Just before Christmas 1964, Jim Ray Smith said goodbye to the Dallas Cowboys and a nine-year NFL career.
He had played for only two coaches — Paul Brown (Cleveland Browns) and Tom Landry (Cowboys) — a pair of “hard-headed” Hall of Famers (Smith’s choice of words) whom he found to be as different in their approach to football as they were alike in their everyday values.
“In nine years,” said Smith, “I never heard either one of them say a profanity.”
Born southwest of Houston in West Columbia, Smith is a Baylor Bear and past chairman of the Cotton Bowl Athletic Association. He recently was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
But because he spent seven seasons in Cleveland (1956-62) — blocking for the great Jim Brown — and two seasons in Dallas (1963-64) — just trying to stay healthy — Jim Ray is better remembered as a Brown than a Cowboy.
“In Dallas, I had two knee operations, two concussions, two broken hands and a cracked third vertebra in my neck,” said Smith. “So, I paid the price.”
This all happened after he retired.
Smith hung ’em up after the ’62 season to start his own real estate business (he had been working for a firm in Dallas) but then was “talked into” just meeting with the Cowboys. After all, he was living in town anyway.
“I just felt I was a traitor if I played for anyone other than Cleveland,” he recalled.
Not that Cleveland would be the same anymore. After that same ’62 season, a young Art Modell fired the legendary Paul Brown during Pro Bowl week. Smith had just informed Modell of his plans to retire.
It wasn’t a ploy. Smith wasn’t looking for more money, more playing time or a longer cot at training camp.
His top salary in Cleveland had been $18,750, and now the Cowboys were willing to make him (so they claimed) the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league at $25,000.
That was big money in 1962. But it was an even bigger decision for Smith to completely change business plans and hitch his wagon to the upstart Cowboys.
Smith earned a solid reputation in the NFL on an established team, with established players, earning five Pro Bowl trips in seven years. He had blocked for the best (Bobby Mitchell, Jim Brown).....and blocked against the best.
But now he would surprise even himself by agreeing to give pro football one more shot in Big D. Maybe it was his inner-Texan talking.
Big Daddy Lipscomb
No one in the NFL in the late ’50s and early ’60s was more menacing than Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb.
Think Sonny Liston in shoulder pads.
Jim Ray Smith survived six meetings with the 6-foot-6, 288-pound behemoth. Keep in mind.....Smith tipped the scales at 218 as a Browns rookie in ’56.
He would go on to have some classic head-to-heads (quite literally) with Lipscomb, all while Smith played for the Browns and Big Daddy played for the two-time defending NFL champion Baltimore Colts (1958-59), then later with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Lipscomb died 45 years ago this month. Cause of death: apparent heroin overdose.
But those who best knew the big defensive tackle — and Smith counts himself among them — refuse to believe that Lipscomb could succumb to needle marks in his arm.
Big Daddy, they say, was scared to death of needles.
“He hated needles — period,” Smith said. “He hated flu shots, all that stuff. For him to supposedly mainline.....well, that’s just ridiculous.”
Foul play has long been suspected, because Lipscomb was found dead on the kitchen floor of his Baltimore apartment after a night on the town in his canary-yellow Cadillac convertible.
He was 31.
The May 11, 1963, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported: “A homemade syringe was found near his unconscious form.” There had been drinking. There had been women. It wasn’t unusual for Big Daddy to befriend total strangers and flash a wad of money in their presence.
He was right-handed, yet the needlemarks were in his right arm.
“We became very good friends,” Smith said of Lipscomb. “But we kind of got crossways during a game in ’59. They were the [defending] champs and we beat ’em by a touchdown [38-31] at Baltimore.
“That game, Big Daddy tried to break my leg.”
Fast-forward three seasons. In 1962, Lipscomb was now playing for the Steelers. The Browns were ahead by three touchdowns with time running out.
“We ran an end sweep with Jim Brown — just trying to run the clock out,” Smith recalled. “I blocked down on the outside linebacker, and while I was on the ground Big Daddy kicked me.”
