Many athletes quietly and courageously battled HIV and AIDS in the early years when the illness was so frightening and the prognosis so grim.
But one of the very first to publicly acknowledge that he had AIDS was former Washington Redskins tight end Jerry Smith, who died of related complications on Oct. 15, 1986. “The last thing in the world Jerry Smith wanted was a life-threatening disease and to have it made public,” George Solomon, the Post’s former sports editor, wrote in a story about Smith in August of that year.
“In a career full of brave performances,” the Post’s Tom Boswell wrote, “Smith never had a more courageous play than the one he made ... when he became the first well-known American athlete to say he had AIDS at a time when the public was unaware of it. It was an act of heroism. And a significant one.”
His mother, Laverne, called going public “his biggest fear,” but Smith told Solomon in an interview at Holy Cross hospital in Silver Spring, Md.: “I want people to know what I've been through and how terrible this disease is. Maybe it will help people understand. Maybe it will help with development in research. Maybe something positive will come out of this.”
Smith retired as the Redskins’ second-leading receiver in 1978; he caught 421 passes for 5,496 yards and 60 touchdowns in 13 seasons — and returned to the headlines this fall when Chris Cooley broke his all-time record for most catches by a Redskins tight end. After retiring, Smith ran a construction company, owned a restaurant and worked in the mortgage business before contracting HIV.
In the hospital in 1986, he and his mother discussed his upcoming induction into the Washington Hall of Stars at RFK Stadium. “Do you think when the committee finds out, they’ll change their mind?” his mother asked. No, Smith figured, his former teammates and friends had understood. So would the committee and fans.
“If you love a guy, you love him. That's all there is to it,” Bobby Mitchell told Boswell. “ 'Jerry G' has been a very dear friend almost 20 years. I don't remember too many days in all that time when I didn't think about the guy. Jerry was always a very private person, and everybody respected his privacy, but he had a lot of friends.”
Video: Jerry Smith and Walt Rock in a Chevrolet commercial
Athletes and AIDS: Sports Ilustrated 1991