A Field of Dreams
Perhaps in September, 1968, Abe Brown and Larry Smith had an inkling that they were making history, the first tandem of running backs at Boise State College. Certainly, Brown and Smith knew they were already standing on the shoulders of great Boise Junior College running backs, including Merlin Howard, Dwight Winslow, and Frank Kaaa. But surely they knew they were pioneers.
Neither Brown nor Smith would play a game on artificial turf. Neither would play in a conference game. Neither would play against Idaho. But fullback Abe Brown was the first Mr. Touchdown of the Boise State era, scoring 19 rushing touchdowns, still #8 on the all-time list. And halfback Larry Smith was the first Boise State Bronco to amass 1,000 career yards rushing—no small feat for any Bronco running back under a Coach Tony Knap team. Smith still ranks as the #9 career leader in yards per carry in Bronco history.
The Legend Continues
Since then, Boise State football has seen the likes of Carry Hoshaw, Harry Reiner, and Chester Gray during the Tony Knap era; Fred Goode, Cedric Minter, Terry Zahner, David Hughes, and Rodney Webster of the Jim Criner years—the Renaissance Period of Bronco Running Backs; and NFL-bound Jon Francis, Chris Jackson, and the great Chris Thomas continuing to meet the standard of excellence, leading to the recent succession of Bronco legends:
K.C. Adams, whose magical season sparked the great 1994 Bronco team, punctuated by returning a punt that Rick Woods, the Riverboat Gambler, might have fair caught, for 79 yards in the second game against Cal State Northridge, a twisting, spinning, reckless jaunt through the entire defense, and ending that year by breaking the record for most all-purpose yards in a season;
Eron Hurley, the Nevada walk-on who scored the go-ahead Bronco touchdown in the 4th quarter against Wisconsin (that moment announced the resurrection of the Bronco football program) and who enjoyed the single greatest rushing performance against a Vandal team in that 1998 game for the ages, gaining 254 yards;
Brock Forsey, the Centennial High walk-on who simply became the greatest running back in Bronco history: most career touchdowns, most career all-purpose yards, most yards rushing in a season; starting with his MVP breakout game in the Humanitarian Bowl against Louisville, and capping his senior year by scoring his season record and nation-leading 30th, 31st, and 32nd touchdown against Iowa State in the 2002 Humanitarian Bowl;
David Mikell, whose first start against the Vandals resulted in a 100-yard game, and who became the #5 all-time Bronco rushing leader and the best kick return specialist in Bronco history;
Lee Marks/Antwaun Carter/Jeff Capenter, the running-back-by-committee combo that continued to prove to be the class of the WAC in churning out the ground yards.
Of Mr. Smith and Mr. Minter
If you really want to know the heritage of Bronco running backs, to know the shoulders upon which Mikell, Forsey, Adams, and Thomas stood, you have to appreciate the accomplishments of John Smith and Cedric Minter. Sometime in 2006, Bronco Stadium will erupt over ‘Dollar smashing in from the 3-yard line, or over IJ bowling over an unlucky safety for a 30-yard scamper into the endzone. Amid that roar across Lyle Smith Field will be the reverberations of cheers for the electrifying play of John Smith and Cedric Minter, for feats achieved more than twenty-five years ago.
While Rodney Webster, Jon Francis, and Eron Hurley may have been the big nasties, and Chris Thomas and Brock Forsey the complete packages, surely the most overlooked running back in Bronco history must be John Smith (he finished 7th in voting for running back in the 35th Bronco Anniversary Team). It might be Smith is lost in the record book, as he was overshadowed by the amazing play of quarterback Jim McMillan, the incredible catching talents of Don Hutt, John Crabtree, Terry Hutt, and Mike "Motormouse" Holton. It might be Smith just didn't look all that good on paper, topping out a 572-yard rushing season his senior year. It might be Smith was built more like a flanker—not as skinny as Al Marshall, but certainly a toothpick when compared to Vinny Perretta. And if he had more than 12 rushes in a game, you'd worry if Bill Kollar just might not finally collar Smith and break him in two.
