By Trey Williams
The 2021 College Football Hall of Fame nominees were released last week and Erwin resident Terry Schmidt is one of the “picks” on the ballot.
Schmidt, who moved to Erwin three years ago, piled up 13 career interceptions at Ball State (1970-73) during an All-American career back when offenses were far less inclined to pass. He went on to play two seasons with the New Orleans Saints and nine with the Chicago Bears, tallying 26 career interceptions and scoring three touchdowns.
This year’s ballot includes Schmidt’s Chicago teammate, receiver Willie Gault, one of a number of nominees with University of Tennessee ties. The others are Volunteers coach Josh Heupel, Eric Berry and Larry Seviers.
Gault quickly made an impression on Schmidt and the Bears.
“A lot of times, particularly early in my career, you had guys that were sprinters that were on college teams,” said Schmidt, who ran a 4.4 early in his NFL career. “Bob Hayes was one. And they come to the NFL and they’re not really receivers. They were just sprinters who they threw the ball too and sometimes they catch it.
“But Willie was both. He was a sprinter and a wide receiver. He had good hands, great speed, great route-runner. I remember his first couple of days in training camp, you know, and he blew by us like we were standing still.”
Schmidt played cornerback in the NFL after playing safety at Ball State.
“When I played safety I played some man-on-man, but not a lot,” Schmidt said. “My rookie year, which was ’74, was one of the first strikes they had. So I was in training camp quite a few weeks before the veterans came in and had a chance to kind of acclimate to playing corner. And back then we played six preseason games, too.”
Schmidt spent two seasons in New Orleans, where his teammates included Archie Manning.
“He’s really a great guy, humble,” Schmidt said. “I was a teammate for two years with him and he was very personable. I was on the team when Peyton was born. So that ought to give you a little perspective.
“Unfortunately, Archie played for a team that didn’t have a great offensive line. So he got beat up quite a bit. He was a good quarterback, but he just didn’t have some of the tools other people had.”
Ernie Hefferle and John North coached New Orleans during Schmidt’s time there.
“I was doing real well and the coach got fired in ’75,” Schmidt said, “and Hank Stram came into town and he was doing a lot of changing and I just didn’t fit into his plans.”
Schmidt was playing with the Bears on Thanksgiving in 1980 when Stram was working for CBS Radio.
“Hank was there doing some prep with the coaches, maybe Wednesday evening,” Schmidt said, “and I saw him and I told him, ‘Hank, the best thing you ever did to me was get rid of me. You extended my career by sending me to Chicago.’
“He was cordial about it. He said, ‘Terry, sometimes I don’t have control over everything. It was just a numbers game.’ …
“Hank knew football. He was a good coach. He just had a little arrogance about him.”
Schmidt retired after the ’84 season ended in the NFC championship game. It was the year before the Bears won the Super Bowl, but Schmidt was part of a number of excellent defenses under Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator who had a stormy relationship with head coach Mike Ditka.
When owner George Halas made a coaching change in 1981, the defense lobbied for Halas to retain Ryan.
“Defensively, we felt we’d made great strides under Buddy and the other defensive coaches,” Schmidt said. “So we – the defensive team – wrote a letter to George Halas and told him we thought it would be beneficial if there was gonna be a coaching change that he would retain the defensive coaching staff, particularly Buddy Ryan.”
Halas informed the defensive players at a practice toward the end of the season that Ryan would be retained.
“So when Ditka came in Ditka didn’t get a chance to pick his defensive coordinator – and Buddy had some arrogance to him,” Schmidt said. “Buddy knew he had a three-year contract with the Bears and Ditka really couldn’t do anything about it.”
There was surely some fire with all the Ryan-Ditka smoke, but Schmidt isn’t sure it wasn’t overblown.
“They had some riffs from time to time, but I think they got along alright – at least the three years I was there with them,” he said. “Now, after I left I guess the Miami game in ’85 (when an undefeated season ended) – there were rumors of a fight in the locker room at halftime. I don’t know if that was true or not, but I do know at Buddy’s funeral Ditka came down. So there couldn’t have been too much animosity.”
