonauts so he's used to being around depressed people," jokes Caldwell. "He was the type of empathetic person that, if you had a problem, he'd make it his problem. I've never met a more selfless person in my life."

Robert Bruce Smith was born in 1949 in Gainesville, in southern Texas. Strict segregationist policy was in full force. Black people were buried in separate cemeteries, could drink only from fountains marked "coloured" and weren't allowed to swim in the same pools as whites. For black people, eating in a restaurant or riding a bus meant a seat at the back. Failure to comply could result in a beating, jail time, or even death.

Smith's father, William Smith, a labourer who served in the U.S. Army, deserted his young family to find employment in California. His mother, Dorothy, supported her three children by sewing and taking care of a white family. One of the perks of the job was that his mother could bring home hand-me-down clothes and leftover food.

As the middle child, with an older brother and sister, and eventually two younger siblings, Smith received attention mostly for getting in trouble. Smith's mother was loving but strict; transgressions were met by a whipping with a belt, or whatever was handy. Later in life, on a football scholarship to the University of Colorado, Smith reflected back on a time when he was selling drugs, carrying a handgun, fighting and womanizing. "Mamma would have killed me if she knew what I was doing. The coaches could have solved a lot of the problems with the black players by just bringing in our mothers," he wrote in his memoir.

When Smith was 11, his mother remarried a man named Ernest Smith and the family moved to Huntsville, Tex. It was a happy coincidence they shared the same last name and a source of pride for Bruce since it now appeared to the world he had a real father. Ernest Smith was a hard-working man who had difficulty showing affection. Hard on his stepsons, he required them to assist him hauling hay, and lifting logs before they began their school day. Naturally strong, Bruce developed massive muscles.

"I found myself staring at my giant biceps in the mirror, wondering if I could make some extra scratch by charging people to touch them or letting them take a picture of me."

Keen on football from the age of six, it was natural Smith should play for his high school. Girls found him irresistible. Bruce's sister Peggy teased him: "I said, 'Bruce. Just who do they think you are? He said, 'I don't know. But I like it.'"

The offer of a scholarship to Colorado State University arrived in 1967. Uncomfortable on the mostly white campus, Smith says he and a few other black players stuck out like "black-eyed peas in a pot of white rice." Integration being a new phenomenon, they quickly realized they represented a form of tokenism. Smith was often sidelined.

"They weren't just looking for black players who were great athletes but for black players who would fit a certain norm, guys who were well-mannered and well-muscled, black guys who would know their place and whom they should and shouldn't date."

Rebellious and angry to find himself once more dealing with racism, Smith began acting out, showing up late for practice or not at all. He was considered moody and unmanageable - in short, a troublemaker. Finally, in his junior year, Smith had an awakening. He realized he was blowing his chances of ever getting into the NFL. He made a conscious effort to work harder but his negative reputation preceded him. He tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles but the NFL never called. Canada and the CFL did.

"Going to Canada was the furthest thing from my mind," Smith said. "No kid growing up watching the NFL dreams of going to Canada to play football. For me this was like going to the North Pole. When I thought of Canada, I thought of Eskimos on dog sleds."

Smith planned to establish himself and eventually make his way back to the NFL. He arrived in Hamilton to play for the Tiger-Cats wearing a winter coat and tuque. The temperature that day was 32 C. By the end of 1972, his rookie year, he was wearing a Grey Cup ring.

Smith played briefly for Ottawa and Edmonton before becoming an Argonaut in 1976. Wearing No. 61, Smith played 44 games before retiring in 1979. Thirty years old, Smith had to find a new direction.

Seeing how much money could be made in real estate, Smith surprised his former teammates, and himself, by becoming hugely successful at it. He worked for a major real estate company, where he was regularly their top salesman. In 1987, he started his own business, Bruce Smith Realty.

By 1988, $20,000 shopping sprees were commonplace. Expensive cars, flashy watches, one for every day of the week, and a full-length otter coat were his accoutrements.

Although he was outwardly successful, inner rage threatened to consume him. Anyone who crossed him had to be paid back, including drivers who cut him off. Smith says he took road rage to a whole new level, chasing people until he caught them, yanking off their windshield wipers and kicking in car windows. One incident resulted in a high-speed chase up Yonge Street with Smith rear-ending the car he was chasing. Smith was charged with assault with a car.

By 1992, Smith had two children, Courtney and Coby, with his wife, Shirley Somers. As long as he was providing, he felt that was sufficient in the way of being a husband and father. His weight ballooned to 300 pounds. He said he was always eating but never full.

"I had spent over 25 years feeling sorry for myself, defending myself, indulging myself, promoting myself and being full of myself, yet something was still missing."

Smith set out to find the missing piece, exploring self-help books and meditating. He resumed going to church and eventually realized what was missing from his life: forgiveness. He forgave his father. He forgave his stepfather. He forgave the racist insults that scarred him.

On New Year's Eve in 1994, he was baptized at Revival Times Church in Toronto and eventually became an ordained minister. Smith began speaking at schools, reaching out to inspire unfortunate kids, particularly those like him who had grown up without a father. Phil Kershaw, a former CFL chairman who co-authored Smith's memoir Our Father, sums up Smith's transformation this way: "He went from being a grizzly bear to a cuddly bear."

Saturday, January 26, 2013


An obituary Friday on Bruce Smith misspelled his daughter's name as Courtney. In fact, her name is Courtne.

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