INDIANAPOLIS – Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson and Houston Texans Executive Vice President/General Manager Rick Smith have a history together.
A friendly history. Now, they will have a friendly rivalry.
The two were teammates at Purdue in 1991 when Smith was a defensive captain and starting strong safety in his final year while Grigson was beginning in the program as a back-up tight end.
What could have been a one-year association instead grew into something much more. The senior defensive back saw something in the younger player and decided to make a gesture of guidance. Little did Smith know that gesture would be returned by Grigson years later when both were making their marks in the NFL.
"When Ryan was a freshman and I was a senior and we were teammates," said Smith. "Like many freshmen, he was struggling a little bit and trying to find his way. He and I, for whatever reason, developed a close relationship. I bought a new Bible for myself and my mom had given me a Bible when I went to college. I talked to Ryan at length many times. One day, I gave him that Bible. He continued to grow and be successful and we would see each other periodically at the (NFL) Combine as he came up as a scout and worked his way up through the business. He kept saying at the Combine, 'Hey, I have something for you.' I never knew what it was. Finally, a couple of years ago, I got a package. It was that Bible. He talked to me about how much it meant to him, how much it helped him. It's those kinds of things that make him successful."
The brotherly act by Smith in 1991 was just one of many shared moments at Purdue.
As Grigson moved to the offensive line in 1992, Smith was hired on as a graduate assistant, serving as the assistant strength and conditioning coach. The 1992 season was a tough one for Grigson when an abdominal injury after five games resulted in a five-week hospital stay where he lost 30 pounds.
Grigson rebounded in 1993 to start 10 of 11 games for Jim Colletto's squad, and Smith continued his graduate assistantship by working with the tight ends. Grigson thrived on the field through diligence, and one example he set in the program yielded the Most Improved Weightlifter Award.
Colletto recalled last week that Grigson's ethic was outstanding as he grew in the program.
"He's one of those stories as a coach you don't come across real often," said Colletto. "When we first got to Purdue, he was a player who really wasn't very good. As you kept working with him and pushing him, his work ethic was unbelievable. He did everything you asked him to do. He got better and better and better. We pushed him really hard, and he made himself a top-flight player."
The pair kept maturing in West Lafayette. Grigson followed Smith's path by being selected as the offensive captain in 1994. Smith was named defensive backs coach that year, becoming the youngest (24 years old) full-time position coach in the Big Ten. That season, the Boilermakers went 5-4-2 to earn the program's first winning record since 1984.
Grigson and Smith went their own professional ways. Grigson was drafted by Cincinnati in 1995 and spent that season and the next with Detroit before ending his playing career in 1997 in the Canadian Football League. He started a personnel career in the CFL and the Arena League before joining St. Louis in 1999 as a scout. Grigson moved on to Philadelphia in 2004 as a scout, then advanced to director of player personnel in 2010. He joined the Colts last week as general manager. Smith left Purdue in 1996 to join Denver in personnel. After a successful career with the Broncos, he joined Houston as general manager in 2006.
The unlikely pairing as competing general managers in the same division came through ethic and effort, something Smith saw in Grigson early on at Purdue.
"I saw a guy that football was very important to him, and being successful was very important to him," said Smith. "He had a tremendous work ethic. I would agree with Coach's (Jim Colletto) assessment, that he wasn't the greatest athlete, but he just worked and continued to work and he bettered himself. I saw the same thing as I watched him grow in this profession as well."
Smith felt that Grigson made extra efforts throughout his career to succeed, but he saw a critical intangible as well.
"I saw that (leading by example), but he also has feel and savvy," said Smith. "He understands social dynamics. I never really felt like Ryan was outside of himself, or that he was trying to be something other than that what he was. That's an important thing, in my opinion, to leadership.
You have to know when to assert yourself and you have to know when to step back. You have to know when to talk and when to just lead by example. He certainly has that.
"I do know that he does have strong opinions and he's not shy about sharing them, but he also is a very good listener. He has a heart. He has some compassion in his heart and understands people."
Just as Smith enjoyed the successes of Grigson in West Lafayette and in subsequent years, he was pleased for what happened in Grigson's career last week.
"I'm elated for him. He's earned it," said Smith. "He's going to do a great job. It's unfortunate in some respects for us (the Texans) because we have to go against him a couple of times. I'm very happy for him. I think Mr. Irsay made an excellent decision."