In 1992, the Minnesota Vikings were an 11-5 team that lost in the Wild Card round to the Washington Redskins. On the roster that year were two good running backs, Terry Allen and former 49er and Raider Roger Craig. Allen rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1992, and Craig added 416.
Despite the fact that Minnesota had two capable backs on their roster, the team surprised the sports world when they selected Ohio State’s Robert Smith as the 21st overall pick of the 1993 NFL Draft. It turned out to be a fortuitous addition as Allen tore his ACL during summer workouts and missed all of 1993.
Although on paper, Smith was a great athlete, he represented something of a question mark. In high school, Smith received Ohio’s Mr. Football Award twice and had his choice of colleges. He ultimately chose to stay in-state and play for the Buckeyes.
Right off the bat, Smith showed he had skills by running for 1,126 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. His rushing total led Ohio State and obliterated former Buckeye legend Archie Griffin’s freshman mark of 867 yards.
Just when it looked like Smith would be a super sophomore, he threw OSU a curve ball. As a pre-med major, Smith was taking coursework that required long hours of study and time away from the football team.
He received pushback from the coaching staff to take different classes that would allow him more time for football. Instead of listening to their advice, Smith quit the team in August of 1991.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Smith accused then-Buckeyes coaches John Cooper and Elliot Uzelac of, among other charges, not being concerned about their athletes' education. In the SI article, Smith alleged that Uzelac told Smith he took school too seriously.
"Guilty as charged," said Smith in 1991. "I simply can no longer play for those two [Cooper and Uzelac]."
After leaving the football team, Smith took a scholarship to compete with OSU’s track team. During the 1991 track season, he ran a 10.24 in the 100-meter dash, a personal best. Smith then considered leaving Ohio State to play football elsewhere in 1992.
That never happened, and he returned to play for Cooper in 1992 and rushed for 819 yards and 10 touchdowns (Uzelac was dismissed).
Although Smith still had college eligibility left, he decided to forgo his final two years and enter the 1993 NFL Draft. Minnesota believed he had shown enough promise in college, and the organization to decided to snap him up in the first round.
When Terry Allen was felled with his injury before the 1993 season, it was thought that Smith could take over the rushing load. He lasted 10 games and 399 yards before exiting the season with his own injury and a serious case of chicken pox.
Then for the next few years, Vikings fans wondered if Smith was a bust, especially when he never started more than seven games and only ran for a high of 692 yards (1996), primarily due to several more injuries.
Thankfully, the bust label never materialized. Beginning in 1997, Smith finally stayed healthy enough to break loose and become one of the best running backs in Vikings history.
In four consecutive seasons, he rumbled for over 1,000 yards, including a career-best 1,521 yards and seven touchdowns in 2000. That year he also snagged a career-best three receiving touchdowns. Meanwhile, Minnesota went to the playoffs between 1997 and 2000 and appeared in the NFC Championship game twice.
Surprisingly, after the postseason in 2000, Smith decided to retire despite the fact that he had just tallied career numbers. In eight years with Minnesota, Smith ran for 6,818 yards and 32 touchdowns and caught 178 passes for 1,292 yards and six scores. He was selected to the Pro Bowl twice and received second-team All-Pro honors once.
Smith still owns the Vikes’ second-best all-time career rushing mark, and he holds an NFL record for average yards per touchdown at 27.2. Smith is currently an NFL analyst for Fox Sports.