Big Sandy Loves Lovie

BIG SANDY, Texas -- It is lunch hour in this sleepy east Texas town, and one by one the police officers, factory workers and engineers from the local oil refinery stroll through the glass door of a downtown diner to re-stock their bodies for the afternoon labor.

Super Bowl XLI is more than a week away, yet that's all anyone wants to talk about. In the heart of Cowboy country, four guys sit at one table and critique Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. Two guys sit at another table going on about "that Urlacher." And no one can stop talking about the homemade sign that made its way onto the NFC Championship broadcast two days earlier. It read, "Big Sandy Loves Lovie Smith."

The tie that connects these folks to the Chicago Bears head coach sits on the south side of this two-stoplight town, in a neighborhood once dubbed "the flats." There, just around the corner from the faded gray house with the caved-in roof, down the road from the house with 12 junked cars in the driveway and the mobile home with the four pit bull puppies, is where Smith's boyhood home once stood.

The house is long gone; it burned several years after his family moved out. But that doesn't minimize the importance of this 40-foot-by-60-foot plot of empty land, now nothing more than an assorted mix of leaves, sand and thick-bladed grass.

It is here the people of this 1,288-person town look to for hope, this place the adults point to when they want the town's youth to dream.

Last summer, when the local Chamber of Commerce contacted the Bears coach about naming one of the main downtown streets in his honor, Smith refused, insisting the only street that would carry his name would be the 200-yard long glorified bike path that ran in front of the house where he grew up.

Yes, it was once on the "wrong side of the tracks." Yes, it was down the street from the town's original "black" elementary school. Yes, it's barely wide enough to fit a car. The only structures still standing on the street today are a vacated church and a condemned home, but Lovie Smith didn't care.

"Tell me -- where else would I want it to be?" Smith said this week. "Those are my roots. That's where I grew up. Most of who I am today came from that street. There's no other place I would want a sign with my name on it. I'm proud of where I came from."

It's that sense of humility, that connection with his past, that resonates so strongly with the folks in and around this blue-collar town. They've had heroes before -- prior to being killed in a car accident in 1984, David Overstreet scored 56 touchdowns for Big Sandy High in 1975 and was a star running back at Oklahoma and a first-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins.

But now one of their own has made it to sports' grandest stage -- the Super Bowl -- and he's kept a big place within himself for his little hometown.

"I'm from Big Sandy, I love Big Sandy and most of what I am is because of Big Sandy," Smith said.

So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that when you bring up the name Lovie Smith in these parts, when you ask questions about what he was like, what this all means and how people feel, the most common answer is tears.

"Let's face it -- Big Sandy isn't much more than the intersection of two not-so-major highways with a couple of beer stores and a stoplight," said Jim Norman Jr., who played with Smith at Big Sandy High in the mid-1970s. "And here's this guy, from the wrong side of the tracks, without any money, without anybody expecting much of him, and he made it. He really, truly made it.

"And you know what? There isn't anybody I've known in all of my life who deserves it more."

A man of determination

To those who know Lovie Smith best, making it was no surprise. During Smith's senior year, his 36 classmates unanimously voted the kid who didn't swear, didn't drink and barely raised his voice as "Most Likely to Succeed." He and best friend Gary Chalk were Big Sandy's first two African-American members of the National Honor Society.

Growing up in a house where the word "lie" was a curse word, Lovie, the middle of Mae and Thurman Smith's five children, was the one who organized who did what chores when. And then he double-checked that everything was finished, said his older sister, Sandra Davis.

"He was always just so particular," she added. "Always very focused."

It was the same way on the football field, where Smith insisted he and his high school teammates hold hands in the defensive huddle.

His first crack at coaching came sooner than anyone expected. The second game of Smith's junior year, head coach Jim Norman had to attend his father's funeral, so he gave specific instructions to his assistant coaches. If the team was trailing at halftime, "let Lovie coach the defense and Gary coach the offense."

With the team trailing 6-0 at the break, Lovie and Gary were asked to run the show. They did and Big Sandy won, 12-6.

Later that year, when the team was again trailing 6-0 at halftime on a bitterly cold night against Axtell, Norman asked his team if they would rather pack up, get a hot meal and warm up than play the second half. The coach stormed out of the locker room, leaving his players to decide what they wanted to do. Despite having frostbite on multiple fingers, Smith stepped forward.

"I'm not going be a loser," he said.

