Bruce Smith made a great impression on everyone…including me

by | Nov 20, 2017 | Featured

Thank you Harry Minium.
On July 1, the topic of Minium’s column in the Virginian-Pilot sports section was a life-altering trip to Israel in June by one of Tidewater’s most renowned athletes and residents, NFL Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Smith.

On Monday, Oct. 30, Smith spoke about his trip at the Sandler Family Campus.

Ironically the pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Smith took along with 17 other NFL veterans at the invitation of New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft was not unknown to several millennial Jews in Tidewater. They spied the entourage while they were in Israel on UJFT’s Tom Hofheimer Young Leadership Mission, and even snapped some pictures with the group.

But the Tidewater travelers did not realize the full extent of the Hall of Famers’ eight-day journey, which included stops at Yad Vashem and the Kotel, Tel Aviv and Masada, the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. It was there, as more than 200 people witnessed in a video clip shown during the program in the Simon Family JCC gymnasium, that many of the players, most of them African American, received the baptism of a lifetime. They also visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Sepulchre, seeing for the first time where Jesus was born and died. Emotional for them? Yes. But also for the rest of the audience, which was a patchwork of Jews and Christians, whites and blacks.

And speaking of the latter, the football team from Smith’s Norfolk alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School, surprised him at the event. When the 32 players and five coaches burst through a banner and into the gymnasium, Smith’s face broke out in a grin, and I brought him down from the stage onto the floor to high five the kids for whom Smith is not just a football, but also a personal, idol.

As the hour of Q&A was coming to an end, I asked the Virginia Tech grad to talk about the state of football and its well-reported health challenges, and to address the players in his response. He advised them to secure their helmets properly, but also to be as good off the field as on. They were listening, as were the adults in the other seats, who responded with a standing ovation when I called it a night.

Smith, who called his week and a day in Israel a “highlight of his life,” was effusive in his praise of Robert Kraft, who brought the vets to Israel to dedicate a new football stadium there named for Kraft’s late wife. As they departed the Jewish state, Kraft urged the former players, which included the likes of Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, and “Mean” Joe Greene, to tell the people back home what they experienced.

On October 30, and in Harry Minium’s article, that’s just what Bruce Smith did. And we’re all the better for it.

Joel Rubin