Aug. 12, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Before Walter Smith walked away from Georgia Tech on Friday for the last – and some might say first — time, he turned over in his mind many times the 30 years he spent on The Flats caring for Yellow Jackets, particularly the hundreds of baseball players he mended and tended on the way to 1,244 wins.
Yet among all the colorful replays in his mind’s eye, he hasn’t been able to stop seeing three breaks in his life’s path that as separate events might seem interesting but benign only to be viewed together as his personal divine trinity.
This long, lean man never would have landed at Tech as the baseball trainer on July 1, 1985, but for providential script changes that made him a student trainer in middle school, won a college scholarship to keep him out of the Vietnam War, and prompted a random visit to Tech three decades ago that scored a dream job.
Truth is, if he weren’t such a scrawny kid while growing up on Auburn Avenue after being baptized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Walter Smith Training Room in Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium would not have borne that name since 2003.
Smith loved to ball with his buddies back in the day, but he wasn’t much good.
“I was like a fourth string defensive back,” he recalled. “I never really played, maybe one game where some guy ran over me. We got to eighth grade, and the coach had a weight restriction. If you didn’t weigh 105 pounds or something, you couldn’t play. I was like 98 pounds. That eliminated me, plus I couldn’t play.”
Crushed, a boy went home to sulk.
The next day, that coach interrupted a life in formation.
“He said, ‘I saw how disappointed you were yesterday. What’s your name again? Why don’t you be my trainer?’“ Smith said. “I didn’t know what that was, but I instinctively said, ‘I’ll do it.’“
He hasn’t stopped since, at least not until Friday, when Smith retired after three decades.
From age 13 to within weeks of his 65th birthday, Smith was devoted to helping athletes. Over most of that time, he nearly always was at Tech, or his alma mater, Morris Brown, or on a work trip. In his first few days on the job all those years ago, a mantra bubbled up to carry him to manhood, away from war and into a career.
“I go out to practice . . . coach never said nothing. First three days, nobody said anything so I go to the coach and say, ‘You told me to be out here, and you’d tell me what to do. Practice started on Monday and it’s Thursday now.’”
“He said, ‘Walt, I wanted to see if you were going to show up.’” That’s kind of been my rallying cry. I show up. Anybody who knows me knows Walt is going to be in the training room rain, sleet, snow, whatever . . . I’m going to be there and for a long time.”
Smith began doubling as Tech’s equipment manager in 2002, when he told head coach Danny Hall he could do better than the students who kept turning over year after year.
He had, after all, spent countless hours observing the way the Braves did it while working as an usher at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-’80 and years beyond while dropping in to make professional observations.
“It’s unbelievable. He may be the most caring person I’ve ever been around,” Hall said. “He wants to help everybody, especially our players … his work ethic was that strong.”
If not for a couple more twists when Smith was a young man, he might have blazed other trails.
That work rate, though, steered him as a sort of auto-pilot.
As a freshman, Smith was elevated to varsity trainer at the old Howard High School at a time when, “there was no such thing as a ninth grader being on the varsity on any team.”
Howard head coach T. Herman Graves, who would line up the usher job for Smith, offered a career bump before Smith had a career.
“He said, ‘We voted to let you be varsity trainer as a ninth grader. Get your butt down to the varsity,’“ Smith said with a wry smile. “As I’m running, something told me to look back at my buddies who laughed when I didn’t make the team. Now, I’m varsity as a ninth grader, and where were they going? The B team.”
With high school winding down, Smith worried. War was raging half a world away, and thousands of young men his age were going via draft.
One day, not long before MLK, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he said he took a meal prepared by his mother to King in the pastor’s study in old Ebenezer Baptist Church. Smith gave voice to fear.
“Rev. King still tried to preach there about once a month, and that was where he worked on his speeches, his sermons,” he said. “He said, ‘Walt, what are you going to do about college?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. We ain’t got no money, and my brother Jack is at Morehouse.’ My parents couldn’t afford both of us.
“I did not want to go to Vietnam because I just couldn’t see myself killing somebody. If you’re not killing nobody I’m going to be killed. Simple as that. You freeze up, whatever. He said, ‘You’ll be alright.’“
Again, fate would intervene. Smith said a Morris Brown assistant football coach who taught physical education at Howard, “told the new head coach and athletic director at Morris Brown about me.”