Before Norman returned, the entire team already had its helmets on. The Wildcats went back on the field and won, 14-6.

"He wasn't somebody who said a whole lot," said Jim Norman Jr., the coach's son. "But when he did, you knew he had something important to say. So you always listened."

These are the tales they love to tell about Lovie Smith in these parts. Some come with smiles, some come with laughter, some come with tears. But they all come with pride.

"He was just one of those guys you knew was going to do something with his life," Chalk said. "Maybe not lead the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl something, but something. Every goal he ever set in his life he always seemed to achieve."

A man of family

To understand where Lovie Smith's determination came from you have to understand his upbringing. While Mae Smith worked multiple jobs to help put food on the table for her five children, Thurman struggled with alcoholism. The family lived in the poorer side of town -- south of the railroad tracks -- and never had much money.

Lovie bailed hay, loaded watermelons and worked on a garbage truck to help out.

"But he didn't like any of those types of jobs," Mae Smith said. "And I can't really blame him."

After graduating from Big Sandy, Lovie Smith received one scholarship offer, to the University of Tulsa, where he was a two-time All-America linebacker. After failing an attempt to play professional football, he returned to Big Sandy as an assistant coach, hitching rides home from practice with players.

He never complained. Instead, he learned from those life experiences, especially dealing with his father.

"I could see him saying, 'I'm not going to let anything have control over me, I'm always going to have control over myself,'" Chalk said. "He made a conscious effort not to get involved in alcohol or drugs. And to constantly set goals for himself. He was motivated by what his Dad dealt with."

Smith was a junior at Tulsa when his mother first had the dream that her son would someday coach the Dallas Cowboys. It's been a recurring dream, and with Bill Parcells retiring the Cowboys now have an opening. (Smith has said he isn't going anywhere.) When Mae Smith told her son about the dream, he laughed it off. After his stint coaching at Big Sandy and another high school in Tulsa, he worked as an assistant at Tulsa, Wisconsin, Arizona State, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio State.

In 1996, he became an assistant for then-Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy, now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, the Bears' opponent in the Super Bowl. In 2004, Smith was introduced as head coach of the Chicago Bears. His Dad was not there to see it. Thurman Smith died in 1996. But Davis credits her brother's coaching success with helping their father stay alive as long as he did. Thurman found sobriety in the final years of his life.

"He just went to Dad one day and told him, 'I'm going to make something of myself someday and I want you to be there to see it,'" Davis said. "And his success each step along the way helped encourage (Dad) to keep doing that."

Super Bowl dreams

Though Mae Smith is blind due to complications from diabetes, she still follows all of her son's games. She sits in front of the television, often with one of her daughters by her side, and asks questions to help fill the gaps the television announcers leave behind.

"She knows everything," Davis said. "All the players, all the plays. She knows all of it."

During the NFC Championship against the Saints, Mae Smith was upset when she heard the Bears had dumped a jug of water on her son.

"I just kept thinking how cold that must have been," she said. "And I didn't want my baby to get sick. He's got a Super Bowl to get ready for."

So does this family. And so does Big Sandy. Mae Smith, who now lives in nearby Tyler, will be inside Dolphin Stadium on game day. Though she won't be able to see her son run onto the field, she can already picture it.

"I can see it, I can see it so clearly -- him running out of that tunnel and all the boys following behind him," she said. "It will be such a good feeling for him. It makes me so happy to know how good he's going to feel."

Back in Big Sandy, more than 500 people -- almost half the town -- are expected for a pregame parade and Super Bowl party at the high school. "We're going to put Big Sandy Loves Lovie Smith on the marquee," boasted Mayor Benny Parsons.

No matter whether the Bears win or lose, it's certain to be a day to remember. Because Lovie Smith reached the Super Bowl, high school kids are writing papers about the first former student ever selected to Big Sandy's Wall of Honor. Sunday school students are asking their teacher about the man who the new street is named after. And everyone -- from janitors to teachers to the families that live around Lovie Smith Drive -- believe they can achieve more.

"He started out as nothing, from across the tracks," said Chalk, who now works as a pastor. "And now he's leading the Chicago Bears onto the field for the Super Bowl. So I tell our kids, 'If you'll just be steadfast, if you'll just do the things you're supposed to do, you'll have that opportunity. You might not coach a Super Bowl team, but in whatever life you choose, you'll be successful.'

"And that's as big a lesson as any football game could ever teach us."

Wayne Drehs a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.