The 68-year-old Schmidt was an All-America cornerback at Ball State, where he set the single-season record with 13 interceptions. Chosen in the fifth round of the 1974 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints, he spent two productive seasons in the “Big Easy” before being traded to the Chicago Bears, with whom he played the rest of his career.
Schmidt played for coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, retiring in 1984 after a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game. He missed out on the Bears’ Super Bowl run the following season.
“When I look back on it, that would have been great,” Schmidt said. “But I was in my first year of dental school and so busy I didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about. I was sure happy for my teammates. We had worked hard the last couple of years under Ditka and the defense had really come together. It was disappointing, but I was happy for my teammates.”
Schmidt had a much larger calling than football.
He attended dental school at Loyola of Chicago and served in the U.S. Naval Reserve. After graduating from Loyola in 1989, he began working in the Veterans Affairs hospital system. He was first in Chicago before moving to Tampa to get to a warmer climate.
Not a fan of the Florida summers, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and then to the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Johnson City, where he served as the head of dentistry before retirement. The treatment of veterans was a passion of Schmidt’s.
“My father served in the Navy in the second World War and I just felt the treating of veterans was great for a couple of reasons,” he said. “In private practice, if you tell somebody they need a root canal or take a tooth out, the root canal is $1,000 or taking the tooth out is $150, they might say, ‘Take the tooth out.’ With the VA, you can do whatever treatment is needed with no monetary value assigned to it.
“Then hearing the patients and their stories of military service, it really makes it worthwhile. I had one guy who was a driver for George Patton in Europe. I treated a guy who had survived the Bataan Death March and treated several Marines who were part of the ‘Frozen Chosen’ at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. I loved to treat the veterans.”
In addition, the retired Naval Reserve commander has performed dentistry work as a Christian missionary over the globe.
Schmidt enjoys reminiscing about his football days with Ditka and Ryan, who was the mastermind behind the legendary 4-6 defense.
The defensive players saved Ryan’s job after the Bears went 6-10 in 1981 under then-coach Neill Armstrong.
“It became apparent there was going to be a coaching change,” Schmidt said. “Neill had a pretty good run, but the team wasn’t playing very well even though the defense was. The defensive players got together and wrote a letter to (Bears owner) George Halas. We told him of the strides we made under Buddy and we felt it would be in the best interest to retain Buddy and the defensive coaches.
“Within a week, Mr. Halas came out to practice and the team huddled around him. He told the offense to go on, he didn’t want to talk to them. He got the defensive guys together and said, ‘This is probably the first time in NFL history a group of players asked to retain a coach when it looked like the head coach would be cut.’ He told us there was nothing to worry about and then Buddy was given a contract even before Ditka was hired.”
Schmidt was part of the “Monsters of the Midway” defense alongside linemen Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael and one of the game’s great middle linebackers, Mike Singletary.
Another Bears teammate, Ron Rivera, is the current Washington Redskins coach. And Schmidt feels linebacker Wilber Marshall is deserving of Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
On and off the field, Schmidt had a particularly close relationship with fellow defensive back Jeff Fisher, who later became the longtime coach of the Tennessee Titans. They were roommates in training camp and on the road.
Schmidt also played with running back Walter Payton, the league’s all-time leading rusher when he retired. Payton was No. 5 in an October 2019 USA Today ranking of best NFL players of all time.
“He was a great person and teammate. If you watch film of Walter, he never tried to avoid tacklers. He ran over them,” Schmidt said. “He dished out more punishment to the tackler than the tackler gave to him. He was a heck of a specimen.
“He had this hill where he lived and he would try to get his teammates to come over there and work out there with him. A lot of them wouldn’t go because that working out on a hill was tremendous. If he’s not the best running back of all time, he’s in the top two.”
Asked about the toughest player he ever had to tackle, Schmidt remembers going head to head with Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell.
“Earl Campbell broke free one time in a game and I had to tackle him by myself,” Schmidt recalled. “I hit him on the 10-yard line and got him down on the 2. O.J. Anderson, who played for St. Louis, was also a load to handle and so was ‘Boobie’ Clark, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals. These guys were big backs hard to bring down.”
He called James Lofton, who played with the Green Bay Packers during that time, the toughest receiver to cover. Schmidt described him as smart, fast and strong.
Schmidt appeared in 143 NFL games during which he made 26 interceptions, recorded seven fumble recoveries and scored three touchdowns.
His favorite memories aren’t individual accomplishments, but the special moments he shared with teammates — such as Payton breaking Jim Brown’s NFL career rushing record against the Saints in 1984 and a victory over the New York Giants in 1977. There was also a historic Monday night win over the rival Packers in 1980.
“We had to beat the Giants to make the playoffs and it was the first time Chicago would be in the playoffs in 15 years,” Schmidt recalled. “We beat New York 12-9 in overtime and that really stands out. The Packers, we beat them 61-7 on Monday night. That’s still the largest margin of victory in the history of the rivalry.”