“That Morris Brown coach, James Abrams, had coached at South Fulton High and I knew him. The [student] trainer at Morris Brown, Charles Guyton, was a senior. He was graduating and he had a trainer’s scholarship, a full scholarship. They talked them into giving me Charles’ scholarship.”
Nearly ready to graduate from Morris Brown in 1972 with a degree in physical education, Smith was planning to attend the University of Arizona for graduate studies because, “I figured if I went to the West Coast I’d have a better chance as a black trainer. Charles [Guyton] was already in Los Angeles, and that wasn’t far.”
But a couple things happened.
Sitting on a stool in the training room named after him, he nodded at nearby daughter Tamika, who was waiting that day to attend a retirement reception for her father in Tech’s Letterwinner’s Lounge. “I met her mother, and got married.”
Barbara and Walter Smith stayed in Atlanta, where he got two jobs. First, Morris Brown hired him part-time after graduation, but that wouldn’t pay all bills.
Smith visited Martin Luther King, Sr., father of the slain civil rights leader.
“He said, ‘Walt, what are you doing about a job?’ I said I don’t have one, but I’d like to be a physical therapist,” Smith said. “He picks up the phone, calls Grady Hospital and talks to J.W. Pinkston, the executive director. He says, ‘J.W., this is Reverend King. I’m sending one of my church members down there, and I want you to give him a job.’
“Later, [Pinkston] had called physical therapy and they had no positions. He said, ‘Come with me to the respiratory department.’ He told the chief, ‘I want you to give him a job.’ That’s how I got in respiratory therapy.”
That job brought benefits, with Smith working nights and showing up at Morris Brown, and later Tech, in the mornings after napping for a couple hours in a dorm or wherever he could. He used his Grady vacation days for Tech baseball road trips after having been pushed to The Flats by curiosity.
Morris Brown had a day off during spring football practice in 1985.
“I was kind of bored with nothing to do. I decided to walk over to Georgia Tech and visit with Bill McDonald, who was the head trainer at the time. They were having spring practice,” Smith said. “They were already on the field and the baseball team had a game that night so we could hear the ping of the bats.
“Bill out of the blue said, ‘I’m looking for a staff person for the baseball team,’ because they had always just had a student trainer. I just instinctively said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Then, somebody got hurt so he walked off.”
Those instincts kept firing.
“Something told me to go over the next day. I came over and Bill had just finished taping ankles and he called me in his office, and said he’d talked to [athletic director] Homer Rice, and ‘We’re going to hire you for baseball. Can you start July 1st?’”
For the next 30 years, Smith only rarely left campus other than to travel with the Jackets. He helped with football up to ’99, visited the Braves many times, worked with NFL teams as a training camp guest in ’84 and ’85 (Falcons), ’86 (Dolphins) and ’98 and ’99 (Eagles), and occasionally counseled at Morris Brown.
For a while he had four jobs going at once: Grady, Morris Brown, Tech and as a consultant at Atlanta Metro College. That was a good gig in that it led him to be retained as the practice site trainer for the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams during the 1996 Olympic Games.
“That was the best kept secret in Atlanta, that the Dream Team (II) was practicing at Metro,” Smith said. “It was so much fun, those guys playing jokes on each other and on the staff. They had a heck of a team.
“[Scottie] Pippen, Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, Grant Hill, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond, [Gary Payton, John Stockton, Charles Barley, Penny Hardaway] and coach [Bobby] Cremins was an assistant coach.”
Oh, the tricks he picked up from pros over the years.
He deployed one fabulously upon former Tech pitcher/slugger Micah Owings.
“We’re getting ready to play Wake Forest in the new stadium [in 2003],” he said. “Micah was the starting pitcher on Friday, and somebody left a baseball in the baseline and he steps on a ball and sprains his ankle after batting practice on Thursday. They had to fireman’s carry him into the training room.”
“One of the things I learned from the NFL is called a gel cast, made with Calamine lotion. You wrap it up, it’s always pink. That draws the edema out of a joint. I said, ‘Micah, wear this all night. It’s going to be messy, and come in tomorrow morning.’
