Smith overcame great odds in return to moundJuly 21, 2004 · Tony Stinnett
The real-life story of the former Middle Tennessee baseball pitcher who overcame all odds to help lead the Blue Raiders to the 1977 Ohio Valley Conference championship is certainly one that leaves you appreciating the will and desire of an individual who refused to be told what he wasn't going to do.
Smith will be inducted into the Blue Raider Hall of Fame Saturday at 6 p.m., along with Joe B. Jackson and Billy Martin. The class of 2004 will become the first inducted in the new state-of-the art Kennon Hall of Fame building adjacent to the Murphy Center.
"It's humbling and (the Hall of Fame) certainly is the fraternity I'm most appreciative of being in," Smith said. "I'm in a group where the athletes are better than myself, so it's humbling and certainly appreciated. This is the greatest athletic honor I've ever received."
A promising left-handed pitcher at Middle Tennessee, Smith was enjoying a solid summer on the diamond in 1976 and the prospects of him playing a major role for the Blue Raiders during his senior campaign were very promising - until July 6, 1976. Smith was on his way home following a summer league game when he was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident.
Doctors initially believed he wouldn't live. Certainly he would never walk and he definitely would never throw a baseball again.
"We went to see him in the hospital after the accident, and I didn't think he would walk again," said John Stanford, former Middle Tennessee baseball coach and athletic director. "He was in traction from one end to the other. He had a broken hip, broken legs, broken wrist, broken ribs. I'm saying to myself leaving the room, 'I just hope he can walk again.'
"During that first visit, Steve looked up at me and said, 'Skipper, keep my uniform for me."
Smith didn't allow the tragic situation to make him bitter, just determined. His strong will was a factor in his rehabilitation.
"I think the accident gave me a focus and reason to work hard," Smith said. "Looking back I would say it was lucky because had it happened after I was finished with my college career, I may not have rehabbed properly. I was a realist. I knew the stars had to line up. I was lucky, but I was determined. I didn't think about not succeeding."
When Smith returned to school in the fall he was in a wheelchair. He worked tirelessly with former head athletic trainer George Camp and his roommate Randy Deere, a student trainer.
"The first thing Steve had to do was learn to walk again, and that was quite an ordeal," Stanford said. "Mr. Camp did wonders with him in the training room. (Current baseball coach) Steve Peterson, (an assistant at the time), was in charge of the conditioning program and he worked (Smith) quite a bit. By the spring he wanted his uniform, and he got it."
Peterson said Smith's work ethic was remarkable.
"I was in charge of the conditioning program and the guy was on crutches and he tried to do everything he could," Peterson said. "His will to win, his will to survive is what it's all about. He was coming back and there was no doubt in his mind. That has motivated me and driven me. Steve was not going to give in."
Smith's relentless rehab not only landed him back on the field, but he appeared in the biggest game of the 1977 season when Stanford called on him with the championship on the line against Murray State. Smith entered with the Blue Raiders trailing 2-0 and shut the Racers down the rest of the way as the Blue Raiders claimed a 5-2 title win. "It was a great finish," Stanford said. "When the game was over I saw his mom and dad standing outside the fence just (crying). It worked out perfect. Just like a Walt Disney story." One week later Smith earned his second win of the season in relief against David Lipscomb and finished his senior season with a 2-1 record.
"I felt like I was Rambo when I got on the mound against Murray State," Smith said. "I had paid a big price and every time you pay a price you are not rewarded, but I was one of those lucky guys who paid a price and it did work out. I believe athletics should be like the Army, 'Be the best you can be.' Just because you want to be the best doesn't mean you are going to be the best. Just be the best you can be.
"My senior year was probably the only time in my career I had that feeling, being as good I could be. It gave me great mental peace. I know it sounds cocky, but I believed I deserved to win because I could not have worked any harder. That was a special time."
Smith and his entire family are Blue Raider baseball icons, having supported Middle Tennessee's baseball program in numerous ways. The baseball playing facility, for which the Smith family raised money to light, is named after Steve's father, Reese Smith, himself a Hall of Famer, and the state-of-the art baseball clubhouse bears Steve's name. An endowed baseball scholarship has been established in the name of Stephen and his brother, Mark, also a former Blue Raider. "(Stephen Smith) has made the statement to me that he wants to give something back, and he doesn't feel there's enough he can do," Peterson said. "He's truly been a great alumnus, and I think that comes from his father."
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