It’d been understandable if the high-strung Ditka felt overshadowed by Ryan and arguably some of the NFL’s best all-time defenses.
“Starting in probably late ’83 through ’86, it was probably one of the best defenses,” Schmidt said. “Some people think that ’85 defense was the best there’s ever been in the NFL.”
The hard-hitting Bears played a punishing style of defense, even by NFL standards, and it took a toll on former Schmidt teammates such as fellow defensive back Dave Duerson, who committed suicide after a long struggle with concussion-fueled CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
“Dave Duerson – I just loved him to death,” Schmidt said. “He shot himself in the chest and left a note saying he wanted his brain analyzed. And he had CTE.
“Dave was a great guy, he really was. And I talked to some guys that knew him post-playing career, and over time they could tell that his mood changed. He had mood swings and all that. So he recognized, I think, that something was going on and that’s why I think he made sure that his brain got donated for an autopsy.”
Schmidt’s brain certainly appeared no worse for wear. He became a dentist when his NFL career concluded, and graduated first in his class. He did a general residency at the Veterans Administration in North Chicago and eventually transferred to Tampa, where he spent eight years hating summers and loving winters.
Schmidt visited some friends’ place in Bryson City, North Carolina in the fall one year while living in Tampa.
“And I just really basically fell in love with the mountains,” he said.
An opportunity to transfer to the Asheville V.A. materialized in 2008, and he made the move in 2009.”
Schmidt lived in Mars Hill while working in Asheville and Johnson City, where he ended his career at the Mountain Home V.A. He moved to Erwin after retirement.
“This is gorgeous country,” Schmidt said. “I like to fly-fish, and these are great areas for fly-fishing. And I like to hike. I just really enjoy the mountains.”
Schmidt has also acquired a taste for Rocky’s Pizza in Erwin.
“I like Rocky’s Pizza,” Schmidt said, “but he’s a Green Bay fan.”
Schmidt understands the passion of Wisconsin football. He played at Ball State for Dave McClain, who went on to coach at Wisconsin until he died of a heart attack at the age of 48.
McClain had coached under Woody Hayes at Ohio State, Bo Schembechler at Miami (Ohio) and Pepper Rodgers at Kansas, and he made winners of the Cardinals at Ball State.
“We were in between playing as an independent and joining the Mid-American Conference when I was in college,” Schmidt said. “Dave McClain came to Ball State and really changed the whole mindset, attitude, work. My three years when he was there we played like .500 football. And then the next year they won the Mid-America Conference. And he had a string of three or four years where they either won or were tied for first in the Mid-American Conference. And then he went to Wisconsin and that’s where he was when he died.”
McClain is a proud ambassador for college football, noting the pageantry and passion which can bolster the human spirit.
“I think the important thing – for one, it provided me with an undergraduate education,” he said. “Second of all, the coach I had, Dave McClain … wanted to make sure you grew as a man and that there were more things in life than football and that being a gentleman, being cordial, having character, studying and getting your degree were just as important, if not more, than playing football.”
Ball State is best known by many as the alma mater of David Letterman.
“I actually was a fraternity brother of Dave’s,” Schmidt said with a chuckle. “He graduated the year before I got to school, but he used to come back and entertain during rush. He started his career as a weekend weatherman in Indianapolis, actually. He would come up from time to time.”
Schmidt has seemingly helped about as many people smile as Letterman, and he certainly would’ve made McClain smile with pride in doing so. Schmidt has taken some 35 trips abroad doing dental work via Christians for Worldwide Evangelism.
“I’ve gone to Africa, South America,” he said. “I’ve been on the Amazon River. I’ve been to Central America, Haiti. We build churches and we do medical and dental missionary trips. You would be surprised what some people live with as far as their teeth being infected and broken.
“I enjoy it. A lot of these people don’t have access to medical care or dental care. It’s very rewarding, just giving back to the Lord the way he’s given to me. We’re called to use our gifts to help the widowed, the orphaned and the poor, and that’s what I feel I’m doing by doing that.”
Indeed, after all these years, for many poor and uninsured, he’s still providing great coverage.