MINNEAPOLIS - He was known as the Gophers' golden boy; still called by many the best football player the state has ever seen. Bruce Smith is a University of Minnesota legend.
"He was a well rounded, All-American young man," said Susan Garwood, Executive Director of the Rice County Historical Society Museum in Smith's hometown of Faribault.
The museum has Smith's trophies, letters and awards, plus his jerseys and footballs. But in the mementos is a story bigger than sports; one that made Smith a hero of a different kind.
With a national championship and an undefeated season, Smith, a star halfback, remains the only Minnesota Gopher to win the Heisman Trophy. But on the train to New York to accept his award, Smith and his family heard the news: America was under attack.
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. On December 8, the United States declared war. On December 9, Smith accepted the 1941 Heisman Trophy with grace and poise that are striking to this day, offering words of comfort and encouragement from a 21-year-old college student who would soon enlist himself.
"Those Far Eastern boys may think that American boys are soft," said Smith in part of his speech. "But I have plenty of evidence to show they are making a big mistake."
A recording of Smith's speech was just recently found.
"I can't imagine being in that place, and I can't imagine anyone writing a better speech," said Garwood. "When you hear it, you're back 70 years. You can hear his spirit. You can hear his humility. But [you can hear] determination as well. It's really great.
That spirit was what Smith became known for. Though he played professionally for both Green Bay and Los Angeles, his life after football was so extraordinary - his kindness so rare even as he fought terminal cancer - he was nominated for sainthood.
Seven decades after he played, that legacy was honored when Governor Dayton declared September 17, 2011, Bruce Smith Day in Minnesota.
With his family on the field and his smile on the scoreboard, Gopher fans 70 years later once again cheered for Bruce Smith, remembering a man who won awards and lived with honor.
"It's a great story," said Bruce Krinke, who chairs a golf tournament in Smith's memory and lead the recent efforts to honor him. "Bruce Smith was not only a great athlete but a great person as well."
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)