“He comes in and I go to work. At 1 o’clock I got him off crutches, and at 3 I’m taping his ankles so he can take batting practice, then cut off tape and put him in cold whirlpool. Tape him again . . . he pitches eight innings, hits a game-winning home run and won the game as a pitcher.”
Smith doesn’t claim hobbies, and although he now will, “have all kinds of time,” he’ll stay busy.
He’ll see more of his wife of 41 years, daughter Tamika and son Gabriel, who all live in metro Atlanta along with Walt’s three grandchildren.
If you have time, he can tell stories about all the time that he’s put in, and how he wants to resume work on his memoirs — a book about a life full of work.
He’s got a pride out there.
Major Leaguers Matt Wieters of the Orioles and Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies are among former Jackets who most often stay in touch. Smith said 10 of his former students are head trainers at the high school, college and pro levels – including James Collins of the Chargers and Seanta Cleveland of Atlanta’s Dream.
It’s a sure bet that he’ll keep telling stories like the one about former outfielder Darren Bragg. The two-time All-American played for the Jackets from 1988-’91.
“We’re in New Orleans, Friday night game, and Darren is one of my favorite players. He’s like Lenny Dykstra, hard-nosed, all out,” Smith said. “Bang-bang play at home, and he goes in left hand first, and hit the catcher’s spikes. He’s cut from here to here. He jumps up and runs to me and I see the blood so I know it’s bad.
“I put pressure on it and wrap it up. I said, ‘Darren, you need stitches.’ A parent takes him to the emergency room. About 2:30 or 3 a.m. at the hotel, there’s a knock and he comes in. I asked how many stitches. He said 15. I said, ‘You’re going to be out about 10 days.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’m playing tomorrow night.’ You’re going to find a pad for me.”
A few hours later, Smith briefed then-head coach Jim Morris.
“I said, ‘Darren got 15 stitches, but he said he’s going to play tonight,’“ Smith remembered. “Coach Morris cusses me out; that’s coach Morris.”
The trainer went to his magic bag and crafted a pad for the palm of Bragg’s left hand, played catch with him, had him hit off a tee, and briefed Morris again.
“I told coach Morris, ‘You won’t believe this but I think he can play,’“ Smith said. “Coach Morris cussed me out again.
“He goes out and makes a diving catch in the outfield, hits a home run and a double, and never missed a game playing the next three weeks with 15 stitches in his hand with that pad.”
In Hall’s first season as coach, in ’94, Smith treated shortstop Nomar Garciaparra’s horribly sprained ankle to where he was able to pinch hit late at home against No. 1 North Carolina.
This tale is less about a miracle cure than it is a testament to all that Smith has witnessed in three decades with Tech (and 12 at Morris Brown, plus volunteer time on top of that after he joined the Jackets).
“Coach Hall asked me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘He can hit, but he can’t run.’ I tape him up heavily,” Smith said. “We get to the eighth inning, a runner on second — which is the tying run. Two outs, and coach Hall said, ‘Send him out.’ Nomar hits a two-hopper to the shortstop, and he fields and throws 10 feet over the first baseman’s head.
“The runner on second scores, the game is tied. Nomar isn’t halfway to first yet. The play won’t be dead until he gets to second . . . and the crowd is going crazy, the North Carolina coach is kicking trashcans. For about 45 seconds, it’s total chaos. In the bottom of the ninth, Jason Varitek hits a solo home run to win it. I tell people we won because of who Nomar was. That shortstop freaked out.”
Nobody affiliated with Tech baseball will soon forget Walter Smith. He was a part of their family for 29 years. In all that time and still, he’s been a caregiver first.
“If he feels like he can do something, no matter the circumstances, he’d give you the shirt off his back,” Hall said. “He’s a very giving person. He does have a sense of humor, but there’s nobody who wants to win more than he does, and he actually can tell you how many victories he has as a trainer.”
This story teller is not really walking away, after all. It seems he just can’t. His first family vacation is in planning stages, yet he doesn’t figure to vanish.
Smith has 1,244 wins and so much more to remember. He’s not leaving it all behind.