Warner Smith, a big-time recruit coming out of small-town San Manuel High School in 1991, had reduced his college choices to Arizona State and Arizona. One of the Sun Devils’ recruiting pitches was their new south end zone athletic complex.
“Now, when I was getting recruited, ASU had just built that facility and I said something to Larry Mac Duff about it,” Smith said in an interview a couple of years ago, referring to UA’s defensive coordinator at the time.
“He spun that around on me so fast. He said, ‘Well, if you’re a ‘bricks and a new paint’ kind of guy — if you care about that — maybe you’re not the right guy for us.’ He turned it around and made me mad. I almost committed right there just to spite him.”
Smith, of course, did commit to the Wildcats. Turns out, he wasn’t a bricks and a new paint kind of guy.
He was, as his former offensive line teammate Joe Smigiel said to a large, amazing group of Wildcats gathered Friday night to raise a glass or two or three to Warner’s memory, a “tough sumbitch.” Warner was that on the football field, an All-Pac-10 right guard and the anchor of Arizona’s Desert Swarm era offensive lines from 1992 to 1994.
But that’s not why about 60 of his former teammates came in from all over the city, state and country to remember Warner, who died earlier this month after battling ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A memorial service was to be held Saturday.
More than anything, Warner was, as ex-linebacker Brant Boyer would say, “The best guy.”
That’s the thing. It’s not about bricks and paint. It’s about people. In this case, it’s about friendships — a brotherhood — that stretch back a quarter of a century.
Linebacker Charlie Camp was there Friday night, coming in from Texas. His first friend at Arizona, back in 1991, was Warner Smith. Football can be the ultimate melting pot. An African-American linebacker from the New Orleans area and a red-headed kid from a Southern Arizona mining town. Best friends. Imagine.
Rob Waldrop came in from California. Tedy Bruschi flew in from Boston. College Football Hall of Famers, reunited.
Because of Warner, it was a who’s-who of Arizona football from the Tomey era — Waldrop, Bruschi, Boyer, Camp, Smigiel, George Malauulu, Keith Smith, Ty Parten, Brandon Sanders, Richard Dice, Jeff Hammerschmidt, Heath Bray, Dan White, Mike Heemsbergen, Rod Lewis, Paul Stamer, Mani Ott, Claudius Wright, Chris Lopez, Kelvin Hunter … let’s just say there were a lot of man-hugs Friday night.
Current Arizona defensive coordinator Marcel Yates made an appearance, and new head coach Kevin Sumlin, intent on improving the program’s “former player engagement,” carved out space in his busy schedule to engage with former players on 4th Avenue. Smart move. As someone said Friday night, it is especially this era of Wildcats who care about the program and don’t want anything in return. They just want to be connected.
Warner Smith is a connector.
As more than one person mentioned Friday night, Warner would have been proud of the huge gathering. Bricks and paint don’t bring people together. Warner did; still does. It has always about football family.