The Gophers' only Heisman Trophy winner, Bruce Smith, died 50 years ago today.
New coach P.J. Fleck took his players to visit Fort Snelling National Cemetery earlier this month and had senior Steven Richardson place a captain's coin on Smith's grave. The team posted a video Monday to honor Smith.
"These are people from all races, all beliefs, all different families," Fleck told the current players, pointing to the cemetery's monuments. "One thing they have in common, they're Americans. It's really important for you to understand. And one of the most important Americans, one of the most famous Americans of our past is Bruce Smith."
Smith, from Faribault, Minn., helped lead the Gophers to a national championship in 1940 as a junior. Coming off an 8-0 season, the team faced huge expectations for 1941, and Smith was named team captain. He overcame a serious knee injury that year to help lead Minnesota to another 8-0 finish and another national championship.
Smith won the Heisman Trophy and was headed to New York to give his speech, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Then 21, Smith reworked his speech and helped lift the nation's spirits with his remarks, which were broadcast on radio from the New York Athletic Club.
“I think America will owe a great debt to the game of football when we finish this thing off,” Smith said on Dec. 9, 1941. "If 6 million American youngsters like myself are able to take it and come back for more … and fight hard for the honor of our schools, then likewise the same skills can be depended on when we have to fight like blazes to defend our country.”
Smith served in the Navy before playing four years in the NFL with the Packers and Rams. He died at age 47 after a battle with intestinal cancer. Here is a longer feature story on Smith from last December, for the 75th anniversary of his Heisman award.