Monday, December 8, 2008

Catching Up With Larry Smith

William Lawrence Smith -- better known as Larry Smith and a member of The Tampa Tribune’s All-Century Team -- helped lead the Robinson High School Knights to the state championship game in 1963. The powerful running back earned All-County, All-State and All-American recognition during his renowned prep career. He parlayed that success into stardom at the University of Florida, where he earned fame while recording 24 career rushing touchdowns and garnered All-SEC honors from 1966-68. A first-round selection in the 1969 draft by the Los Angeles Rams, Smith spent six seasons in the NFL playing for the Rams and Washington Redskins before calling it a career. Smith recently sat down to talk about the 45th anniversary of Robinson’s memorable run to the state championship game, and set the record straight about the most memorable play of his collegiate career.

Q. What was it like playing high school football in Tampa during the early 1960s?

A. It was a lot of fun. It was pretty much what everybody did around here on a Friday night. At that time, we didn’t yet have professional football. The University of Tampa was still a small college program. Friday night was a pretty exciting time for high school games during that period. As I recall for one of our home games that year, we had some 10,000 people in the stands. The stadium was completely sold out.

Q. Robinson was still a fairly new school in 1963, but that season it certainly eclipsed nearby Plant High School on the football field. How did it feel to emerge from Plant’s shadow?

A. Plant was a big rival, but we were far enough from the split that formed Robinson that we had started to develop our own identity. The rivalry was big a thing, but our focus was bigger. We wanted to try and win the state championship.

Q. In November 1963, the assassination of President Kennedy cast a terrible shadow over the season. What do you remember about that day and did you agree with the decision to play football games that weekend?

A. I just remember everyone had a sick feeling in their stomachs. We were playing Chamberlain High School that night. Clearly everyone on both teams felt impacted by the event.

Q. Can you describe what it was like to play for a legendary coach such as Holland Aplin at Robinson, and what it meant to your career?

A. I was very fortunate to play for a bunch of outstanding coaches. Holland Aplin was a terrific coach, and he also had a great staff. As players, we were lucky to have such good coaches. They were very innovative for the time. We threw the ball a lot and ran some unusual formations. We were a bit different than typical high school offenses of the day.

Q. Is there a teammate you had at Robinson who you look back on now and say, “I couldn’t have done it without him?”

A. Oh sure, that’s all of them. I think if you looked at us across the board as individuals, we really didn’t match up that well with other schools. As a unit, however, we really gelled and played well together. Everyone was very important to our success.

Q. What do you remember about the state championship game against Coral Gables?

A. It’s kind of a blur. As I mentioned, we never had more than 30 or 35 people dress out for a game. For the state championship, there was a rule that you could only dress out a certain number of players. Well, Coral Gables typically dressed out 100, so the fellas who couldn’t dress out for the game they let stand on the sidelines wearing their jerseys. They lined all the way down the field! It was quite an impressive sight. Their quarterback, Larry Rentz, had a big night, scored a couple of touchdowns. We came out on the short end of the stick losing on a late field goal, but oddly enough Larry ended up being my freshman roommate at the University of Florida. He was a good athlete and a good guy, so it worked out fine.

Q. After the game, was there some satisfaction at what you accomplished as a team, or was there a greater sense of disappointment?

A. I think we thought we should have won the game. They were much bigger than we were, and probably deeper talent-wise, but we fought hard and played hard. There was a controversial call at the end of the game that could have changed things, but that’s football.

Q. You were a junior that season, so you still had another year to play at Robinson. How did the team fare the following season?

A. We had great expectations and I think we lost two or three games. We didn’t click quite as well. Everyone on the 1963 team participated, played a big role, and we had a close team atmosphere. We lost a number of key players, like quarterback Randy Smith, and some team leaders, like Jimmy Smith, Mike Godwin, and Mike Wall. So I think it was a typical turnover on a high school team.

Q. From Robinson to Gainesville to the NFL, your career has been filled with memorable moments. What is the most common play or game people mention to you about your career?

A. Everyone comes up to me and says they remember when my pants fell down at the Orange Bowl in 1967. It didn’t happen, and if everyone was there who said they were there, it would have been an overflowing stadium. We were playing Georgia Tech at the Orange Bowl. It was Steve Spurrier’s senior year and he’d just won the Heisman Trophy. We were actually just trying to move the ball out from our goal line a little bit, but I got some good blocking and broke free for a 94-yard touchdown run. We used to wear those old fashioned plastic hips pads that were separate from the pants. My hip pads started slipping up as I was running down the field. This created the illusion that my pants were falling down. I got a lot of press over this and I still hear it today, but it never happened.

Q. Do you still follow Robinson football?

A. I do, and I only live a few blocks from where I grew up, though I’m in the Plant district now (laughs). I follow the local football scene petty carefully. Even though I don’t go to many games, I’m very interested in the outcomes.

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