Sports obituary: Smith was special, on the field and off

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 20, 2023

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — It’s early November 2009, North Iredell is playing at West Rowan, and NI running back Matt Ramseur is smart enough to see that multiple Falcons are swarming toward the football and the sweep that’s been called is going nowhere.

So Ramseur stops in his tracks, cuts back and heads in the opposite direction. He sees nothing but grass for one happy moment, but then he suddenly is caught from behind by a defensive end who weighs 245 pounds.

The tackler’s name is Chris Smith. Ramseur is smashed for a loss of 7 yards by Smith in what will become a 55-6 West Rowan victory, one more brick in the wall of what will become an epic 46-game winning streak, the nation’s longest at the time.

Smith died at 31 on Monday, just 14 years removed from teen-age glory days at West Rowan. A lot happened to Smith in those 14 years. He starred at the University of Arkansas in college, persevered eight years on NFL rosters and practice squads, fathered three children, befriended hundreds and benefited thousands with his generosity.

Smith was one of the special ones to come through Rowan County. Off the field as well as on it, he was special. You can start looking now for someone who didn’t like Smith, and 10 years from now you’ll still be searching. He was a joy to be around, always the perfect teammate, humble and spirited. His huge hands and huge feet were matched only by an even larger heart.

On the field, Smith brought unusual explosiveness, speed and strength to the field in high school, and outstanding coaches such as Steven Williams and the late Scott Young helped him maximize his natural talent and turn it into production.

“Chris has got what you can’t coach,” Young told the Post in 2009. “He’s got that God-given ability and speed. He plays so much faster than other people we watch.”

It’s a true story that Smith didn’t play football at all as a freshman at West.

His head was full of hoop dreams at that point, even though his vertical growth had stopped at 6-foot-1 and his shooting range wasn’t much longer than his body. But he could rebound and defend and bang with the best. A man among boys. Mike Gurley, West Rowan’s basketball coach, dubbed Smith “Hercules” for obvious reasons. When Smith would whip off his basketball warmups, his muscles would bulge, opponents eyes would widen and West fans would smile, knowing another victory was about to be claimed.

Friends such as K.P. Parks got Smith on the football field when he was a sophomore. It wasn’t long after Smith debuted on the gridiron that college coaches started figuring out there was another highly recruitable player in Mount Ulla.

The eye-popping stats and All-State accolades piled up. As a high school junior, Smith racked up 28 sacks.

He drew automatic double-teams as a senior. His sacks dropped to 16.5, but Smith grinned as teammates such as Eli Goodson terrorized West’s opponents. West kept rolling, so Smith was content.

As a senior in the fall of 2009, Smith enjoyed one of the most powerful conclusions to a high school career anyone from Rowan County has ever had. He was defensive MVP of the 3A state championship game, followed by defensive MVP honors in the Shrine Bowl, where Parks, Smith and their North Carolina teammates beat South Carolina 24-14. Smith had eight tackles, two sacks and scooped up a fumble and rumbled 67 yards for a touchdown.

Smith was a three-star recruit who drew broad college interest. He was ranked among the nation’s top 40 defensive ends. He had the skills, the grades and the personality. He was the Jalon Walker of his era. He played the drums for his church and said and did all the right things. Arkansas wanted Smith badly and treated him like a king when he visited.

Smith wanted Arkansas. Yes. it was far away, but it was the SEC, and he wanted to see if he could play against the best.

Smith didn’t redshirt at Arkansas. The Razorbacks needed him for depth right away. He played a little as a freshman, kept working, and played more as a sophomore. By his junior year he was a standout. He totaled 18 sacks his last two seasons, made second team All-SEC as a senior and earned the full attention of NFL scouts. After he ran a 4.71 40 at the 2014 NFL Combine, there was no doubt he’d be drafted.

There was talk of Smith going as early as the second round, but he lasted until the fifth round when the Jacksonville Jaguars made him the 159th pick.

Smith didn’t complain about it. He was grateful to be picked anywhere and by anybody. He was grateful for a signing bonus of $187,252 and grateful for a contact that paid him a little over $600,00 every year for his first four seasons in the NFL. Those are modest numbers in the modern NFL, but to Smith he’d hit the lottery. He was being paid to play football.

Smith bulked up to 266 pounds for the NFL, but he still was something of a tweener. He was never perceived as an every-down linemen who could defend the run and was pigeonholed as a “Leo,” a pass-rush specialist to be employed on third-and-long. Every year Jacksonville would talk about an expanded role for Smith, but it never happened.

Still, each season, Smith worked at his craft to get better, strived to find ways to get on the field more. Each preseason he optimistically talked about doubling his sacks total. Each year the Jaguars brought in more guys to play ahead of him. He embraced each of those new Jaguars as a friend, as a brother, did everything he could to help them. That’s who he was.

He played in 19 games for the Jaguars.

He was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017 (for a seventh-round draft pick) and got his first serious chance to play with the Bengals.

He showed enough in Cincinnati that he hit the jackpot when he became a free agent. In March 2018, the Cleveland Browns offered him a $12 million contract for three seasons, with a $3,500,000 signing bonus. Smith couldn’t say no to that.

His time in Cleveland included the tragic death of his girlfriend in 2019. She was struck by a vehicle after Smith’s car was parked on the side of the highway with a tire issue.

Smith bounced around the NFL for a while after he was waived by the Browns in December 2019.

He was elated when the Carolina Panthers signed him, but he never was elevated from the practice squad to game action.

Next came a playing stint with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020 and 2021 pit stops on the practice squads of the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans.

He was out of football in 2022, but he launched a comeback in March of this year when he signed with the XFL’s Seattle Sea Dragons.

He was a reserve defensive end for the Sea Dragons and had made five tackles while appearing in five games.

“Chris was a powerful presence in the locker room,” the XFL team stated in a press release.  “Loved and admired by his teammates and the coaching staff. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his entire family at this difficult time.

Smith’s NFL career – eight seasons, 72 games ( two starts), 80 tackles with 12 for loss, 11 sacks, 26 quarterback hits, six pass deflections and three forced fumbles — was noteworthy, but his contributions were far greater in the community and in the locker room.

Those who were NFL teammates of Smith were emotional on Twitter after his death was announced on Monday.

Said quarterback Baker Mayfield, who played with Smith in Cleveland: “To know Chris was to love him. Heaven got a good one. We’ll never forget you and we’ll always miss you. RIP Chris.”

What Smith did off the field locally was praiseworthy.

In 2018, Smith donated $40,000 to Rowan-Salisbury student-athletes and $5,000 to the Essie Mae Kiser Foxx charter school in East Spencer. He didn’t just donate to West Rowan. He donated to all of West’s neighbors and rivals.

It was Smith whose donation got the Rowan County Football Jamboree — the annual football scrimmage that includes all the Rowan County squads — off the ground.

Smith wore jersey numbers 98, 94, 50 and 92 during his NFL journey, but he had gone back to wearing his familiar No. 42 for the Sea Dragons.

That’s the jersey number Smith wore when he was just getting started, the number that is retired in his honor at West Rowan.

“Chris was a better person than he was a player,” West head coach Louis Kraft said.  “The impact he had on those around him will be remembered forever.”

No cause of death has been disclosed at this time.