Prep Football: Smitty’s death leaves void, inspiration at A.L. Brown

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 11, 2008

By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS ó Offensive line coach Todd Hagler was in his early days at A.L. Brown when he heard an equipment guy whispering in his direction at practice, asking if he needed an energy pill.
“Not really. I’m a pretty energetic guy,” Hagler carefully replied, wondering what sort of outfit he’d signed up with.
Then the equipment man, Jimmy Smith, reached into his pocket and tossed something in Hagler’s direction.
It was a Snickers bar ó and both men broke out laughing.
“We won our football game that week,” Hagler said. “So I had to eat a Snickers every week. That’s how it was with Jimmy. If something was working, you couldn’t change anything.”
Smith died from a heart attack last Wednesday, two days before Brown beat Kings Mountain in the 3AA Western final. The death of a man who was part of the program since 1976 leaves both a void and an inspiration as the Wonders prepare for their biggest game in a decade. Saturday, they play unbeaten, defending state champion Greensboro Dudley.
Defensive coordinator Noah Lyon is concerned mostly with Dudley’s athletes, but Smith ó “Smitty” to players and coaches ó isn’t far from his thoughts.
“He was always sitting there in his chair in the equipment room with it facing out to the locker room so he could see everyone coming in,” Lyon said. “Then he’d start hollering at us, picking at us, fussing at us. That’s the picture that will always stick in my mind.”
Ron Massey remembers meeting Smith for the first time after taking over as head coach.
Allen Reid, who was the equipment manager, introduced the pair.
“It didn’t take long for me to realize Smitty was going to be a high-maintenance individual,” Massey said with a smile. “But he turned out to be a great person to have around.”
With the outwardly gruff Smith, rookies had to earn the right to be Wonders.
Even two-time state player of the year Nick Maddox.
“My first year coming over from the middle school, being a pretty good running back, I came in to get my equipment and he gave me one of the oldest pair of shoulder pads,” Maddox said. “I said, ‘What am I supposed to do with these?’ He said, ‘I hope play football in them.’
“I was hoping to maybe get something better and he said, ‘You haven’t done anything to deserve it.’ That was the essence of Smitty. It was about earning it.”
Once Smith’s respect was earned, no Wonder had a more passionate friend, and there was a special place in his heart for the undersized kids who didn’t play often.
“When I was a freshman, I was pretty sure he didn’t like freshmen at all,” right guard Chris Shaw said. “But once he got to know who you were, he started to love you and you started to love him. He was a big part of the team and bonded with everyone. He loved being up on that hill watching practice, and he loved Friday nights.”
Smith was there in the late 1970s when coach Bob Boswell energized a good program into a nationally ranked state power.
Smith was there when Bruce Hardin kept the bar high and won state championships in 1989 and 1997.
Smith was there as Massey maintained a level of consistent excellence until this year’s breakthrough.
“You look up on the wall at those championship pictures,” Shaw said. “Smitty is always there.”
Always there through the years, offering Snickers bars and his secret recipe for catching carp.
“Smitty was witty,” said Lyon, who spent many Thursdays eating at Lee’s with the equipment guys. “He could think on his feet and say something that would make you laugh. The kids liked laughing at him ó and with him.”
Smith could also be serious, and he was more than happy to let you know where he stood on any subject.
“He’d take charge of the kids and put ’em in line,” Hagler said. “He didn’t candy-coat things much.”
Ten years ago, Smith missed the game in which Brown lost to Massey’s Kings Mountain team in the state playoffs. That loss ended Brown’s 20-game winning streak and Maddox’s career. Smith was absent because he’d undergone triple-bypass surgery.
His health stayed relatively good until recently. Shaw noticed he wasn’t around quite as much this season. Lyon recalls Smith was upset in August and September because he wasn’t physically able to do more.”People don’t realize how much football programs mean to people,” Hagler said. “I saw Smitty sitting in his truck crying once because he didn’t think he was helping enough. He’s crying and his wife’s crying with him. But he was never gonna ask for anything, and if he couldn’t work he wasn’t going to come to practice and just hang out.”
Smith was at practice last Monday. The Wonders lined up, and to each of them Smith dispensed a honey bun and advice on beating Kings Mountain.
Part of the last day of Smith’s life was spent at practice. The equipment guys were short-handed Wednesday, so he was cleaning cleats. He left practice early, around 5 p.m., and the heart attack occurred as he was driving home.
“At first, I was upset with myself for his being here that day,” Massey said. “But then I realized the last place he left was the place he loved most.”
Brown had a home basketball game that night, and police confirmed to coaches that Smith was gone. Most football players didn’t get the shocking news until the following morning.
By Thursday’s practice, there was a wreath on the door and Smith’s picture was displayed in the locker room.
The wreath made the trip to Kings Mountain.
“We wanted to make sure he was with us, so we took the wreath down and put it on the sidelines,” Massey said. “I’m sure Smitty was standing there in heaven, telling someone, ‘Yeah, that’s my team down there.’ And I’m sure he was telling them what we were doing wrong.”Maybe it was just coincidence, but Brown’s defense played its best game of the season at Kings Mountain.
Saturday at 4:30 p.m, the Wonders face an even bigger challenge in Dudley.
The simple chair in the doorway to the equipment room that sits empty except for a flower and Smith’s nameplate will help the Wonders get ready.
“So many things have happened this season, and losing Smitty is one more part of the journey,” Shaw said. “But Smitty was one of the guys who wouldn’t let us get our heads down. If he was here, he would tell us to go out and finish as champions.”n
Bret Strelow contributed to this story.