Carl Smith was torn. He can’t be in two places at once Saturday.
Should he make plans to drive two hours north to Orono for the college football game with conference championship repercussions? Twenty years ago he thrilled Maine fans when he took handoffs and found open spaces with regularity. He set the standard for the Maine running backs who eventually overtook some of his school rushing records.
Should he make plans to stay in Saco to watch the South Portland-Thornton Academy playoff game that will send the winner to the Western Class A final? His twin sons, Andrew and Dylan, are freshmen football players at Thornton. His wife, Lori, is the school’s field hockey coach. Carl Smith has become a fixture on the sidelines, moving first-down chains during games. He’s a frequent guest on the student-produced pregame show.
“I’m a Trojan now. I loved my time at Maine but this is where I want to be on Saturday.”
Ouch. Maine’s game with Towson is the biggest in years. The team that was picked to finish ninth in the preseason conference poll is on top of the standings with Towson. In a magical season of fourth-quarter comebacks on the road, the Black Bears have returned to home-field advantage. The more that hop on the bandwagon, the better.
Maine is 5-0 in the Colonial Athletic Association. Towson and New Hampshire are 4-1. Smith is well aware of Maine’s run to the top. He admires Coach Jack Cosgrove and is proud of the program. But …
“I love high school sports. It’s the final time of a kid’s innocence. They put it all out there. Everyone remembers their last game for their hometown school. I don’t recall my last game at Maine. When you go to Maine or any Division I program, it’s your job.”
Smith was a star running back and sprinter on the track team at Riverhead High on Long Island in New York. His hometown newspaper listed him as one of Suffolk County’s greatest athletes.
In 1989, his sophomore season at Maine, he led the country with 1,680 yards. He rushed for more than 100 yards in nine games. He scored 20 touchdowns.
The single game that means the most to him came against Rhode Island. He gained 245 yards that day and his father’s parents were in the stands to see a grandson play college football for the first time.
By the end of his college career, he was entrenched in Maine record books.
The Philadelphia Eagles invited him to camp. The NFL team also picked up Herschel Walker. Smith didn’t make the team.
He is one of Maine’s fastest running backs and sprinters, and at age 43 can’t catch his sons in a footrace. He has a plate and screws in each of his worn-out knees. “To go from being the fastest person to not being able to run, it just eats at me right now,” Smith told the Suffolk Times in August.
Still, there’s laughter in his voice.
He returned to Maine with his wife, a distance runner at the university. He was an assistant football coach at Old Orchard Beach for a while. A side street near the ocean is named Carl Smith Street and he’ll let people think it’s named for him if only for a moment or two.
He was inducted into the university’s sports hall of fame in 1999. He can remember the first part of the Maine Stein Song, traditionally sung by the team after each victory. “I’m humming it in my mind right now. It’s amazing how much is coming back to me.”
He played for three head coaches during Maine’s revolving-door years: Tim Murphy, Tom Lichtenberg and Kirk Ferentz. Cosgrove was an assistant coach. Smith was a teammate of Mike Buck, the strong-armed pocket quarterback with the gimpy knees who led Maine into the NCAA playoffs.
But 20 years have passed and Smith knows that’s a long time. He grew up in an area where major college football was non-existent. He lives in a state where the culture of major college football isn’t known. “I’ve seen the way towns in Maine empty out for the high school playoffs. It’s amazing.
“(The Black Bears) have three tough games left. I’m definitely going to the New Hampshire game (in Durham, N.H.) and take my sons.”
He didn’t check his calendar. The high school state championships are played on the same afternoon. Carl Smith will have another decision to make.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]