But John Smith was an offensive powerstation, and no Bronco running back had a better record as a receiver. And until Brock Forsey's great 2002 season, no other running back in Bronco history was named conference offensive player of the year, as Smith was in 1975. No Bronco is close to Smith's career yards per carry average of 6.2 yards per clip. He is #3 in career touchdown receptions. His 1975 year was the 14th best in reception yardage, ahead of any other running back. Most impressively, he owns the 3rd highest career yards per reception average, exceeding the Hutt brothers, Holton, Bedard, Wilson, Metcalf, Crabtree, Swillie, Acree, Ikebe, Marshall, Gilligan, Wingfield, and yes, even Winky White. He is the only Bronco to have four receptions of 80 or more yards; Lou Fanucchi is second, with two such receptions. His 86 yard kickoff return against South Dakota State signaled the onslaught against the Coyotes in BSU's first playoff victory in 1973. The following week Smith scored a still standing post-season record 80 yard pass from Jim McMillan, in a blustery, stormy epic shootout in the Division II semi-finals against Louisiana Tech. Until Tyler Jones, no other Bronco, not even Brock Forsey, had scored more than 100 points in two separate seasons.
Smith's breakout performance was in back-to-back games in 1973 against Nevada, where on just 15 carries he ran for 177 yards, which set the Bronco rushing record that Terry Zahner would break in 1977. A week later, he ran for 134 yards on 13 carries against Montana, as the Broncos set their all-time single game rushing record of 513 yards. For his talents, John Smith was selected in the 3rd round by the Dallas Cowboys—no other Bronco tailback has been so highly drafted in the NFL. Of Bronco running backs, Quinton Jones and K.C. Adams were speedier, but no other Bronco back simply outran the opposition as consistently as John Smith. No other Bronco back made the opposition tackle so much air. No other Bronco back ran for so much yardage per touch.
Most Bronco fans forget that Cedric Minter came to Boise State with a great deal of uncertainty about his status. While a celebrated star at Borah High School, a three-sport letterman, state champion in the 100 and triple jump, little brother of speedster Don Minter, heir-apparent of Caldwell High's Ray McDonald, Minter suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during the first play of the first game of his senior year (this reporter, by the way, was a senior at Borah at this time, and I recall the silent disbelief of my classmates as Cedric was hurried off the field). Bronco fans should be grateful for that moment; otherwise, Minter most likely would have received scholarship offers elsewhere too good to refuse. As it was, he received scholarship offers to Oregon and Kansas, but both schools wanted him either as a wide receiver or defensive back. Minter was just too slight, tipping the scales at almost 170 lbs., to be considered a major college running back.
One-year Bronco head coach Jim Criner and Acting President Richard Bullington went to the Minter household that winter, offering Minter a guaranteed try-out for running back, and the late Dr. Bullington personally promised his parents that Minter would finish his degree at Boise State. Both promises, needless to say, were kept.
Some Bronco fans might forget that speed merchant Terry Zahner outshone Minter for much of their freshman year: Zahner in fact made the Big Sky all-conference team, not Minter, in 1977. Zahner was the first Bronco to rush for 200 yards, netting 205 yards against Northern Arizona their freshman year. But because of Zahner, Minter was motivated to improve his game, rushing for 210 yards against Cal Poly and besting Zahner's mark set three games earlier. With fullback David Hughes leading the charge, under transfer quaterback Joe Aliotti's phenomenal junior year, Zahner and Minter led the Broncos in 1979 to their greatest rushing performance: over 250 yards per game average—a full 15 yards better than the next best mark. While Minter eclispsed Zahner and was the recognized starter for their last two seasons, Zahner was always a presence on the team (Zahner's most memorable play was his role in a flea flicker, in which he tossed the ball back to Aliotti, who bombed it 69 yards to Kipp Bedard for the game clinching touchdown against Grambling in the 1980 playoffs).
The most remarkable transformation for Minter was that he became one of the most durable running backs in Bronco history, having carried a record 38 times in a game against San Jose State in 1978. The greatest performance by any Bronco running back was Minter carrying the ball 25 times for 261 yards against Northern Michigan in 1978. It wasn't terribly fancy: pitch the ball to Minter, wait for Hughes to finish off his block, and then full speed ahead. His talent, consistency, motivation, and work ethic made him a three-time All-American in I-AA football. Minter finished his career with a total of 4,475 rushing yards, which still stands as the all-time mark for a Bronco. For the kid too slight to be a major college running back, this 200 lb. back seemed to do just fine with a professional career with the Toronto Argonauts (scoring the last-second winning touchdown for the Grey Cup) and the New York Jets.
The Future Is in Good Hands
Ian Johnson already has his name written in the Bronco history books with the fourth best rushing yards by a freshman (just behind Minter, Thomas, and Zahner). His speed bursts remind us of Minter, and his ability to run through tackles echoes Forsey. Jon Helmandollar, who is about the same size as David Hughes, has speed we haven't seen fully exploited, and if he returns to Mr. Touchdown form, Boise State could have a tandem—supported by the huge talents of Brad Lau and a great offensive line—that honors the tradition of Forsey and Mikell, of Minter, Zahner, and Hughes, and of Brown and Smith.