Tue, 11 May 2021

Where Are They Now: Mark Smolinski

New York Jets
16 Apr 2021, 18:56 GMT+10

Catch Up with the Former Fullback Jim Gehman

When Weeb Ewbank became the head coach of the Jets in 1963, he arrived in New York with nine years of experience coaching the Baltimore Colts, two NFL championships, and Mark Smolinski.

A fullback, during two seasons with the Colts, Smolinski had 591 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns while backing up future Hall of Famers Lenny Moore and Joe Perry.

"I played for Weeb in Baltimore, and really, I had got cut from Baltimore (following the 1962 season)," Smolinski said. "And then Weeb suggested I come up to New York, which was the same offense. So I had no problem with that."

Ewbank had no problem putting someone he was familiar with in New York's starting lineup. And by leading the Jets in rushing with 561 yards and four touchdowns to go along with 34 receptions for 278 yards and another touchdown, Smolinski had no problem proving the coach made a good move.

"I knew I could block and I could catch the ball," Smolinski said. "And I guess I felt at that particular point, running wasn't a big part of it. But it evolved. I guess I just assumed that'd be my role and that's what I played."

Three years into his career, Smolinski had been able to experience playing in both the established NFL and the upstart AFL, and saw a difference.

"I noticed when I first came there, the AFL threw the ball. I mean, they threw it a lot," Smolinski said. "The scores were 30 to 20-something regularly. And so there was a lot of excitement in the games. There weren't low-scoring games.

"And I was fortunate. I had played in Baltimore with (Johnny) Unitas and then go to New York and play with (Joe) Namath. Both of them were throwing quarterbacks. And that was really my forte, I could block and I could catch a football. That was my strength, and fortunately, I had a chance to play with those two guys."

Those two guys made a difference in professional football.

While Namath quarterbacked the Jets to an 11-3 record and the AFL Championship in 1968, Unitas, who was the NFL MVP for the third time the previous season, missed much of the year because of an arm injury. He did, however, see action in relief of Earl Morrall in Super Bowl III. Namath, however, came out on top by fulfilling his guarantee and helping New York come away with the upset victory.

"We knew going in there that we had to play almost a flawless game. And we had a good game plan," Smolinski said. "I think we won the game on defense. (Defensive coordinator) Walt Michaels put together a fantastic defensive package. Although we had a good offensive package, I think Walt Michaels and the defensive coaches and the defense played an excellent game.

"(The final score) was 16-7, and that's a pretty tight game. You cannot make a mistake in a game like that. As the game went along, I think the intensity of the closeness of that ballgame is what I remember. We believed in ourselves. We knew that if we played to the best of our abilities, we were pretty tough to beat."

Having previously played for, and been released by Baltimore, was the Jets' victory more special for Smolinski?

"Oh, yeah. Certainly," he said. "If I remember correctly, I played with 25 to 28 people that were (with the Colts). In fact, my college roommate, Jerry Hill, was with the Colts. I remember Jerry and I talking on the phone back and forth. But, yeah, to me, it was a chance to play against these guys that I had left about five years earlier."

After contemplating it for at least a couple of years, Smolinski decided to retire, making the Super Bowl victory his final game.

"I often said if I got married, I think I just might retire then. And my wife said, 'No, let's go back another year,' Which we did, and we won the Super Bowl," Smolinski said. "I retired at 29 and said I need a life profession, a job that I could gravitate into. I hadn't really thought about it before the Super Bowl, but after we won it, I said, 'What a better time? There's not going to be anything better than that for me.'

"My wife didn't really want me to, but I said, 'That's enough. I've got to get on with my life.' We wanted to raise a family and go on from there. I was fairly healthy. Hey, that was enough."

After playing for eight seasons - six with the Jets - Smolinski went from the field to the classroom. First as a math teacher and then as a counselor for 26 years at Petoskey (Michigan) High School.

"I graduated as an engineer from the University of Wyoming, and I was going to go work in the engineering field," Smolinski said. "But after eight years, engineering had changed so much, I got to thinking. I don't really want to be an engineer. So, really, what do I want to do? And I said, 'Hey, I like kids and I have all this mathematics stuff,' I ended up teaching. And I loved it.

"If I think back, hey, what am I known for? I hope I was known as a good educator. I felt that I was helping them. I enjoyed the kids at the high school level. They were young adults and kept you younger. We had some good discussions. I guess I felt that I really could and I did make a difference."

Now enjoying his retirement, Smolinski and his wife, Janice, split their time between homes in Michigan and Arizona. They have three children: Shawn, Erica, and Shadd; and six grandchildren.

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