Super Bowl XLI Game Preview - Chicago Bears vs. Indianapolis Colts
Super Bowl XLI Game Preview - Chicago Bears vs. Indianapolis Colts
Damontray Darty is bouncing on a trampoline outside his trailer home, parked amid the run-down houses in this one-stoplight town.
The 9-year-old is wearing a blue football jersey, clutching a big white teddy bear, and even bigger dreams.
``I want to play football,'' he said, ``then be a coach in the NFL.''
Why not? A guy who grew up 100 yards away did exactly that.
Lovie Smith is living proof that a little boy's dream can come true in small-town America.
``Everyone talks about him, looks up to him, wants to be like him,'' said 17-year-old Vanity Darty, Damontray's sister. ``If he can do it, I can, too.''
Sunday, Smith will be calling the shots for the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, across the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami from Tony Dungy, who will be doing the same for the Indianapolis Colts. Together, they will make history as the first black head coaches on the sidelines of the National Football League's title game.
Lest anyone think the folks in Smith's hometown regard him differently now, perhaps as someone unapproachable, forget it.
``Around here, he's just Lovie,'' high school classmate Marie Rogers Dotson said.
``About the only thing that's changed in Lovie is his Afro,'' said Big Sandy elementary school teacher Lynda Childress, who befriended Smith during his year working there.
``What you see with Lovie is what you get,'' she added. ``He's always been that way. He never had a bad word to say about anybody, just a positive attitude that would boost your spirits - always. I cannot think of a better goodwill ambassador for Big Sandy.''
To make sure he knows how important he still is back home, Childress faxed him some handwritten letters from her students.
Said one: ``I'm so glad you are from Big Sandy. You have shown me that if I set goals, I can be anything I want.''
Said another: ``Everyone in Big Sandy is excited that you became the first Black American coach in the Super Bowl. It will be even better when you win the Super Bowl.''
Heck, there's no telling how folks will respond if that happens. This little town hasn't had this much attention since murder suspect Jerry ``Animal'' McFadden escaped from the county jail in 1986, prompting the largest manhunt in state history.
Although Smith and Dungy are fast friends and forever locked in NFL lore by this turn of events, they grew up in places that are hardly comparable.
Big Sandy is 100 miles east of Dallas, roughly halfway to Shreveport, La. The name came from piles of beautiful white sand that long ago were sold and hauled away on the two railroad tracks that cross here.
The town was founded in the 1870s, when the first train chugged through. The population was around 1,000 in 1958, when Smith was born. The latest census counted only a few hundred more residents.
Driving across town on U.S. Highway 80, the main road, takes two minutes, three if you hit red on the town's only traffic light.
Although one of the city-limits signs boasts ``Needlecraft Capital of the South,'' the biggest employer is a company that fills magazine subscription and catalog orders. There are no fancy neighborhoods, no major attractions. The movie theater left decades ago. The old roller-skating rink is now a dance hall for senior citizens. The Dairy Queen was replaced by a pizza joint that has since been abandoned.
There is one drawing card: booze.
Big Sandy is one of the few ``wet'' spots in East Texas, which explains why five liquor-wine-beer stores occupy the intersection of 80 and Texas 155. Two stores even offer drive-thru service.
``It doesn't pose any problems,'' Mayor Sonny Parsons said. ``And it does play a great part in our economy.''
Dungy hails from Jackson, Mich., a rust-belt town about 75 miles west of Detroit with 35,000 residents.
The town is hurting - like the entire state - because of a slumping economy that keeps taking hits from the sagging automobile industry. Many of the mom-and-pop shops that manufacture auto parts are idle.
Jackson would be even worse off if it wasn't for jobs provided by state-funded prisons and Consumers Energy, a utility company. Still, the town has two country clubs and the Cascades - a concrete waterfall that is illuminated at night and has attracted visitors since 1932.
Smith grew up in a house two blocks from where the Darty children live, on what was called Church Street until two years ago, when it was renamed Lovie Smith Drive.
Only 250 yards long, the street is a mess of scrubby woods and chain-link fences. The Smith home burned down years ago. The lone house left is boarded up, with a ``Keep Out!'' sign on the door.
Mae and Thurman Smith raised all five of their children in this neighborhood. While Mae was pregnant with Lovie, Thurman's Aunt Lavana vowed the child ``won't never want for nothing'' if the baby was named after her.
``Then when Lovie came, he was a boy, so I had to change that around. I couldn't name him Lavana, you know,'' Mae said, laughing. ``I just thought, 'Lovie Lee sounds like a boy's name to me.'''
Mae and Thurman stressed religion and education, telling the kids they could be anything they wanted through hard work and by treating people the right way, regardless of skin color - not always an easy thing in East Texas in the '50s and '60s.
Thinking back, she recalls her simple parenting formula: ``I tried to raise them all to be nice and get along with everybody. I tried to send them all on the right path.''
Mae went to work every morning making chairs at a furniture company. Thurman mostly went drinking.
Alcoholism forced him into hospitals when Lovie was just a youngster. Because older brother Will already had moved away, Lovie became the man of the house to his mother and three sisters.
``Everything just kind of fell on him,'' Mae said. ``That made him grow up.''
Although he was always the first to meet Mae when she arrived home on Fridays to unload a week's worth of groceries from the car, Lovie had a mischievous side, too.
His sister, Sandra, recalls 15-year-old Lovie, cousin Gary Chalk and others playing volleyball outside their church, deciding it was too hot and moving their game into the air-conditioned chapel.
Until the deacon caught them.
``Mother and Gary's mother were all upset. They'd never heard of anyone playing volleyball in the church before,'' Sandra says, giggling. ``Gary and Lovie had to apologize to the community, so I think they learned their lesson.''
