Long before Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem during mundane NFL games, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised one black glove-covered fist in the air during the medal ceremony of the 200-meter sprint event at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Smith finished first in the event and Carlos finished third, giving the U.S.A. a majority share on the podium over the sovereign world, but nobody seemed to care about that as much as how they used their platform.
Both American sprinters were immediately booted off of the Olympic team and essentially excommunicated from international competition. They sacrificed their careers for the sake of standing up to racial injustice. They were vilified for their actions, and as a result, were entering the primes of their lives with no opportunities ahead of them.
For Smith, an opportunity did open up in another sport.
A year before the 1968 games, Smith was a ninth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Rams as a wide receiver. Given his history at the position and clear athletic talent, the Cincinnati Bengals took a chance on the gold medalist in 1969, a full year after the track and field world turned its back on him. In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Smith recounted that Bill Walsh, the team’s receivers coach at the time, was the catalyst for the Bengals signing Smith.
“The Bengals took me from nothing and made me realize that I can’t feel sorry for myself because I’m broke,” Smith said. “That’s a Bill Walsh-type attitude. He’s the guy for me at the Bengals that stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘you got to do for yourself. Let me show you how.’ I know he worked hard to keep me there because I wasn’t doing the team any good.”
Smith’s bluntness is reflected in his one receptions in just two games played, but the reception did go for 41 yards.
For a team entering its second year in existence, Smith was the definition of a low-risk football acquisition. The perceived risk came in the form of fan backlash, which never came according to current owner and president Mike Brown.
“I don’t have any recollection of anyone confronting him, or us,” Mike Brown said in a 2018 interview. “Letters didn’t come in. It was treated respectfully.”
That Smith’s football career didn’t amount to anything only compounds on the shame of how his Olympic career ended. But for Walsh to try and revive his athletic career only boosts his already legendary legacy.