Neil Smith: What made me, Derrick Thomas, "a great 1-2 combo"

Derrick Thomas is in the Hall of Fame. Neil Smith is not. In fact, he's not even on the preliminary list for the Class of 2017. Yet the two were, as Smith says, one of the best pass-rushing tandems ever, and he explains on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast how they drove each other.

Talk of Fame Network

Former defensive end Neil Smith isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, he's not even on the ballot for the Class of 2017, and that’s not only surprising.

It's downright puzzling

A six-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, Smith was part of one the greatest pass-rushing tandems when he and Derrick Thomas – who is in the Hall – were teammates in Kansas City. Both were all-decade performers, with Thomas winding up with 126.5 career sacks and Smith, who later went on to win two Super Bowls in Denver, with 104.5.

Smith doesn’t worry about his exclusion from the Hall, saying, "It’s a part of life when someone shuts you down. To me, it always brought the best out of me. " But on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast he does say that making it to Canton was something that drove Thomas … and, ultimately, made him – and them – superior at their jobs.

Neil Smith rushes the passer against the Kansas City Chiefs at Mile High Stadium in Denver, CO on December 6, 1998.
Neil Smith rushes the passer against the Kansas City Chiefs at Mile High Stadium in Denver, CO on December 6, 1998.

"I was blessed to be with one of the greatest pass rushers in the game in Derrick Thomas," Smith said . "Me and Derrick fed off each other very well. I think we were a great 1-2 combo. And I can say I don’t think there ever were two that were better -- looking at what he's done and what I've done, as far as on the field.

"Unfortunately, Derrick lost his life in a short period of time. But he was a great guy to feed off of ... a guy who was a great, great game changer. And he pretty much brought me to a level where I said, 'Why settle for anything less? If this kid can do it, why not you? '

"And he took me to a whole 'nother level, where I got to the point where I could definitely challenge him … where we would challenge each other -- in the game, on the field, off the field. And we fed off each other.

"If one wasn’t feeling good, the other one stepped it up. We had that intuition with each other that really was the difference here in Kansas City. I think about him every day and miss him, but I'm so glad and happy that he got in (the Hall of Fame). It's well deserved."

As accomplished as Thomas was – and he once had an NFL-record seven sacks in a game – it still took him five shots as a finalist to be inducted. While Smith conceded that was "a little surprising," he also said he never doubted that his former teammate would wind up in Canton.

"I knew for a fact that he would get in," he said. "That was one of Derrick's goals. His biggest actually; what he wanted to do on the field. He would always say he wanted to be a Hall of Famer. I never spoke those words. I'm a totally different guy. I wanted to speak on the field. (But) every time I went on TV it was, 'Hey, one day he's (Thomas) going to be in the Hall of Fame. One day he's going to be in the (Chiefs') Ring of Fame.' These were some of the goals he set.

"Me, personally, it wasn’t one of the goals that I wanted to (set). There were a lot of words out there that said, 'Hey, you're a game changer. You're the difference.' The player that was on the field, I really wanted to let my play speak for itself. I have no regrets whatsoever on how I played the game and how I approached it. -- because I left it out there. I feel good about myself, and that’s how I became a world champion."

(Neil Smith photos courtesy of the Denver Broncos)