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NFL player Chris Smith gives back to local schools

By David Shaw

sports@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Chris Smith has used his oversized hands and agile feet to forge a still-blooming NFL career with three different teams. Now his big heart has reminded him of where — and how — it all started.

The 2010 West Rowan High School graduate returned to his roots Thursday afternoon, donating $40,000 to Rowan-Salisbury student-athletes and $5,000 to the upstart Essie Mae Kiser Foxx charter school in East Spencer.

“In the NFL, it’s bittersweet,” Smith said, following a brief presentation at the Wallace Education Forum. “People and teammates come and go, but you never forget your high school and the people who helped raise you. That’s why I did this. I’m here to help, man. I’ve been blessed, growing up in athletics, and I just wanted to do this for the next group of athletes.”

Smith — now a fifth-year defensive lineman with the Cleveland Browns — designated $10,000 to his alma mater, half for the football program and half for the athletic department’s general fund. He also granted $5,000 each to the Carson, Salisbury, East Rowan, South Rowan, North Rowan and Henderson athletics expense accounts.

An additional $5,000 went to the new K-4 charter school on North Long Street that opens in August.

“We’re elated that Chris would do this,” said Tina Foxx Wallace, chairwoman for the Essie Mae Kiser Foxx board of directors. “Just knowing that a hometown resident has taken an interest — and sees the importance of having this school in the East Spencer community — is a blessing. We’re very grateful.”

The transactions will take place on July 1. Smith worked with West Rowan athletic director Todd Bell — along with Josh Wagner, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and West coaches Joe Nixon and Mike Gurley — to make the contribution shortly after signing a three-year, $14 million contract with the Browns in mid-March.

“I wanted to do something for all the schools in this area, not just West Rowan,” Smith said. “Even though we compete against each other, we’re still part of the same family. We’re all from Salisbury. That’s what we tell people.

“I had great relationships with coaches and players all around Rowan County. I always stop myself and think about what they’ve done for me. So no matter what school you go to or what sport you play, I just wanted to take care of my hometown.”

Smith was a defensive terror during the 2008 and 2009 football seasons, when West captured the first two of its three consecutive state championships and launched its national-record 46-game winning streak. He earned a scholarship to Arkansas and was a dominant pass rusher, finishing with 122 career tackles and 21.5 sacks.

In 2014, he was selected in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He spent last season in Cincinnati, where he played in all 16 games and was in on 26 tackles for the Bengals. He signed with Cleveland on March 15.

“The first thing I did after I signed was take care of my family,” he said. “My mom and dad were the ones who suggested I do something for Salisbury. They reminded me that without the people around me, none of this would have ever happened.”

Bell was impressed. “It shows the character of Chris Smith,” he said, moments after Smith received a standing ovation from the 60 or so well-wishers in attendance. “He didn’t want to give back to just West Rowan. He wanted to give to every student-athlete in Rowan County. It can be used for anything and everything we need to make our athletic programs work.”

In a short introductory speech, Smith indicated that “everybody’s a piece of the puzzle.” That includes Nixon, West Rowan’s current head football coach and an assistant to Scott Young during Smith’s career.

“Lots of professional athletes give back to their schools,” Nixon said. “You don’t see many giving back to an entire county and community. Nobody enjoys asking for money. I wouldn’t ask Chris for a dime. But he came to us and insisted that nobody gets left out. That’s his caring nature — and it speaks volumes.”

Smith had his uniform No. 42 retired at West’s awards banquet Thursday night. Nixon also announced that the inaugural Chris Smith Rowan County Football Jamboree — an all-day scrimmage among county squads — is scheduled Aug. 10 at West Rowan.

“What he’s done is helped us at the school level,” said Wagner. “You’re always floored when somebody cares enough to come back and help, especially somebody who leaves the area or the state to find success. This was huge.”

Smith also runs a charity called Chris’s Closet and maintains the message is a simple one: Sharing is caring.

“I truly believe that,” he said. “That’s why I had to get this done. This is home.”

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