Mike Hutton: Mark Smith tried to slip away quietly; those who knew him well wouldn’t let that happen
Even in his dying days, Mark Smith didn’t want to be the story.
Smith’s professional life had been devoted to telling stories about high school athletes, hundreds of them in 30 plus years as a sportswriter, radio announcer, and local television personality.
He knew a good story when it came along.
So, when the cancer couldn’t be ignored, when he withered to nearly half his size, when his voice was so raspy you had to strain to hear him speak, I reached out to see if he’d talk.
It was last spring during the dawn of baseball and softball season.
I used every trick I had learned in my 25-plus years as a journalist to get him to go public.
Readers will appreciate your vulnerability. Let’s chronicle your life’s work. Friends and coaches and former players you wrote about will reach out and lift you up.
Smith was polite but firm.
He didn’t want to go on the record. It was never about him.
Smith had stage four prostate cancer, which had been diagnosed in 2017.
He was happy to talk about it but with me only.
Smith knew he was going to die from it but in his mind, he had years, not months left.
I knew better.
He told me then that nothing made him happier during those long, dark days than heading out to Crown Point to cover a softball or a baseball game.
Even though it took him a while to shuffle down the bleachers to get to the field, even though he had to move up close to his subjects to ask questions, even though he had to stop to catch his breath, Smith was fully alive with a notebook and pen in his hand.
Mark Smith, shown during a recording of a USA-365.com pregame show, touched hundreds of lives with his words and his voice as a local sportscaster and sportswriter.
Photo courtesy of David Woodworth
Smith died on Nov. 9 in hospice. He was 67.
When the news broke, there was an outpouring of affection on social media. Youtube videos of Smith doing the “Prep Football Report”, a local public television show that Mark did with Joe Arredondo for years, showed up on Twitter. The Whiting and Lowell football teams honored him by turning their lights on for an hour Tuesday night. Tributes from colleagues popped up.
Smith, whose paying media job was with the Lake County (Crown Point) Star for years, had a remarkable reach.
He had turned himself into a media personality before it was fashionable to be a personality. The “Prep Football Report” which still runs, came out once a week. It highlighted local athletes and coaches and played clips of football games. There was always banter between Arredondo and Smith.
Smith was famous, or infamous, depending on your view, for the “Renegade Top 10.”
It was a wacky, discombobulated look at the top 10 football teams with Smith’s twist on it.
It was his personal recipe for how a poll should be done. There were times when a Griffith team that was 1-3 was ranked higher than an undefeated Andrean team.
For some, who took the poll too seriously, it was infuriating. Others laughed.
Arredondo said the poll took a life of its own, and Smith was “misunderstood” for it.
“I remember him saying this a million times,” Arredondo said. “His definition of the rankings was, ‘Which team would win if they played on a neutral field? It had nothing to do with records.”
I wish I could find my notes from when we talked so this is a bit hazy, but I’m pretty sure Smith arrived in Northwest Indiana from the Chicago area in 1987.
He came to get away and to start his career in sports.
Smith said he showed up at the Lake County Star without any experience and asked if he could help out.
It’s likely that he was a freelancer first. He eventually worked his way up to sports editor.
His day job, the one he held until he had to quit within the last year, was as a driver for a courier service.
On Friday nights, he’d be on the sidelines covering the football game, keeping stats, and taking photos for the first half.
Then, he’d run to the press box to do radio for the second half.
After the game finished, he’d dash back down to the field to do interviews. He mostly covered Lowell and Crown Point in his final years but earlier, Andrean and Merrillville were part of his menu.
It was an exhausting, impossible night for a normal writer.
Smith wasn’t normal.
The amount of granular information Smith knew about teams was unprecedented. If I needed to know why the right guard for Lowell wasn’t playing, I’d ask Smith.
He had it.
On nights when I was rushing back to the press box to get my story in before deadline, I’d often see Smith in the middle of the field, talking with a coach long after the game had ended. He was usually there until the lights were shut off.
In 2013, Smith was laid off from the Star.
It was a tough blow.
That had been the consistently stable media job for 26 years.
Smith kept working, though.
He did games for an Internet station, USA-365.com. The station covered Crown Point mostly but all the Smith staples were on the website.
The Renegade ‘Magnificent’-7, which was just like the “Renegade Top 10.” There were quirky game stories, where he morphed into first person in the lead paragraph and long previews filled with Smith anecdotes.
The last game story he wrote was on Hobart’s victory over Lowell on Sept. 17.
He wasn’t paid for it. It was all for the love of the game.
David Woodworth, the owner of USA-365, said Smith needed to be in the game.
“That was his passion,” Woodworth said of covering high school sports.
According to Woodworth, Smith was sick with cancer long before he was diagnosed.
Smith waited several years even though he hadn’t felt completely well to get a blood test he needed to confirm the cancer, Woodworth said, because he didn’t have health insurance. He couldn’t afford it.
Woodworth said when Smith’s illness was obvious to everyone, he didn’t want to talk about it.
“He did not want undue attention,” Woodworth said. “He didn’t want to be a charity case.”
Former Lowell and Crown Point softball coach Pete Iussig helped take care of Smith in his final days. Iussig saw him last spring and Smith told him about the situation.
He stayed in touch over the summer and then Iussig helped in his final months when he was in the hospital and in hospice care.
Smith was befuddled that Iussig had decided to make sure he was as comfortable as possible when the cancer started to ravish him.
“He kept asking me, ‘Why are doing this?" Iussig said. “I told him, “because you’re a good guy. And that’s what stands out most for me. He was always such a nice guy who wrote nice articles.”
And who did nice things.
In his last days, Smith asked Iussig to go to his apartment to pick up his bills so he could pay them. Iussig found a stack of bills and brought them back.
Two of them were monthly donations he made to the “Veterans of Foreign Wars” and “The Salvation Army.” Smith wrote out one last check for each before he died.
“He didn’t have a dime,” Iussig said. “That tells you what kind of guy he was.”
Iussig is helping with his arrangements. Smith has a sister but he hasn’t been able to get in touch with her. A funeral or memorial will be held up until the state figures out her status.
When Iussig called to Pruzin Brothers Funeral Service in Crown Point, Iussig told TJ Pruzin, the director, about his dilemma.
There was very little money for services, Iussig said. Pruzin asked who it was for.
Iussig said it was for Smith.
Pruzin’s eyes lit up.
He watched Smith’s show when he was playing basketball for Crown Point. He loved Smith.
“I'll do anything for him,” he told Iussig.
That was Smith’s legacy.
A footprint of words, goofy sports shows, more love than he could imagine, and a generation of people who will never forget the “Renegade Top 10.”
The Mark Smith Memorial Fund, organized by Jennifer Castanedo, can be found at gofundme.com.
Mike Hutton was a sports writer and sports columnist for the Post-Tribune for 24 years. He currently writes for “Irish Breakdown”, a website that covers Notre Dame football. He spent many nights with Mark Smith in press boxes across Northwest Indiana.