Ex-Redskin Jerry Smith Says He's Battling AIDS;'Maybe It Will Help People Understand'

August 26, 1986

Editor’s note: In August 1986 former Redskins tight end Jerry Smith was diagnosed with AIDS - becoming one of the first professional athletes to be associated with the new disease. He died two months later, but his words still resonate on World AIDS Day 2011. This story was first published in the Washington Post on Aug. 26, 1986.

The letter arrived at the family house this summer. It invited Jerry Smith, who had caught 421 passes for 5,496 yards and 60 touchdowns in 13 seasons as a tight end with the Washington Redskins, to be inducted in the Washington Hall of Stars at RFK Stadium this fall.

In the room at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring where Jerry Smith is fighting the deadly disease AIDS, his mother, Laverne, asked, "Do you think when the committee finds out, they'll change their mind?" 

No, her son whispered to his mother, the committee will not change its mind. It will understand, just as his friends, former teammates and fans will understand.

"It just happened," Smith, 43, said. "It just happened."

In the past year, such well-known Americans as actor Rock Hudson, lawyer Roy Cohn and fashion designer Perry Ellis have died of AIDS. Smith is the first professional athlete — retired or active — known to suffer from the disease. When he played, Smith weighed 210 pounds and blocked 260-pound defensive ends. Now his weight is about 150 and he grows weaker each day.

"I feel a sadness for anyone with a diagnosis of AIDS. My heart goes out to him and the people close to him," said Jim Graham, director of the Whitman Walker Clinic, a District treatment and counseling clinic for homosexuals. "This disclosure destroys the stereotype that AIDS is a disease of drug addicts and hairdressers. AIDS does attack all manner of people from all walks of life. When the disease strikes someone you know and respect, the viewpoint changes. He's Smith contributed to that change by this disclosure."

The last thing in the world Jerry Smith wanted was a life-threatening disease and to have it made public. "Of all that he's been through, that's been his biggest fear," Laverne Smith said last week as her son held the second of two meetings with a reporter in his hospital room.

"I want people to know what I've been through and how terrible this disease is," Jerry Smith explained. "Maybe it will help people understand. Maybe it will help with development in research. Maybe something positive will come out of this."

AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, afflicts mostly homosexual men. Between 600,000 and 1.2 million Americans have been infected with the AIDS virus since the disease was discovered in 1981. It has killed more than 13,000 people, including 435 in the Washington area, according to the D.C. Commission of Public Health. There are currently about 24,000 cases of AIDS in the United States.

AIDS is caused by a virus called human T-cell lymphotropic virus, or HTLV-3. It first showed up in homosexual men in Los Angeles and New York in 1981. The virus is a killing agent, destroying the body's ability to fight disease. The virus reduces the body's infection-fighting white blood cells, allowing serious infections to develop. The most common infections to afflict people with AIDS include pneumocystis pneumonia, an atypical mycobacterial form of tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis and Kaposi's sarcoma.

Although Smith was willing to discuss his struggle with the disease, he would not elaborate on his life style.

Since his retirement from professional football in 1978, Smith has run his own construction company here, opened a restaurant in Texas and worked in the mortgage business. He played golf, and like many retired professional athletes, attempted to keep fit with regular workouts.

But last summer, he said, he began losing weight and noticed he was tiring easily. He said he went to a doctor in Florida and was tested for exposure to the AIDS virus. "The results were negative," he said. "It threw everyone off."

The symptoms persisted and in December, Smith entered Holy Cross Hospital where he was tested again. This time, he said, the test was positive.

Over the past eight months he has been in and out of Holy Cross and George Washington University hospitals several times. He said he also attempted to get into a special program at the National Institutes of Health, but could not do so "because I did not meet the medical criteria."

Smith has lost weight steadily and, according to his mother, "hasn't eaten since June." He is sustained intravenously and kept comfortable by pain-killing drugs. He looks tired and wan and often drifts into sleep in the middle of a conversation.

"I'm trying very hard to fight this," he said. "But I don't have many good days."

Jerry Smith came to the Redskins in 1965 from Arizona State as a split end. In 1966 he was moved to tight end in mid-season when Charley Taylor was moved from running back to wide receiver. A year later he caught 67 passes (most ever by a tight end in National Football League history) for 849 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was among the top 10 pass receivers in the league for four consecutive seasons, from 1966 to 1969.

With Sonny Jurgensen passing and Bobby Mitchell, Taylor and Smith catching, the Redskins became one of the most exciting teams in the NFL, selling out all their home games and setting attendance standards (the Redskins have sold out RFK Stadium an NFL record 149 consecutive times). 

In addition to his prowess as a pass receiver, Smith prided himself as a blocker, although at 6 foot 3 and 210 pounds, he was smaller than most professional tight ends and often went up against men 50 and 60 pounds heavier.

But his greatest ability was catching the ball — and he did that as well or better than most pass receivers in the league. He thrived during Vince Lombardi's one season in Washington (1969), and when George Allen became coach in 1971 and installed Billy Kilmer as quarterback, Smith adjusted. Although he had fewer receptions, he made the most of them, as his seven touchdowns in 21 catches attest in the Super Bowl season of 1972.

He retired in 1978, after spending much of the previous season on the injured list. He is the second-leading receiver in the history of the franchise, behind Taylor.

One of the most recognizable and popular Redskins of his era, Smith also was one of the most respected and private. He had several close friends on the team, particularly defensive back Brig Owens, with whom he roomed for many years at a time when it was uncommon in professional sports for blacks and whites to share a room in training camp or on road trips.

Owens, who also is retired from the Redskins and is now a players' agent, has remained a close friend and is a frequent hospital visitor, as are former teammates Roy Jefferson and Mark Murphy. Other friends and business associates also come by to visit, as do his brother, sister, brother-in-law and mother.

"The support from my relatives, friends, former teammates, doctors and nurses has been unbelievable to me," Smith said. He said he has heard from Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, former teammate Mitchell and from the team.

"It's a shame something like this has to make you appreciate what life is all about," he said. "You realize how maybe you should have taken life a little slower and spend a little more time with your family and friends."

Is he angry over what has happened to him? 

"Sure," he replied. "I'm angry for myself, and I'm angry because I don't want anybody to have to go through this. It's a hideous disease."

In a corner of the hospital room, Laverne Smith listens quietly. She doesn't cry very much anymore. She is in her 60s and trying to be strong.

"You do what you have to do," she said. "I want him to be as comfortable and happy as possible. You take care of your own."

Earlier, two friends had visited, both trying to make small talk, remembering the good old days, which weren't so long ago but on this night seemed like a distant memory. They remembered when this man, who is now in such pain, was a shining light in a roaring stadium doing the things most men and women can only dream of doing.

"It never crossed my mind anything like this could ever happen," he said. "No one thinks about getting a long-term disease. Not me, not anyone. I always took care of myself. I worked hard to do things well, to make sure I was prepared. I tried to do things right."

Staff writer Margaret Engel contributed to this report.

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