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September 12, 1994 - Image 17

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1994-09-12

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The Michigan Daily - SPORTSMonday - Monday, September 12, 1994 - 7

Continued from page 1
at me, walking through alleys and
people coming out and shooting. I
just could have been at the wrong
place at the wrong time. I'm blessed."
Smith estimates that, as of last
week, eight or nine of his childhood
iends have been shot and killed.
Like most of his acquaintances from
the innermost part of inner-city De-
troit, they were drug dealers.
If he weren't an athlete, Smith
says, "I probably would have sold
drugs. Being in the streets, you're
gonna always want more, and I prob-
ably would have went that way. All
my friends sell drugs. Or did. Or
anted to."
Smith runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5
seconds. If he ran it a second slower,
he would not be an athlete. He would
not be at Michigan. He would be a
drug dealer. There is a strong chance
he would be dead.
One second is all that separates
Walter Smith from death. Under-
stand? Walter Smith is lucky.
( Smith grew up fighting. That's
how things were done in his neigh-
borhood. Guy walks up to you, starts
picking on you. If you hit the guy,
he'll hit you. If you try to walk away,
he'll hit you. You have no choice but
to fight.
"People know that if you're gonna
fight them as hard as they're gonna
fight you, they won't bother you,"
Smith says. "So that's what hap-
'ened. My mindset is that I don't care
ifthey'vegotagun ornot. I don'tcare
at all. They might have a gun, they
might not have a gun, but I'm not ever
gonna let someone dominate me. I
wouldn't be scared. When I go home
and I think, 'Well, gosh, I could have
gotten killed,' then I get scared a little
At night, when young Walter
Smith was trying to sleep, he did not
worry about the mysterious monsters
:that could have been lurking under
ohis bed. He worried about the mon-
sters outside his room, the ones who
announced their presence by firing
"I would want to live in a nice
environment," Smith says. "The sub-
urbs or something. I say this all the
dime: I would like to rest my head in a
place where I'm not gonna be ner-
vous sleeping. I've seen deaths, I've
seen shootings, I've seen all types of
things. It could have made me a bad
person. To me I could be a bad guy or
good guy. There's not a big differ-
He says he was not scared. He

says he was very scared. That's how
Walter Smith has lived his life. He is
not even sure of his own fear.
Perhaps that is what made Smith
the football player he has become.
For three seasons, he was the best
special teams player on the team.
Smith, not always the fastest player
on Michigan's special teams, would
always be the first one downfield on
kickoffs, desperately trying to make
some kind of contact with someone in
the wrong jersey. . .
"I go down there fast and try to kill
the guy," Smith says. "I try to hurt
him bad. I try to knock his head off.
He should know from watching film
of me that he shouldn't be out there
running kickoffs back."
Maybe he pictures the kick returner
as apunk from Detroit who used to pick
on him. Maybe he pictures the oppo-
nent as somebody who used to shoot
guns outside his window, keeping him
up at night. Maybe he does not need
pictures. Maybe he knows that nobody
standing across the field has ever done
anything for Walter Smith, who is frus-
trated and angry and tired and disap-
pointed and would like nothing more
than to run downfield and take
somebody's head off.
That's why he chose to play foot-
"I knew that if I get mad I can hit
someone," Smith says. "In basket-
ball, if you get mad, all you can do is
shoot a basket.
"That's where the energy comes
from - from people trying to hurt
you. You've got to defend yourself by
all means. If you go out there and you
play soft, they come hard. If you play
hard they come soft. So I go out there
and play hard.
"I walk the streets with the atti-
tude that if this guy is gonna try and
hurt me, I'm gonna hurt him back
harder. Guys ask me, 'Why do you
play hard? How do you play hard?' I
just tell them it's the same attitude
from the streets."
0 * 0
Cynics will tell you that the only
sure things in life are death and taxes.
But it isn't true, really. Not for most
of us. We have a family and shelter
and clothing and food and at least
some sense of safety. Death and taxes
will come, but they are not all we
The only sure things in Walter

Smith's life are death and taxes. Smith,
co-captain of the Wolverines, does
not have all wonderful things. He
does not always have food. He does
not have real, safe, comfortable shel-
ter. Instead, gunshots are heard in his
inner-city Detroit neighborhood at all
hours of the day.
"(I remember) running," Smith
says. "Being scared someone was
gonna take my clothes or my shoes.
And being to myself. Those are the
only memories I ever had."
Smith's sense of safety has been
'That's where the
energy comes from -
from people trying to
hurt you. You've got to
defend yourself by all
means. If you go out
there and you play soft,
they come hard. If you
play hard they come
soft. So I go out there
and play hard.'
Walter Smith
Michigan co-captain
stolen from him, and he can't be sure
who took it. Could be you. Could be
me. Could be anybody. Could be ev-
erybody. The only person who Walter
Smith knows did not take his sense of
safety was Walter Smith. And that's
the only person he trusts.
* **
The knee went out eight days be-
fore the beginning of the football sea-
son. Walter Smith was running the
ball on a fake punt. He got hit in the
knee. He tore his anterior cruciate
ligament. He is out for the season. His
career at Michigan is almost certainly
At first the prognosis was not good.
Three to four weeks, the doctors told
him. Smith was devastated. Miss three
to four weeks? Miss his final Notre
Dame game? Sorry, the doctors said.
You need surgery.
He had the surgery. During the
operation, the doctors saw the dam-
age. It was worse than they had
thought, they told him. He would be
out until January, at least.

