SUPER POLL 50 | 49: Leonard Smith’s Super Bowl overshadowed by Gulf War

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27:  Mark Bavaro #89 of the New York Giants gets tackled by Leonard Smith #46 of the Buffalo Bills January 27, 1991 during Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium in Tampa, Florida. The Giants won the Super Bowl 20-19. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
49-Leonard-SmithOur series on ASN’s 50 greatest competitors of the first 50 Super Bowls continues with No. 49 Leonard Smith, originally published on Jan. 11.

When Leonard Smith thinks of his first Super Bowl appearance, he thinks of it in terms of war. Not as a war, like many football players do, but as overshadowed by war.
The Gulf War broke out in August 1990 and just weeks before Super Bowl XXV, the U.S. actively entered the conflict with Operation Desert Storm. Across America, citizens were glued to news videos of ghostly trails of Patriot missiles. It marked the first time America had participated in a war since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

“Unfortunately, it came at a time when we went to war,” Smith said. “Everything was kind of overshadowed by that. I got a chance to do things a lot of people didn’t get to do. It was amazing, it was a long journey, a lot of hard work.

“There was so much talent on the team, everybody was a superstar … we were trying to say there was enough room in the sky to let all those lights shine and we finally did that, but not in the Super Bowl. We didn’t do that as well as we could have and I think that’s the reason that we didn’t win some of those Super Bowls.”

Super Bowl XXV may best be remembered for Whitney Houston’s moving rendition of the national anthem, but it was also the first of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances for the Bills — all of which they lost. Smith was with the Bills for two Super Bowls.

But win or lose, Smith, who now runs his family business and splits time between Buffalo and his home state of Louisiana, still treasures the memories.

“It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it turn out,” he said. “But I wouldn’t change it for moment. You play this game for the chance to play on that stage.”

Smith’s route to the Super Bowl was circuitous. A cornerback, Smith played at McNeese State, where he was an All-Southland Conference and All-Louisiana selection. Besides being an effective cornerback, Smith played special teams and specialized in blocking punts, field-goal attempts and extra-point attempts. In 2014, he was the first McNeese State player inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Drafted 17th overall in 1983 by the Cardinals, Smith played six seasons, in both St. Louis and Phoenix before being traded to Buffalo, where he was considered the “missing link” on an already strong defense. Smith played in only one of two Super Bowls with the Bills due to a knee injury. But of that 1991 game he said:

“Coming from a small college, working hard and then being announced on TV … well, that’s what I remember as a kid, Super Bowl weekend was IT! I knew I was going to be on that stage and at some point, people were going to see me on that stage.”


Above: Leonard Smith of the Buffalo Bills tackles Mark Bavaro of the New York Giants during Super Bowl XXV on Jan. 27, 1991, at Tampa Stadium. The Giants won, 20-19. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Jill R. Dorson

Jill R. Dorson is a freelance writer based in San Diego.