There are a lot of us in the world that have passions. Some of us chase them down and try to do them for a living, some of us do them as hobbies, some of us never realize what that passion is, and then others know what they want, but never decide to pursue it. Then………..there are people like Gary Smith, who was born to do one thing; play fotball (futbal, futboll, futbola, and to us weird Americans —Soccer). Gary Smith knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life and through the many obstacles he has faced he never stopped in his pursuit to do what he loves.
While I was in Nashville I had the amazing honor to interview Coach Gary Smith (Thank you again Chris Redhage: Great Article about Chris Redhage). The only issue is that I have been holding on to this story, biting my tongue, because Gary’s hire had not been made public. I have had to wait to share this amazing story of this special individual until the team made the official announcement . Finally I get to let it out and share it with all of you, ahhhhhhh (that was me screaming every day that I had to wait).
Growing up Gary remembers being able to hear the roar of the crowd at White Hart Lane from his backyard as the Tottenham Hotspur and its fans celebrated victories in the Premier League in England. Not only did Gary grow up close to the stadium, his father played 6 seasons for Tottenham Hospurs, helping them win the Double in 1960-61 (the Double is when a team wins both the Premier League (top league) and the FA Cup, a feat only done 11 times since 1888). To say soccer was in his blood would be an understatement. Like most young men who grow up in England, soccer is another religion worshiped by an entire country. His entire life he knew he wanted to be a professional soccer player and follow in his fathers footsteps. Gary was born to play soccer, but what he didn’t know at the time was that his love for soccer would not only impact his life, but the life of players all over the world. His success didn’t come without his share of obstacles that would constantly test him both physically and mentally, but his love and commitment for the game continued to push him forward allowing him to share his unparalleled passion and impact lives in the process.
As an athlete we have always been told that there are a variety of factors that will determine our success. Talent…….Work Ethic……..Attitude……. ETc…….. All of these attributes can have a major impact on how far you go as a player. Athletes also know that everything you have spent your life working for can be impacted in one split second. How we respond and turn these adversities into triumph is the real measure of success. Gary’s story embodies this exact concept and then some.
Gary competed for 7 teams in 10 years as a professional soccer player, but during these years he had a constant battle with injuries that negatively impacted his career. During the 1992 season, while competing for Wycombe Wanderers, Gary suffered a compound fracture. After recovering he continued to play professionally, but would continue to struggle with injuries that would prove to much to overcome (compound fracture of his right leg, 2 broken legs, among other injuries).
List of Team’s Gary Played for during his professional career
Depression would soon set in as a life long dream of playing soccer professionally was cut short by injuries at the prime age of 27.
“I was laying there in a dark room all alone. Everything I had worked towards, inspired towards, dreamed of was all finished.”
As Gary was talking, I started to have flash backs of my own battle with depression that secretly started when I was 19 years old and just after I completed my bout with cancer. I remember coming home from practice exhausted, tired, and feeling like I was putting all my heart and soul into just surviving on the court. I was back playing again, which was one of my goals, but I didn’t feel the same. It would take years after I finished my career at ASU, before I felt like I was 80 percent of who I was on the court before. I could never sleep, often staying up until 4, 5, 6am and sometimes not sleeping at all. I remember going to practice in college without sleeping for one minute, having to pound caffeine to just keep my eyes open. The physical limitations were not the only issues I was having during this time. My mind would constantly just run in circles, “your dreams are over, you will never make it, you just are not any good anymore, the coaches would be better off with a different player because you can’t help this team win.” I could never share this with anyone, because at that time I was winning award after award for my courage battling my disease. Someone who is courageous does not have depression, I would often think (I now feel very differently about this, but at the time this pressure continued to mount up in my head). I felt like everything I was had started to crumble (kind of like Golden State in the NBA finals last year. 3-1 lead, come on man) and everything I wanted to be was falling apart. It wasn’t because of my work ethic, my talent, or my attitude, but instead it was because of something I could not control. I sat there listening intently to Gary, because I needed to hear what he did next. What did he do? How did he bounce back? How did he make this transformation for a soccer player to someone else?
Gary’s father, who was now running a youth club, asked Gary if he wanted to get into coaching. His response was something to the effect of “not really, I want to keep playing.” knowing that the injuries diminished his talent as a player, Gary decided to take his father up on the offer. He first started to coach 12u/13u competitive players. Players who just like him, had dreams of being the next English soccer star.
“This experience provided to be the very best thing that happened to me. It was a great learning tool and I realized that I loved coaching.” I just loved that when I was coaching it was like I was giving a piece of myself and all that I learned as a player to them.”
After a short time coaching/training with the youth club, Gary was over a position coaching with Wimbledon Football Club. When Wimbledon relocated, Gary took a role as the youth team coach at his former team Wycombe Wanderes, where he later became assistant first team coach and then assistant manager. After the 2005-2006 season, Gary would take on the role of assistant academy manager at Watford and was quickly reassigned to the reserve team coach. In 2007 Gary would take on a role as a scout for Arsenal.
Moving to America: Gary would join the Colorado Rapids, in the MLS, in 2008 originally to establish Arsenal’s academy in Colorado. His role would quickly change as he was appointed the assistant manager after spending a lot of time with the first-team. He would assume the role of interim head coach, in 2008 following the resignation of his predecessor. With 10 games left in the season, Gary quickly impressed the management and would go on to earn a 3 year contract with the club. In his first season Gary lead the team to a ninth-place finish and barley missed the playoffs. In 2010 Gary helped revamp the team from the previous season, and would go on to win the 2010 MLS Cup. This was Colorado’s first MLS cup Championship and Gary would also become the first English coach to win the MLS Cup Championship. Gary would go on to coach one more season for the Colorado Rapids, before returning to England to take over League One team Stevenage. After two years as the Manager (head coach) at Stevenage, Gary accepted a job that would send him back to the United States. Gary would be coaching the Atlanta Silverback in 2015. Most recently Gary has decided to take on a new role as the Head Coach and technical director with the Nashville Football Club. Nashville is an expansion team in the USL.
From listening to Gary speak, you can feel his passion in your soul. (I can imagine his pre game/half time speeches in the locker room are intense. I had chills running down my spine just listening to his journey in detail). As a young boy his passion was to be a soccer player, that is all he thought about and it was his life. He achieved that dream by playing for several years at the highest level possible (for those of you who are not soccer fans, this is equivalent to playing in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL – pick your sport). Like all athletes, his playing career could not last forever. What most athletes struggle with is this transformation:
Who am I know?
I am a soccer player (pick your passion/sport) and now that it is over, who am I now?
I personally have struggled with this for years since my playing career ended. It was refreshing to hear someone as successful as Gary have this same transformational issue, but it was inspiring to see how quickly he rebounded and bounced back and found something that would feed his passion.
“No matter what age you are, you can always improve,” Coach Gary Smith.
After spending some time with Gary, I believe that coaching, mentoring, & teaching was his purpose in life. His love and success as a soccer player was just the vessels that provided him the growth and development he needed to live out his true calling: to mentor people through the game that he loves so very much.
If you are ever in the Nashville area I suggest you come out and watch Nashville SC. They have an amazing owner (My buddy Chris Redhage) and they have one hell of a ball coach and a great man in Gary Smith.
I will be writing an article in the near future about how athletes struggle with transformation to a new life after there careers are over. I believe this is something that we should be teaching high school, college, and professional athletes.