What: Smith of Minnesota was born.


When: On Feb. 8, 1920. Only he wasn’t called Smith of Minnesota then. He was just Bruce Smith, an ordinary Faribault, Minn., kid.


Pigskin prodigy: When he got a football in his hands, his life changed. He was a high school standout, coached by the legendary Win Brockmeyer. The University of Minnesota beckoned, and Smith was the halfback during two consecutive championship seasons in 1940 and 1941. He got the Heisman Trophy — the only Gopher to have achieved that honor.

But two days before he received the award, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, an event he knew made his award seem trivial. “I think America will owe a great debt to the game of football when we finish this thing off,” he said in his Heisman acceptance speech. “If six million American youngsters like myself are able to take it and come back for more, both from a physical standpoint and that of morale. If teaching team play and cooperation and exercise to go out and fight hard for the honor of our schools, then likewise the same skills can be depended on when we have to fight to defend for our country.”

Before he enlisted and became a Navy pilot, he did something no other Minnesota football player had done: He starred as himself in a Hollywood quickie called “Smith of Minnesota.” It premiered in Faribault. (The locals had a good laugh because even though the movie was in the 1920s, it portrayed Faribault as having direct-dial phones and electric lighting.)

After the war, he went pro. Played for (sigh) the Packers from 1945 to 1948, then did a stint with the Rams in ’48 before hanging up his cleats. Cancer took him in 1967.


A name remains: Fairbault’s high school field is named in his honor. You can find him on YouTube, running 81 yards for a TD — a Minnesota Miracle of another era.

James Lileks