"I had tears coming down, of dis-
appointment, like any athlete who
can't play the season," he says. "I
worked so hard ... I left the hospital
immediately. I didn't lay down. I
didn't want any support. Because what
can someone tell me about not play-
ing this year? So I left immediately
and just went home. I'm still coping
with the issue. It's hard to deal with."
The injury came almost a year to
the day after Mary Smith told her son
Walter that two more of his friends
were dead. Twenty-two bullets found
their way into one of his friends. Eigh-
teen bullets were lodged in the other.
"I don't cry because I don't know
them any more," Smith says. "I only
know childhood memories."
There was a third friend standing
next to the two young boys who were
killed. The third friend survived. Like
Smith, he is lucky.
He is paralyzed from the neck
0 0 0
Remember the 1993 Michigan
football season? It was a disaster. The
Wolverines entered the season ranked
third in the country and talking about
capturing a national championship. It
didn't happen. Michigan lost four of
its first eight games and played in the
Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, Fla.,
which is several thousand miles away
from the Rose Bowl.
The season frustrated Michigan
fans and punished Wolverine play-
ers. But in the end, everyone came to
the same conclusion, to that oldest of
sports cliches: It's just a game. It's
supposed to be fun. We cheer and we
hope and we play, but in the back of
our minds we know it is not all that
important in the scheme of things. An
8-4 season? Things could be worse,
we figure. Things could be worse.
"I cried (before every game) last
year," Smith says, "because I was
afraid we were going to lose."
He does not cry when friends are
killed. He cries when his football team
loses, or might lose. People usually
cry when a friend dies partly because
it is a shock. When Smith's friends
die, it is not a shock. It literally hap-
pens about as often as his football
team loses.
Things could not have been worse
for Walter Smith last fall. The fans,
the players, the coaches - they all
had something to go back to when the
season mercifully ended. Smith had
nothing to go back to. He was born
with nothing and now, through sheer
determination, he is a football player.
Football is Walter Smith's life. In the
fall of 1993, Walter Smith's life was
a disaster.
Smith didn't know at the time that
the 1993 season would not only be his

Gary Moeller called Walter Smith the toughest player he has ever coached.

worst at Michigan but also his last.
The knee injury has forced him out
for the year, and, rather than apply for
a medical redshirt and play for the
Wolverines one more time, Smith will
try to make it in the NFL. That's
where the real test comes. If he can
make it in the NFL, Smith will earn
enough money to save his family from
ever having to stay in hell.
But this season is not over in
Smith's eyes. He has never measured
his performance on the field in touch-
downs, receptions, or even hard hits.
To Walter Smith, his day is a success
if Michigan wins.
He still thinks this could be a per-
fect fall, knee injury or not.
"I'm guaranteeing 12-0," Smith
says. "We're going 12-0. No losses. If
you don't believe, you won't achieve.
That's my motto for the season."
It is a rare man who would give up
all he has for his pride. Walter Smith
doesn't ever have to make that choice.
Give up all he has for his pride? All he
has is his pride.
When Smith was hit in his knee,
he felt, in his own words, "severe
pain." He had just suffered the most
devastating injury in sports.
So what did he do?
"Get up," he says, "so the players

wouldn't see me on the ground. I
waited about five minutes and Ijogged
around the field. I acted like every-
thing was OK. But it wasn't."
The knee was killing him, causing
physical pain like he had never expe-
rienced before in his life.
"I wasn't concerned about the
knee," he says. "I was concerned about
the pride factor in football."
That's part of why Michigan coach
Gary Moeller says Smith is the tough-
est player he has ever coached.
Smith has worked with his team-
mates for five years in pursuit of a
common goal. He has done more than
that. He has worked harder, practiced
harder and played harder than anyone
else on the team.
Last season, Walter Smith was
awarded the Bob Ufer Bequest at the
football team banquet for demonstrat-
ing "the most enthusiasm and love for
the University of Michigan." He is
respected, even loved, by his team-
When he hurt his knee, he would
show no pain. You never know what
they might think.
"On the team, I have no close
friends," Smith says.
Even on the team where he is
respected and admired by all, Walter
Smith stands alone.

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