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Bringing HOME the glory

Lovie Smith never lost touch with the small Texas town where he grew up and played football. Now the Bears' coach, unspoiled by his historic impact on the NFL, has become an inspiration to the whole community.

January 28, 2007|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

BIG SANDY, TEXAS — The menu for next Sunday's big do at the Church of God will be potluck, though there's sure to be venison chili, finger food, sweet tea and lemonade. Corn bread will be served if anyone can make enough to feed 500, and someone has promised to make fudge from a recipe reserved for special occasions.

The junior high school and high school bands and cheerleaders will lead a pep rally, though it's not likely anyone here will need much prompting to get worked up to a frenzy.

Lovie Smith, voted the boy most likely to succeed in the Class of 1976 at Big Sandy High, has coached the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, and his hometown is going all out to celebrate the journey he began amid the tall pines and gentle hills of East Texas.

"It's like family. It's like my brother is on television," said Patti Rozell, a vivacious fourth-grade teacher who grew up here and was two years ahead of Smith in school.

"That's the neat thing. We don't look at it as just Lovie's success. It's ours too. It's not like Lovie's going to the Super Bowl, we're all going to the Super Bowl."

Smith was born in nearby Gladewater but grew up in Big Sandy, a dot on the map that straddles state Highway 80 about 100 miles east of Dallas, halfway to Shreveport, La. The town is neither big nor sandy. Its name comes from a railroad switch constructed at the junction of two lines near Big Sandy Creek in the 1880s.

Highway 80 parallels the railroad tracks most of the way from Dallas through Wills Point, Fruitvale, Mineola and Grand Saline, clusters of houses nosing up to the road. Most are one-stoplight towns with a gas station, a tearoom and an antiques shop. Big Sandy has declared itself "The Needlecraft Capital of the South" for the handful of local businesses that sell materials and implements for crocheting.

There has been little industry here since the cotton farms vanished, and many of the 366 students at Big Sandy schools get free or subsidized lunches. But there's a strong sense of community among the 1,288 residents.

It's the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else's business and the weekly newspaper, the Big Sandy and Hawkins Journal, prints local kids' letters to Santa every Christmas. The street leading to the single-story school building is painted with yellow paw prints, in keeping with the teams' Wildcats nickname.

"You just never dream of somebody from Big Sandy becoming a National Football League coach," said Carla Baker, a second-grade teacher who also was two years ahead of Smith in school.

In the tan brick City Hall and the Municipal Court -- sessions held every third Thursday at 3 p.m. -- signs in windows exclaim "We've Got That 'Lovie' Feelin" and "Big Sandy {heart} LOVIE." Many of the cars parked on Gilmer Street have similar sentiments painted on their rear windows.

Even though Smith long ago moved away to embark upon the path that has led him to Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts, he never really left. He returns every summer to reacquaint himself with the place and people that shaped him.

"Lovie was part of three state football championships here," said Darold Turner, football coach and athletic director at Big Sandy High.

"He's been a winner, he's a winner right now, and he will continue to win in football, and he will continue to win in life.

"He's an inspiration to every young man, young lady and even adults in this community that a small-town boy can make it big-time. You can tell he's always been a person that has a vision. He understands exactly where he came from and knows exactly where he's going."

After graduating from the University of Tulsa, where he was a second-team All-American safety as a junior, Smith's dreams stalled when he couldn't catch on with an NFL team. He returned to Big Sandy in 1980 to coach the junior varsity Kittens, giving them a dose of discipline and direction.

Dennis Glenn, now the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the varsity team, played for Smith and remains a friend. He attended the Bears' training camp two years ago at Smith's invitation, happily switching his allegiance from the Dallas Cowboys.

When he heard 3,000 people calling Smith's name at a practice, Glenn said, "That's when it hit me that he was very important for that area."

But never self-important.

"You either coach by putting fear in your players or you coach by getting their respect, and Lovie never raised his voice with us," Glenn said. "He never got upset. He was just so patient. And I know we did things that probably deserved it, but he never lost his cool. You played for him because you didn't want to disappoint him.

"And I think that's why players at the pro level have responded to him. It's because they know he is sincere, and I'm sure they're the same way. They play hard because they don't want to disappoint him."

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