“The planes of his face are hard and clean-hewn as are those on a freshly minted coin. It is the face of a Roman emperor — harsh and imperious … his body was that of a master gladiator, the neck falling sheerly into massive shoulders.”
No, that is not a description of ME, but thank you for thinking so. Instead, Commercial Appeal sports editor Walter Stewart was writing in 1958 about Gaylon Smith, widely regarded as the greatest athlete in the history of Rhodes College. And it may come as a surprise to some readers, but Rhodes — previously known as Southwestern — has fielded some mighty fine football teams over the years.
Raised near Beebe, Arkansas (a town so dinky that another writer observed “an automobile can’t go through it”), Smith was wooed by schools throughout the region. He eventually picked Southwestern, and from 1935 to 1939, the “Bull from Beebe” stunned the crowds with his astonishing feats in baseball, basketball, and track. But it was as an unstoppable running back with the Lynxcats that he caught the attention of sportswriters across the South. The coach at the University of Alabama, of all places, even commented, “If I had been able to use him as a fullback, I wouldn’t have lost a game.”
After college, Smith joined the NFL, first playing pro football with the Cleveland Rams. When that team moved to California, he joined the Cleveland Browns, helping them win the national championship in 1946. He retired after that, raised a family, and worked as a manufacturer’s representative in Ohio.
A file folder in the Rhodes College Archives holds yellowing newspaper clippings tracing Smith’s remarkable career, on and off the field. One of those stories — dated March 12, 1958 — is perhaps the most surprising of all. The headline reads, “Gaylon Smith Dies at Cleveland Home.” He was just 42 years old. Today, a memorial gateway erected in 1960 at Rhodes College (below) pays tribute to what sportswriter Stewart called “the gallantry of a great spirit.”
GAYLON SMITH PHOTO COURTESY OF RHODES COLLEGE ARCHIVES