Bill Smith once kicked an SEC record 92-yard punt for Ole Miss. Credit: Ole Miss athletics

Ruggedly handsome Bill Smith weighed 230 pounds and bench pressed 440 when he punted for Ole Miss in the mid-1980s. Punters aren’t often known for muscle, but Smith, a two-time All American, was one of the strongest Rebels.

Indeed, he was a college punter with the physique of an NFL linebacker. “Bill Smith was built like a Greek god. He might have been the strongest player on the team,” says Tim Bell, a student manager at the time.

In 1985, Smith, strictly a punter, was voted Ole Miss football MVP. How many times does that happen? A punter? MVP? And yet Smith, who came to Ole Miss from Little Rock, Ark, never kicked a single punt in the NFL.

When author Neil White and I were researching “The Mississippi Football Book,” Smith’s numbers jumped off the pages at us. He still holds the Southeastern Conference record for longest punt at 92 yards. He holds the NCAA record for most consecutive games with a punt of more than 50 yards at 32. In pregame warmups, he once booted a punt from the goal line at one end of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium that hit an Arkansas State player in the helmet at the other end of the field, 98 yards away. How in the world, White and I asked one another, did a punter of such astonishing ability not make a living in pro football? Has to be a story there, we surmised.

Rick Cleveland

We surmised correctly. Pour yourself another cup of coffee. You will not believe where this story is headed.

Smith suffered a foot injury in training camp with the Green Bay Packers in 1987. The Pack cut him, and he signed on with the Tampa Bay Bucs. They cut him, too. His agent, a young Jimmy Sexton, just getting started in the business, lined up another tryout with the New England Patriots.

Smith declined. “I was tired of football,” he says all these years later. “I was ready to get on with the real world.” 

As it turns out, Smith’s real world was about to turn surreal.

Smith, you see, had taken a job with Union Pacific Railroad in Dallas. Smith was running several miles a day at the time and working out in the gym. He lost 30 pounds, down to 200. His face became more lean and chiseled. His high cheekbones became more defined. And, as Smith put it, “My abs had abs.”

He was walking through the St. Louis airport when a man, who turned out to be a Los Angeles fashion photographer, stopped him and asked if he had ever thought about modeling. “You’ve got the look,” the guy said. “You ought to think about it.”

Another guy approached him in his Dallas gym asking if he had ever modeled. That guy knew a modeling agent and urged Smith to give the agent a call. 

“What the heck,” Smith thought, and he called and set up a meeting. Long story short: The agent signed him on the spot.

That led to a trip to New York where Wilhelmina, one of the world’s most prominent modeling agencies, wanted to hire him full-time. Smith wasn’t so sure about that. He had a good job with the railroad. He was comfortable. But he did bring it up to his railroad boss, who told him, “You’ll always have a job here, but this opportunity seems to good to pass up. You’ve got give it a shot.”

Smith did. And the work – and the money – began to pour in.

“I spent my time shuttling back and forth between New York and Milan, and from Milan, I got work all over Europe,” Smith said. “I was doing runway modeling in New York and across Europe.”

Ole Miss punter Bill Smith, left, became an international model. Credit: Courtesy, Bill Smith

He modeled men’s clothing. He posed for magazine covers for Men’s Health and Men’s Journal. He did photo shoots for cologne, for men’s suits, blue jeans, and lots of other apparel for men.

“I remember the first time I was walking down the street and saw myself in a big advertisement on the side of a bus. That stopped me dead in my tracks. Man, that was wild,” Smith said.

But that’s not the wildest.

At one point, his agency hooked him up with Harlequin, the publishing company that specializes in romance novels written primarily for women. Smith became the de factor cover boy for Harlequin.

“I posed for over 400 Harlequin book covers,” Smith said. “Would have been more but all those were done in New York and I was spending so much time in Europe.”

An illustrator would come up with an idea for the cover. Smith, usually bare-chested, and a female model would then pose for photos, and, finally, an artist would do a cover illustration from the photos.

Bill Smith was the male model for more than 400 Harlequin romance novels. Credit: Courtesy, Bill Smith

In 2001, tired of living out of suitcases and constantly jetting across oceans and continents, Smith retired from modeling and planned on moving back to Dallas. But then he visited his sister in Denver, fell in love with the Rocky Mountains and moved there. He found a good job in mortgage lending, met his future wife and they have raised a son. 

Bill Smith, at 58.

At 58, Smith, an Ole Miss M Club Hall of Famer, remains a diehard Rebel fan, watches all the Rebels games on TV and returns to Oxford for football weekends at least once.a season. He remains a workout junkie, often biking 50 miles at a time. He said he feels like he is 58 going on 30.

“I would say I have lived an interesting life,” Smith said, making it clear he can’t wait to live the rest of it.

Which did he enjoy most: football or modeling?

“Hard to choose one over the other,” he answered. “I just feel so blessed to have done both.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.