Smith remembers two things after that: Frantically trying to get to his feet to fight back.....and seeing the official on the play laughing at him because it wasn’t exactly the smartest thing to do.
“Anyway, the game ends and I’m walking off the field when I hear this enormous thump-thump-thump,” Smith said. “I’m thinking, ‘Big Daddy’s coming after me.’ So, I bow my neck. I get ready.
“Instead, he puts his arm around me and says, ‘Jimmy Ray, I want to be your friend. I want you to be my friend. Let’s cut out all of this fightin’ out here. You’re the best guard there is. You don’t hold me. You don’t leg-whip me. I want to be your friend.’.”
After all these years, Smith remembers exactly how he reacted.
“Big Daddy,” Smith replied, somewhat relieved, “you and I are friends.”
Six months later — on May 10, 1963 — Big Daddy was dead.
Jim Brown ... Don Perkins
In nine NFL seasons, Jim Brown led the league in rushing every year but 1962. His left guard for seven of those seasons was Jim Ray Smith. “Cleveland ran the end sweep with Jim Brown long before Green Bay or anyone else,” said Smith, now 76. “He, of course, was fantastic. But when we first got started, he’d jump out in front of the blocking, and I’d have to tell him, ‘Jim, you’ve got to wait for me.’.”
That wasn’t much of a wait because Smith was one of the quickest guards to ever play the game.
During one training camp at Hiram, Ohio, he was clocked as the third-fastest player on the team — behind only Bobby Mitchell and Jim Brown. Smith ran the same 40-yard dash time as his roommate, Ray Renfro.....a wide receiver (and later Cowboys assistant coach) whose nickname was “Rabbit.”
In Dallas, Smith cleared the way for Don Perkins and Amos Marsh.
“Perkins had great balance and could really cut,” Smith said. “He was a great one.”
Paul Brown ... Tom Landry
“What people don’t remember when they talk about Tom Landry’s hat is that Paul Brown wore one for years,” said Smith. “He would say, ‘I’m not superstitious,’ then he’d wear the same socks, shoes, underwear, coat, tie, hat.....as long as we were winning.
“He’d carry what I call a ‘cheat sheet’ on the sideline. That thing was ragged by the end of the season. Of course, Tom had the clipboard — all neat and everything. They were different that way.”
Smith, however, found the biggest difference between Brown and Landry to be in their basic football philosophy. Brown was offense.
“He believed every play should go for a touchdown,” said Smith. Landry, a former NFL defensive back, was more defensive-minded. He orchestrated a game plan to move the chains and systematically break down opposing defenses.
“Tom’s philosophy,” said Smith, “was how am I going to fool ’em?”
Preparation was a difference, too. Brown held short, concise practices — Wednesday through Saturday. Landry held marathon practices that began with something for the players to do as early as Monday.
“Paul Brown wanted his players to take a couple of days off and come back with a fresh mind,” Smith recalled. “We’d make a couple changes for the next team we were playing — and that was it.”
Landry was prone to tweak throughout the week.
Said Smith: “On Friday, Tom might say, ‘OK, we’re going back to blocking that play like we said we were going to do on Wednesday.’.”
And Landry, the perfectionist, might even change it one more time before the game.
Life after the NFL
Jim Ray and his wife, Paula, have been married 53 years. They own the same Northwood Hills home they purchased 40 years ago.
“We’ve had only two houses,” Smith said. “We first moved to Lake Highlands, where all the Cowboys lived, then moved to the house we live in now.”
Jim Ray Smith Properties Inc. has been around since 1964 — when Jim Ray retired from the Cowboys.....this time for good.
He enjoys golf. He watches football. He has no regrets.
He recently read that Cowboys offensive tackle Flozell Adams recently signed a six-year, $43-million contract.
Smith quickly did the math.
“Flozell will make more in the first quarter of his first game than I made in nine years,” said Smith, laughing.
At least, I think he was laughing.