LONDON -- The Hall of Fame Game: summer of 1973. The New England Patriots against the San Francisco 49ers. A rookie runs onto the field in Canton, Ohio, hoping to win a contract and make his mark. For most in that position, it would be the moment when dreams of reaching the grand stage of the National Football League are realized and years of hard work pay off.
But not for John Smith. It wasn't just his NFL debut. "It was the first game I'd even seen," he said.
While the Patriots undergo their tour of duty in the United Kingdom this weekend, for one member of their traveling party, it will be a trip home. Smith, who was born and raised in England and is making the trip with the team, spent nine seasons as the Patriots' kicker in the 1970s and early '80s. That he had an exotic foreign accent singled him out. At the time of his arrival in the United States at age 24, The Boston Globe suggested "he should change his name to John Devonshire-Smythe" and threatened to "pass the word that he sells self-embroidered underwear during the off season." That initial ribbing didn't stop the Brit from becoming arguably the most consistent specialist of his era. And his journey to the NFL remains admirably unique.
On that July day in Ohio, Smith was still, in his own mind, a soccer player first, a qualified teacher second and a football player a dubious and distant third. The Southampton native had been persuaded to cross the Atlantic for a tryout for the Patriots as part of a trend toward unorthodox "soccer-style" kickers.
"My wife and I both wanted to travel, so we thought, 'What the heck, let's go over and see what it's all about,'" he said. "My dad always used to say to me, 'Have a go and give it all you got.' I really thought it would end up just being a kind of vacation."
Smith, who still lives in the New England area, had received little exposure to the NFL growing up in the United Kingdom. It had never been on the radar. Ignorance was bliss, until he looked up and saw the 49ers training their sights on him as he prepared to kick off.
"I really didn't know what was going on," Smith recalled. "I didn't even know the game was on TV. I thought it was just a spectacle. I was still trying to learn the game and figure out what was going on. That first game was the first time I'd lined up with a linebacker opposite me, 10 yards away, who was trying to knock my block off. I was more concerned about him than my kick. It was sobering. I'd been kicking in practice, but I had to learn the rest of it."
The Patriots, deeming Smith too raw, traded him to Pittsburgh that summer. Later, after being cut by the Steelers, he passed up an offer to join a London-based soccer club. Instead, he spent a season perfecting his new trade with the Atlantic Coast Football League's New England Colonials before returning to the Patriots.
That time, he hung around, earning all-rookie honors at the start of a career during which he set various team and league records while leading NFL kickers in scoring in 1979 and 1980. Even now, few forget his decisive role in the infamous "Snowplow Game" against the Miami Dolphins in 1982, his final season, when the Patriots battled the elements and claimed a 3-0 victory. Yet, he admits, it took time to sink in that he was making his mark in the "other" brand of football.
"When the Patriots gave me a contract, teachers were getting paid about the equivalent of $5,000 in England," Smith said. "Professional [soccer] players in the old First Division were getting about $10,000. They offered me $18,000 and a three-year contract. I thought, 'That's a fortune just to kick a football. This is great.' Plus, my wife loved it over here. She was substitute teaching here. So we thought we'd try it and see. And once I showed what I could do, the next contracts got even better."
Smith remains a visible presence on game days at Foxborough. "Never miss one," he said, laughing. As an active member of the Patriots' alumni association, he signs autographs and speaks to fans in the team suites and will be one of the main guests at this weekend's London showpiece.
By day, however, he focuses on his first sporting love, overseeing the John Smith Soccer Academy in Milford, Mass., a coaching and practice facility that has been his chief passion since he hung up his cleats.
"Being in the league catapults you in front of people," he said. "I got to work with the media, CEOs, TV people. I was doing commercials for Weetabix and for a department store because I had a funny accent. I was the only Englishman playing football, and I had an education, so I was able to speak at banquets and dinners. It was all just amazing."
Three decades later, it still is.
Mark Woods is a writer for Britball Media and will file periodic updates from London this week for ESPNBoston.com.