Despite Thurman's problems, Smith was close to his father. Mae finally pried Thurman from the old neighborhood in 1983, getting him away from friends who, she said, were a bad influence. He died in 1996 of emphysema, his son's first year coaching in the NFL.
Around the time they left Big Sandy, diabetes left Mae blind. The disease recently caused problems with her right foot, leaving it heavily bandaged, but it won't stop her from going to the Super Bowl.
Smith, a member of the National Honor Society, was voted ``Most Likely To Succeed'' by the other 33 members of his graduating class at Big Sandy High.
But he stood out most on the football field.
Smith was a linebacker and tight end on Wildcats teams that were unbeaten from 1973-75, winning three straight Class B state titles. The '75 team scored 824 points, a national record that lasted 19 years. Their opponents only managed 15 points the entire season.
David Overstreet, later a running back for the Miami Dolphins, was the offensive star, and Smith anchored the defense. Former teammate Rickey Caughron said foes were lucky to face Smith only once a year. Caughron joked, ``I'd probably be a little bit taller'' if not for butting heads with Smith three times a week in practice.
Joe Fitzgerald, whose mother worked with Mae, helped Smith get a scholarship to Tulsa. A solid college player, he got a look from the Atlanta Falcons but didn't make the NFL as a player. So he returned to Big Sandy in 1980 and went to school superintendent Charles Penney looking for a job.
``I said we didn't have anything but a junior high coaching job,'' Penney recalled. ``He said, 'I'll take it.'''
Smith taught history and helped with the varsity. His squad of seventh- and eighth-graders won every game.
``Lovie was so gentle. He was not going to crack a whip on you like some coaches,'' said Mark McDonald, a seventh-grade linebacker on that squad. ``He would always look through your eyes. He respected us. He knew when enough was enough. We always loved to go to practice. He made it fun.''
A year later, Smith moved on to a high school in Tulsa, beginning a climb up the coaching ladder that would include six college jobs and two in the NFL before taking over the Bears in 2004.
Folks say many of the qualities that make Smith a successful coach can be traced right back to Big Sandy.
His loyalty is best exhibited in the way he stuck by Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, no matter how badly he played at times, resisting the temptation, and cries from fans, to turn to veteran backup Brian Griese.
It's similar to the way he stuck by his troubled father. He still insists Thurman was the best dad he could've had.
``He was really crazy about his daddy,'' his mom said.
His humility is best evidenced in the story Leigh Callaway tells.
Her husband, Scott, became Big Sandy's coach when Smith was defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams. He was visiting town soon after Callaway was hired and went to meet the new coach. Callaway wasn't there, but Leigh was. She asked Smith if he wanted to leave a resume, presuming he was there seeking work as an assistant coach.
``He could've said, 'I've already got a job, ma'am - in the NFL!' But he did not even smile, God love him,'' she said.
She remained embarrassed until Smith returned years later to speak at a football banquet.
``He said, 'Don't you worry about that. You know how coaching is; you just hold onto that offer, I might need it one of these days,''' she said. ``He's just so normal.''
Scott Callaway ended up leading Big Sandy to the state title game in 2005. It was the first time the team made it since Smith's senior year. He sent an e-mail of encouragement that was printed up and put in each player's locker that week. Alas, the Wildcats lost by one point.
Then there's his faith.
The Smiths were Wednesday and Sunday regulars at Brown's Chapel, a little, nondescript Methodist church near where his mom's seven siblings and their offspring lived.
Brown's Chapel moved a few years ago into a red-brick building with white trim that's the envy of all the other churches in the area. It was paid for, in large part, by the checks Smith has sent every month of his adult life.
``As he grew higher, the amount grew higher,'' his sister, Martha, said.
For a while last week, only one sign along the highway noted the local hero, but by the weekend, things picked up. Messages like ``Lovie - You Rock!'' and ``Next Superbowl Champs, the Bears'' were painted on the windows at city hall. Then Mayor Parsons climbed into the basket of a cherry picker and personally changed the letters on the official marquee to ``Big Sandy Loves Lovie Smith Go Bears.''
About 20 of Smith's relatives are planning to travel to Miami for the Super Bowl. His four siblings will meet at their mom's house in Tyler, then caravan over Friday morning. Mae doesn't fly, so they always drive to games.
The last one she went to was against the Dolphins in early November; Chicago lost for the first time all season. Before that, she attended the playoff game the Bears lost last year.
See a pattern? She did, so she asked her son, ``Are you sure you want us to be at the Super Bowl?''
``He said, 'Yeah, Momma, there wasn't nothing to that,''' she said. ``He's not superstitious.''
The folks in Big Sandy are having a pep rally downtown on Super Bowl Sunday. The high school band and cheerleaders are going to perform, and they've borrowed a Bear mascot costume from a nearby high school.
``This is East Texas. We have pep rallies before football games,'' organizer Susan Hubbard says.
A game-watching party will follow at Church of God, which has a big projector screen and room for up to 1,000 people. They'll be serving free chili, both beef and venison.
Win or lose, Smith always will be a big deal here.
Some key figures already are thinking about ways to harness the momentum.
Parsons, the mayor, hopes to build a youth center, something the town has never had.
Childress, the elementary school teacher and a former mayor, wants to put Smith's picture on a sign, with ``plenty of room for his future accomplishments - because there will be more.''
And Hubbard, the pep-rally organizer and a chamber of commerce member, is aiming for a permanent reminder on the city-limits sign, proclaiming this the hometown of Super Bowl coach Lovie Smith.
``Hopefully,'' she said, ``Super Bowl CHAMPION coach.''