CFL all-star defied the odds
A natural athlete, he was drafted by the Ottawa Rough Riders despite having little football experience
Having never played high school or college football, Wayne Smith defied the odds and went on to become a CFL defensive all-star during his 12-year career in professional football.
In 1969, at the age of 19, Mr. Smith joined the Ottawa Rough Riders with little more than ambition and raw athletic talent. His only experience was playing briefly for a small football team in his hometown of Halifax. But Mr. Smith, who died in his sleep at his Halifax home on Nov. 27 at the age of 66, after suffering complications from diabetes, would quickly establish himself as a quick, ambitious force within the league, playing for five teams and winning two Grey Cups.
“He was something special,” said Jim Foley, an award-winning slotback who played with the Ottawa Rough Riders in the 1970s.
“He had all the right instincts. He was fast, he was quick, but he was also strong.”
At 6 foot 4 and about 230 pounds, Mr. Smith was part of the Ottawa Rough Riders’ rugged fiveman defensive line widely known as the “capital punishment.”
“The defence was punishing,” Mr. Foley said. “The defence is what carried us in the Grey Cup in ’73.”
Born on Jan. 24, 1950, in Halifax, Wayne Dennis Smith was the middle of three children to Jahalia and Gerald Smith. His father was a merchant seaman and later worked for Canada Post, and his mother cleaned homes. With lots of extended family nearby, Mr. Smith described his childhood, in Halifax’s North End community, as idyllic.
“There were lots of fields to play on, the Y was close by, we had bantam and midget hockey and ball. We could go swimming in the ocean and fishing off the wharf. I had an ideal boyhood,” he told the Montreal Gazette in 1975.
To keep fit during his teens, he would often run around the Halifax Common, a park in downtown Halifax. In high school, he preferred basketball, playing at the local YMCA. He didn’t consider football until he was 18 years old. His brother Rick played and got him interested. At the time, Mr. Smith was working in Oland Brewery when he started playing with a team called the Halifax Buccaneers. The amateur club would play exhibition games against universities and other local competition such as the military. Mr. Smith often found himself pitted against players who were older than himself.
Bob Hayes, a former coach and athletic director at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University, saw him play and was impressed. Mr. Hayes recommended him to the Montreal Alouettes management. Mr. Smith was offered a tryout, but the Ottawa Rough Riders signed him first. He was 19 and would go on to to win the Grey Cup with the team in 1969. It was his rookie season.
Having little football experience, he caught on quickly – mostly, he said, “because I can’t stand being pushed around.” He also did a lot of homework to improve his game.
“I used to watch games on TV and imagine myself as, say, Vic Washington, and how I’d run in his place, what moves I’d make and that kind of thing. I’d use my imagination to play all kinds of positions and I think it helped me. I still watch all the good defensive ends in the CFL and the NFL, hoping that I can pick up a move here, a move there, and use it myself,” Mr. Smith said in the 1975 Gazette interview.
By 1972, Mr. Smith was a standout player, gaining all-star status on the Eastern Division and AllCanadian teams. The following year, Mr. Smith and his Ottawa Rough Riders teammates went again to the Grey Cup.
On Nov. 25, 1973, the Rough Riders defeated the Edmonton Eskimos 22-18 in Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition Stadium. In front of a crowd of more than 36,600, Mr. Smith won his second Grey Cup.
It was quite a memorable game for Mr. Smith. Having broken his arm during the season, he played the Grey Cup game with the injured arm encased in a hinged cast protected by layers of sponge and rubber. Mr. Smith tackled Edmonton’s starting quarterback, Tom Wilkinson, pushing him out of bounds at a key moment near the end of the first quarter. Mr. Wilkinson suffered a rib injury, though he returned to the field later in the game.
In 1974, Mr. Smith was a runnerup for the Schenley Award for the CFL’s top defensive player. He lost to John Helton of the Calgary Stampeders.
“His athletic ability was amazing,” said Bill Robinson, CEO of the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, who played with the Ottawa Rough Riders from 1975 to 1978. “He probably could have outrun any quarterback.”
Mr. Smith played his first seven years in the CFL in Ottawa. But in 1975 he started to publicly express feelings of discontent. He said he felt that his talents were being kept secret in the capital.
“I found that out last year when I went out to Vancouver for the Schenley Awards,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “Everywhere I went people were saying, ‘Who’s Wayne Smith?’ ” “I really thought I should have won,” Mr. Smith said. “But now I realize that I’ll never win a Schenley as long as I’m in Ottawa, because I just seem to be taken for granted here. I’d certainly like to be in either Toronto or Montreal because I know I’d get a lot more recognition in those cities …” Following his time in Ottawa, Mr. Smith went on to play one season with the B.C. Lions. He was reported to have run into trouble with Lions coach Vic Rapp for what Mr. Rapp described as insubordination.
In June, 1977, Mr. Smith was traded to Toronto, where he spent 21/2 years with the Argonauts. He was traded to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1979 and finished his 12-year professional career with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“His retirement was somewhat forced,” his cousin Craig Smith said. “He had a knee problem. His body just couldn’t take it anymore.”
After his professional football career, Mr. Smith, who married and divorced a couple of times, remained in Toronto for several years before eventually returning to Halifax. While holding various jobs, including as a labourer, he always maintained a fitness regime until his diabetes forced him to stop.
A self-described loner, he didn’t take part in football reunions or keep in touch with his former teammates. Instead he preferred spending time outdoors with his dog, playing basketball, biking or ice fishing. The father of nine children, he also enjoyed time with his large family and continued to follow football, especially the Toronto Argonauts.
His son Wayne, a national offensive lineman, started his fifth season with the Argonauts this year.
The one regret the elder Mr. Smith had in life was declining an offer to head south of the border to play with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, Craig Smith said. He declined the offer so that he could stay closer to home.
“He taught me that anything is possible,” said his cousin Mark Smith, director of coaching for Sport Nova Scotia and a former professional, champion softball pitcher. “No one from our immediate black community had gone on to professional sports. He was a bit of a forerunner for us.”
Mr. Smith was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame in 1984.
Mr. Smith leaves his partner, Joan Skinner; daughters Jamie, Mia, Judith and Orian; sons Wayne Smith, Wade, Jesse, Wayne Skinner; brother, Richard; 16 grandchildren and two greatgranddaughters. Mr. Smith was predeceased by his son Aaron and his sister, Carmen.