RB/KR Clifton Smith led the NFL in kickoff return average in 2009 and was also one of the Bucs' most active players in the community
In 2008, Clifton Smith carved out a place in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history and joined an elite group in NFL annals when he went from undrafted rookie free agent in the spring to Pro Bowler by the end of the year. Smith was just the third player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to accomplish that feat, and the first Buccaneer to do so.
The speedy return man was arguably just as effective on the field in 2009, but a second Pro Bowl berth wasn't in the offing, thanks mostly to a pair of concussions that cost him almost half the season. Still, Smith's second year in the NFL ended with another impressive honor. In the long run, he may treasure this one even more than his amazing run to the Pro Bowl a year ago.
Smith has been named the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Man of the Year. His selection makes him a finalist for the prestigious NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award and also brings him a $1,000 donation to the charity of his choice. Smith has elected to direct those funds to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Sports Bigs program.
"This award may be the biggest honor that I've received," said Smith. "I love to be active in the community, that's something that I love to do, but I never do it to get recognition. I've always tried to set an example for others. You don't have to be the guy that yells at your teammates but just be the example for everybody to follow. This honor will only make me work harder on the field and in the community."
Smith joins such former Buccaneer Man of the Year winners as Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Shelton Quarles, Ronde Barber, Jeff Garcia, Matt Bryant and Ryan Nece (Brooks was the co-NFL Man of the Year in 2000). His selection as the 2009 winner is a recognition of both his superb play on game day and his unwavering commitment to the community. The NFL's Man of the Year Award was established in 1970 (and later named for the Chicago Bears great) to bring attention to players who excel in this manner both on and off the field. Each NFL team selects a local Man of the Year finalist to be eligible to receive the national award. The Walter Payton Man of the Year winner will be selected by a blue ribbon panel and recognized at a press conference during Super Bowl week in South Florida. The national winner will also receive a $25,000 donation to the 501(c)3 organization of his choice.
Smith overcame his humble roots as an undrafted player to establish himself as a star in the NFL, but his approach to his career and the Bay area community is still marked by humility, hard work and the desire to help others overcome difficult circumstances.
In only his second year in the NFL, Smith quickly emerged as a leader in the locker room and the Tampa Bay community. In 2009 he visited Liberty Middle School and Roland Park Elementary School to lead students in fitness drills and speak on healthy living for the NFL's Play 60 initiative. Smith also helped spearhead the Buccaneers' inaugural "Lace It Up For Kids" shoe program, assisting 80 disadvantaged youth in selecting a brand new pair of shoes from the Buccaneers for the start of school. He entertained and visited with U.S. troops stationed in Tampa and abroad for the team's Pro vs. GI Joe military outreach event, and served as a celebrity bowler at the NFL Charities' Youth Bowling Clinic and the "Bowl for Hope" fundraiser to benefit the Buccaneers' Courage House, the House of Hope Tampa Bay. Smith also made a special visit to St. Joseph's Children's Hospital to fulfill a patient's wish of meeting a Buccaneer through the Children's Dream Fund.
As a member of the Buccaneers' 2008 Rookie Club, Smith was a leader amongst his first-year peers in a variety of community projects. He coached a youth flag football camp, hosted a movie screening of "The Express" for underserved children, sorted and distributed food at Metropolitan Ministries, visited patients at All Children's Hospital and sang Christmas carols at a local retirement home. Smith also volunteered his time at the Buccaneers' Halloween Celebration, leading at-risk children in arts, crafts, rides and haunted houses at the local zoo. For the past two years Smith has led Special Olympics athletes in football drills at the team's training camp as well, a program that has become a signature event of his.
Smith might never have had an opportunity to impact so many Bay area lives if he hadn't proved himself on the field in 2008. He first came to Tampa to participate in a rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract, and quickly turned that opportunity into a spot on the Buccaneers' offseason roster. Though he began his rookie season on the practice squad, Smith was promoted to the active roster at midseason to take over the kickoff and punt return duties.
Smith was an instant hit in that role, setting a team record with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in just his second game and later adding a punt-return TD to become the first player in team history to score in both manners. He finished the year second in the NFL in punt return average (14.1) and fifth in kickoff return average (27.6) and was the first Buccaneer return man ever selected for the Pro Bowl. He joined Everson Walls (1981) and Rufus Porter (1988) as the only players to go directly from rookie free agent to the all-star game.
Smith didn't slow down a bit in his second season, though fluke-play concussions against Carolina in Weeks Seven and 13 cost him most of those two games and all of five others. He still led the NFL in kickoff return average with a mark of 29.1 yards per runback on 31 attempts, and also put up an excellent 10.1-yard punt return average. He was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Week Nine after his second-half 83-yard kickoff return sparked a Buccaneer comeback against Green Bay in the team's first win of the season. Smith surpassed Tampa Bay's previous single-season record for kickoff return average (28.6 by Mark Jones in 2007).
Even with his season shortened by injury, Smith finished as one of only three players in the NFL in the top 11 in both punt and kickoff return average. That wasn't enough this year to earn him the NFC's Pro Bowl spot as a return man, which went instead to Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin. However, Smith was clearly still The Man in Tampa.
In fact, he was the Man of the Year.