Warrior of His Time

Michigan State's Gideon Smith was the first African-American to participate in athletics at the university and one of the first in the country to play intercollegiate football.

Michigan State's Gideon Smith was the first African-American to participate in athletics at the university and one of the first in the country to play intercollegiate football.

Feb. 13, 2008

The name Gideon carries around a certain toughness, almost an overwhelming sense of power.  The origin of this name is Hebrew and has biblical significance as Gideon is said to have freed the Israelites from harsh rulings and maintained peace for 40 years. Etymologists have concluded Gideon means ‘Great Warrior’ and/or ‘Hewer.’ To football historians the name Gideon may have the same connotation.

In the fall of 1913, Gideon E. Smith arrived on the campus of Michigan Agriculture College (MAC) (now known as Michigan State University) set to attend classes and play football for the Aggies. Smith was the first African-American to participate in athletics at the university and one of the first in the country to play intercollegiate football. Although Smith was the first black tackle M.A.C. ever yielded, many have echoed his greatness.

“I never saw a better tackle,” says Lyman Frimodig a former MSU administrator and historian. “The closet thing to him I saw was Don Coleman of the modern era.”

Coleman was MSU’s first unanimous All-American and team MVP in 1951. He also became the first Spartan to have his jersey retired and many consider him to be the greatest lineman in school history, next to Smith.

Smith manufactured a great career playing for the Aggies. Throughout his stay at MAC. he compiled a 17-3 record and his offense outscored opponents 636-123 in those games. Smith’s biggest challenge came on Oct. 11, 1913, when his team faced off against Michigan. The Wolverines simply dominated the Aggies in their first seven match-ups producing such scores as 39-0, 119-0, 46-0 and 55-7.  To everyone’s surprise, MAC took a quick 12-0 lead, and with the help of Smith, held on for the win by a final score of 12-7. The Detroit Free Press called the contest “among the biggest upsets in college football history.” 

Individually, Smith’s collegiate shining moment came against Akron on Oct. 31, 1914. After recovering a fumble on the Aggie goal-line, Smith scooped up the ball and took off down the middle of the field. It appeared as if he was going to take it all the way until he was pulled down a few yards shy of the endzone. Smith’s fumble scamper of 95 yards registers longer than any other player in program history.  A portion of the headline in the Saginaw Courier-Herald the next day read “Negro Lineman Furnishes Thrill with Sprint for 95-Yard Gain.” Later in the same game, Smith ripped off a 60-yard sprint for the score adding to the 75-6 final outcome.

After graduating college in the spring of 1916, Smith went on to a brief but successful pro career.  The Canton Bulldogs contracted Smith for one year, becoming teammates with the Bulldog captain and all-time great Jim Thorpe. Canton went on to win the League Championship that year with the help of a great play by Smith. In the teams’ final game against bitter rival Massillon, Smith recorded a crucial fumble recovery to help preserve the Championship and the 6-0 victory of the Tigers. 

After enlisting in the United States Military and serving time in World War I, Smith returned to his home state of Virginia where he began teaching Physical Education at Hampton Institute (now known as Hampton University). That same year, in 1921, he became the head football coach and remained in that position for the next 20 years. 

From the sidelines, Smith continued his dominance of football. In just his second year at Hampton, his Pirate team won the conference and national championship with a record of 4-1-0.  Although this was his lone national title, the Pirates did go on to win four more conference championships under Smith’s tutelage. 

In his 20-year coaching span, the great Aggie alumnus assembled an impressive record of 97-46-12. His 97 wins were the most in school history at that time, and currently rank second only behind Joe Taylor, who concluded his 16th season at Hampton in 2007 with 136 victories.  Smith’s teams are featured 10 times out of the top 12 on the list for fewest points allowed in a season. His 20 years leading Hampton still stand as the longest coaching tenure in program history.

After coaching, Smith stayed on at Hampton as assistant athletics director until his retirement in 1955. Thirteen years later, Smith passed away after a long battle with illness at the age of 78.

Smith exited this world the same way he lived-he battled. His success at MAC is inspiring, becoming one of the nation’s first African-Americans to play college football. His play in the trenches as a tackle has set the standard for future Spartans. Smith’s coaching background is remarkable and one of sheer dominance. He vaulted Hampton into the college football spotlight. 

Whether you study the meaning of his name or read stories of biblical legends, Smith was certainly a warrior of his time.

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