They called him by the lovable and respected nickname “Cowboy” in the National Football League, and one West Coast newspaper described him as “the iron-clad backbone” of the San Francisco 49ers’ standout defense.

High praise for a highly respected professional.

Then again, perhaps that was to be expected of Justin Smith. He was once just another freshman football player at Jefferson City High School and yet, realizing his unlimited ceiling for success, did absolutely everything to become one of the game’s best – first for one of the state’s most tradition-rich programs, then at the University of Missouri and later as a five-time All-Pro with 880 tackles over 14 NFL seasons.

All of which is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Smith with the Class of 2020.

“As a football coach, you will always be searching for the next Justin Smith, knowing full well you will never find a player quite like him,” then-49ers coach Jim Tomsula, Smith’s position coach since 2008, told the Sacramento Bee newspaper in 2015. “People like to say, ‘They broke the mold with him, but there was never a mold. Justin Smith is a handcrafted football player.”

In the Jefferson City Jays Football Program (MHSOF 2019), Smith helped lead the team to the 1997 state championship in Class 5 – the largest in Missouri – and earned All-State honors.

Truth is, he was only getting warmed up.

At Mizzou, Smith became one of its all-time greats. He was a two-time All-Big 12 selection, First Team All-American as a junior in 2000 and left holding the Mizzou career quarterback sacks record, with 22.5 – a record he set only three seasons. (The record now stands at No. 2 all-time.)

Eleven of those sacks came during his junior season, setting a single-season school record at that. He had 97 tackles and 24 tackles for loss that fall.

And that was all after a tremendous start.

You see, in 1998, Smith was the first true freshman since 1986 to start all 11 games. In fact, he helped the Tigers earn their first bowl win since 1981, as they defeated West Virginia in the Bowl. He was the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, totaling 86 tackles, a team-best 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, and earned freshman All-Americans from several publications.

Of course, on the first day of conditioning that season, Smith lined up for sprints with – get this – the defensive backs. It’s a story that Barry Odom, then a junior linebacker, told the Columbia Tribune newspaper a few years ago.

Odom told Smith he was in the wrong line.

“He’s like, ‘Nah, I’m good,’” Odom said. “He absolutely was good. From the time I was there until the time I left, he never missed a time with conditioning and every time ran with the defensive backs.”

Looking back, Smith helped college football show what Mizzou could be, and the Tigers of the 2000s built on the successes of those mid- to- late 1990s teams.

While Mizzou was enjoying a new golden era, Smith surged to the elite of the NFL.

He declared for the 2001 NFL Draft after his junior season and was the fourth overall pick, by the Cincinnati Bengals. His 14 seasons were evenly split between the Bengals (2001-2007) and 49ers (2008-2014) and played in 221 games, plus made 880 total tackles, including 119 tackles for loss and 87 sacks.

In his first two years, he led Cincinnati in sacks and ultimately finished with 43.5 sacks – fourth-most in Bengals history. He also helped the Bengals to an 11-win season in 2005.

With San Francisco, he was named to five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2009 to 2013. In 2011, Smith was the Sports Illustrated Defensive Player of the Year. He made 185 consecutive starts at one point in his career and played in the January 2013 Super Bowl – and that was a year after being sidelined by an elbow injury.

A left shoulder injury ultimately led Smith to retirement.

“I think the one thing that defines him is that he’s just a true warrior in the truest sense of the word,” former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told the Sacramento Bee. “He played a whole season last year (2014) with half an arm. There are a lot of guys that wouldn’t have even gone out there. But the guy loves football, loves playing, loves competing. He’s definitely in my personal top three or five Hall of Fame (players) that I’ve been around.”