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Big Sandy, Texas, tells the tale for Bears coach Lovie Smith

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Updated: April 27, 2012 8:13AM

WACO, Texas — Shelly Smith soaked in the scene at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame late last month as dignitaries and icons mingled at a cocktail hour before the induction of the 2012 class.

That one of the inductees was Smith’s older brother still didn’t entirely sink in, though she remembered Lovie Lee — as he’s known by his family — proclaiming his aspiration to be a coach in the fifth grade.

‘‘He’s very low-key. That’s why it’s still unbelievable,” Shelly said, pausing to contain her emotions. ‘‘He’s a big deal.’’

Especially in East Texas.

In Chicago, where colorful coaches such as Mike Ditka and Ozzie Guillen were revered, Bears coach Lovie Smith is often criticized and mocked for his mundane news conferences and his subdued sideline manner. As a man and a coach, he was shaped by Big Sandy, a tiny town covering just 1.6 square miles about 100 miles east of Dallas and 75 miles west of the Louisiana border. A tiny town where most of the population (1,360 as of the last census) work blue-collar jobs. A tiny town where able-bodied boys — at least when Smith was growing up — spent summer days working in hay and watermelon fields and, if they were talented enough, evenings practicing football.

‘‘Every time I hear his name, I bust some buttons off my chest,’’ said Jim Norman, Smith’s head coach at Big Sandy High School. ‘‘That’s how proud of him I am. He didn’t always have it easy, but he’s taken everything that’s come to him and made the best out of it.”

Added Smith’s cousin and high school teammate Gary Chalk, ‘‘He just makes you proud. Not just myself, but his family and all of East Texas.’’

Founded in the 1870s, when it was originally known as the Big Sandy Switch because of its place on the Texas and Pacific Railroad, the town was long known as the ‘‘needlework capital of the South.’’ But Big Sandy’s welcome sign on U.S. 80 now proclaims it the ‘‘Home of Lovie Smith.’’

‘‘It means so much to me,’’ Smith said of Big Sandy before his induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 29. ‘‘It’s one thing for people to pat you on the back from somewhere else. But those are the people you grew up with that helped you and gave you guidance, and just gave you confidence.

‘‘I’m one of them. I’m going in there [the Texas Sports Hall of Fame], but I’m bringing a lot of people with me.’’

Football unifies town

Football reigns in East Texas, where the Dallas Cowboys are the team of choice. But the Big Sandy High School Wildcats didn’t have a rich history. The school played in the smallest football class — Smith’s graduating class numbered in the 30s — and the team needed two-way players.

The school integrated when Smith was in fifth grade, and Chalk recalled the uneasy transition.

‘‘It was a difficult, at first — we had all white teachers,’’ said Chalk, who, like Smith, had previously attended a school with all black teachers. ‘‘They wouldn’t call on Lovie and I when we raised our hands to answer questions.’’

That is, until Smith just blurted out the answer when the teacher ignored his raised hand. Chalk recalled Smith’s reply when the teacher asked why he had talked out of turn.

“ ‘I been holding my hand up, and you won’t call on me,’ ” Smith said, according to Chalk.

Blacks and whites didn’t mingle, and tensions intensified a couple of years later until the school was on the brink of a brawl. Norman, the new football coach, pulled the best white and black athletes close to him, in front of a large crowd of students. He took a straight pin and pricked the fingers of each boy and himself, drawing a few specks of blood.

“ ‘That’s all I’m interested in: what’s running through your veins, not the color of your skin,’ ” Norman recalled telling the students. ‘‘Those kids responded, and it was unreal.’’

Chalk, the starting quarterback, and David Overstreet, a running back who would play at Oklahoma and for the Miami Dolphins, were the stars on offense, and Smith was the leader and enforcer of the defense.

Chalk recalled Smith hitting an opposing player so hard that his helmet was on backward when he picked himself up off the ground.

True to form, Smith wasn’t overly talkative on the field.

‘‘He was ferocious,’’ Chalk said. ‘‘He’d knock you down and pick you up, then say, ‘When you come back, I’m going to hit you a little harder.’ ”

The Wildcats won three consecutive state titles from 1973 to 1975, setting the national high school scoring record in Smiths’ senior year with 824 points. Their 14 opponents in 1975 scored a combined 15 points.

To this day, Smith keeps in touch with many of his teammates.

‘‘One thing about sports, there’s not a whole lot of racism and prejudice going on,’’ Smith said. ‘‘You just want to know if you can trust the guy next to you to do his job, and you don’t want to let him down.

‘‘Those are lifetime friends. It just so happened that I was black and a few of them were white.’’

Grateful to football

There were challenges at home for Smith and his siblings. His father battled alcoholism, and his mother worked at a lawn furniture factory to support the family.

Sometimes, Chalk said, the Smiths didn’t know where the next meal would come from.

Teammate Frank Davis said he wasn’t aware of any of those issues. Besides, most people in and around Big Sandy had it rough. Davis grew up on a struggling dairy farm.

‘‘East Texas wasn’t a really wealthy area,’’ he said. ‘‘It was kind of the sense of everyone was in the same boat. Looking back, you can say, ‘Man, we were poor. We were broke.’ But we didn’t know it at the time.’’

Norman and Chalk said Smith always managed to find the positive in a negative situation.

And from Smith’s perspective, he learned invaluable lessons from his parents, both of whom are now deceased.

‘‘As I looked in my father’s eyes, I never saw disappointment on his face when he looked at me,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Everything was positive. My mother, Mae Smith, who had the iron hand in our family, she told me not to let ‘can’t’ become a big part of my vocabulary at a young age. She told me to set big goals, then work hard to achieve them. I listened to what they had to say.’’

Although only lightly recruited, Smith earned a scholarship to the University of Tulsa, where he was a two-time All-American. While there, he met his wife, MaryAnne, on a blind date.

‘‘Best thing that ever happened to me,’’ Smith proudly said. The couple has three grown sons.

Smith slowly worked his way up the coaching ranks, with his first assignment in Big Sandy. With MaryAnne, he has lived in 18 homes in 11 states.

But he’s found a home in Chicago.

At least once a season, Shelly Smith visits her brother and attends a Bears game at Soldier Field. She and other relatives save up money to buy Bears gear, which is hard to find in East Texas, where merchandise of the Cowboys, Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints dominates.

Whenever she arrives in Chicago, she’s always blown away by the city’s size and its embrace of her older brother.

‘‘Chicago has always been in the distance for us in Big Sandy, someplace you never thought you’d visit,’’ she said. ‘‘But you get there and walk downtown and people holler for your brother: ‘Coach Smith, Coach Smith,’ in this big ol’ city of Chicago. We’re still not used to it. When we get back to Texas, it’s like ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ have struck again.’’

Lovie Smith takes none of it for granted, all the blessings he’s received through football.

‘‘Football has been so good to me,’’ he said. ‘‘But I’m still dreaming big things.’’

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