One of the last times I saw Warner Smith, it was in early December 2015. He looked good, sounded good. Affable as always.
He said something that day, even in the midst of battling an insidious disease that he knew would inevitably weaken his body and take his life, that has stayed with me ever since.
“You still have to find ways to experience joy,” he said. “The fight is to find joy every day.”
The Arizona football family lost one of its best Tuesday night, as ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease — claimed the body of Smith, the small-town, red-headed kid from San Manuel who grew into an All-Pac-10 offensive lineman during the program’s Desert Swarm years in the early 1990s. He leaves behind his wife Becky, second-grade daughter Carlee and a life that he filled with joy. He was 44.
Warner called Carlee his “red-headed tornado,” adding that “she’s the one who puts the smile on my face every day.”
As a player, Smith competed with the required nasty streak as the leader of those UA offensive lines from his right guard position from 1992 to 1994, but in real life he was the guy with the big smile on his face, quick to laugh. Loved and lovable. His teammates called him Chewbacca. or just Chewy. Or, more formally, the Big Red Creature. Mostly, they called him a brother.
“All I can say is when you go into battle and you have to trust each other it builds a special bond,” his offensive line mate Joe Smigiel told me Tuesday night. “A bond that spills off into regular life. He was a great man and very special to me.”
His Wildcat brothers have filled their Facebook pages over the past several months with visits to the Smith house in Tucson. Former UA coach Dick Tomey was a frequent visitor.
In the summer of 2016, his friends put on a massive weekend fundraiser at Starr Pass for his medical costs, living expenses and a college fund for Carlee. It seemed like everybody was there. Tedy Bruschi flew in from Boston. Charlie Camp from Texas. Brant Boyer from the east coast. Richard Dice from California. Former Arizona assistant coach Charlie Dickey from Kansas. Ex-UA assistant Duane Akina from the Bay Area. Loved and lovable.
“This just blows me away,” Warner told me that night, at that point having to get around in a motorized scooter. “It’s surreal.”
Back in his high school days, Smith had scholarship offers from all over the country, but it ended up being Arizona and Arizona State that waged the final recruiting battle for Smith. UA assistant coaches Larry Mac Duff and Johnnie Lynn refused to take no for an answer, vowing to camp out at his house until he committed.
“I laughed and thought it was a joke, and then they showed up with all this camping gear,” Smith said in 2015. “I blew that opportunity. I probably should have held out to see what they were going to do.”
Smith played his freshman season in 1991 as a defensive lineman before Tomey asked him to move to offense. All-American defensive tackle Rob Waldrop, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, once said his toughest opponent was going against Smith in practice.
“We are all better for knowing this amazing father, friend, teammate, and brother,” another of Smith’s former teammates on the offensive line, Eric Johnson, wrote on Facebook. “He will live on through our love and our stories!”
Wrote Arizona football radio analyst Lamont Lovett, a former running back who took advantage of Smith’s blocking: “Heart broken. Such a beautiful life and a genuine person. He will be missed.”
Another ex-offensive lineman Vincent Smith posted this:
It is cruel and incomprehensible that three-fifths of Arizona’s primary 1993 starting offensive line has passed away. Left guard Pulu Poumele died in June 2016 of a heart attack. Left tackle Mu Tagoai died in November after battling cancer.
Previously, a trio of other early 1990s’ Wildcats died much too early — defensive tackle Chuck Osborne, fullback Mike Streidnig and linebacker Akil Jackson. Another, wide receiver Troy Dickey, suffered a stroke last week and was in a coma.
Sometimes, it’s hard to find joy.
Back in December 2015, Warner tried to explain how he used life lessons from Tomey to help him accomplish just that.
“Sometimes, it’s difficult because as an athlete, you think, ‘I can overpower this, I can rehab this, there’s something else I can do,'” Smith said. “But when you can’t, there’s a sense of, ‘Oh, I’m so weak. I’m just not tough enough emotionally to do this.’
“At the same time, there are a lot of lessons Dick Tomey taught us every day and one of them was that you have to control that inner monologue that’s in your head that’s directing your day. I will have bad days or dark days, but then it’s like, ‘OK, get a hold of yourself, find something that’s going to make you laugh or make you happy.’
“And then live your day. Don’t waste a minute of it.”