SOUTH WILLIAMSON, Ky. - These days there are not many 3-sport athletes who excel in all aspects of the game.
Not only did Belfry graduate Gary Smith star in three sports for the Pirates back in the early 1980s, but he was also the valedictorian of his graduating class in 1981.
Smith, who is now a local optometrist that has an office near the South Side Mall, recently sat down to recall his glory days. Like many in small town, USA, locals like to reminisce and recall days gone by.
Smith was the starting quarterback for three seasons under the late Dick Roddy, as well as the leading scorer on the Pirate’s basketball squad and the starting first baseman for the baseball team.
Smith first went to Morehead State University on a basketball scholarship for one year, but then decided to concentrate on his studies and transferred to the University of Kentucky in 1982. He then went to the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, TN in 1986, where he graduated in 1990.
He has been in practice now for 22 years.
“I played all three sports from 1978 to 1981,” Smith recalled. “If you remember, the 1979 football team was the first to go to the state championship.” The Pirates finished as the Class AAA runner-up.
“High school sports back in those days was big in this area – they still are popular – but it was a different level at that time,” Smith said.
Smith played basketball under the late Tommy Dean Runyon. His baseball coaches were Gene Phillips and then Leon Stewart.
The South Williamson, Ky. product remembers the rivalries during that era, especially the one Belfry had with Williamson High School. “It was a fun rivalry,” he said. “It was big – in any sport – with Williamson and Belfry.”
“An interesting fact about that though – and perhaps me being from South Williamson – I knew most of those guys,” Smith said of many of the Wolfpack players.
Like a lot of kids in his community, they grew up playing midget league basketball at the Williamson Fieldhouse and Little League Baseball in West End. So he and others were familiar with many of the athletes across the Tug River.
“My best friend in high school was Brent Jude. His first cousin was Stan Jude, who went to Williamson,” Smith recalled. “So through that connection, I knew most of those guys.”
“We were competitive as heck on the court or on the field, but after the game I would go to a party and those guys would be there,” Smith remembers. “The communities got into the rivalry and the sports at that time. But now it’s not the same.”
“Those were good times with a lot of good memories,” Smith said from his office.
Smith said the only other local school Belfry played at that time was Matewan.
Smith’s father, Tom Smith, actually graduated and played for Williamson High School back in the early 1950s. So his dad took him to several of the Wolfpack games when he was growing up. Early on he was actually a Williamson fan and even had a maroon and white WHS duffle bag when he attended South Williamson Grade School.
“In fact, dad dug out a picture of himself on the 1952 Wolfpack basketball team,” Smith said. “That was really neat to see.”
“Back at that time, kids who grew up in South Williamson went to Williamson High School,” Smith recalled. “Growing up, I never went to a Belfry game, we went to see the Wolfpack play teams like Logan.”
But as he got up into middle school, Smith knew he would eventually be going to Belfry High School.
“If you remember I played with Mark Cline at South Williamson Grade School,” Smith said. “Of course he went to Williamson. I always would have liked to have continued on playing with Mark in high school. That would have been nice.”
But, instead they played against each other – Smith in the Belfry red and white and Cline wearing the maroon and white.
After graduating from optometry school, Smith decided to come back home to practice. “In a business like this – it’s a people business – and it’s been very satisfying to work and be able to take care of people I know,” Smith said, “friends, family and neighbors.”
“So many people come in and say doc I remember when you played,” Smith stated. “I like that.” In fact, one patient brought him an old newspaper clipping of Smith pulling down a rebound in a game against Williamson. The Pack’s Donald Hairston was also in the photo. Smith had a big “fro” at that time and laughed about that – but also modestly commented on his leaping ability. Of course many recall the outstanding jumping ability of Hairston too.
“It has been great to come back here and practice,” Smith said. He said he enjoys being an optometrist and looks forward to going to work each day.
It is important when you love your job, Smith noted, especially when you get up every day and have to go to work.
Smith has also given back to his community. He was an assistant basketball coach at Belfry High School from 2002 to 2006 and then a head coach for his daughter’s team at Burch High School in 2006 and 2007. Smith has also done some local radio broadcasting in past years.
“It was great fun,” Smith said. “Coaching girls was different, but I love coaching and it got me back into the sport.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed coaching at the high school level and it was a lot of fun,” Smith said. “Very time consuming – but a lot of fun.”
Smith said sports “absolutely shapes a young person.”
“The attributes that you can derive from sports is fantastic,” he added. “Sports teaches you discipline, teaches you how to be responsible and to be dependable.”
Smith laughed, “If you played under Coach Dick Roddy you better be on time and even early. You had a job to do and you had others depending on you.”
“That is just like life,” Smith explained. “Having a job to do and others depending on you. That is how it is when you have a family.”
Smith said parents and kids need to find the balance between sports and academics. “It can be done,” the former valedictorian said. He had a 4.0 GPA while playing three sports for four years during high school.
“Times are going to get tough – you’re going to get knocked down. But, that’s just like life,” Smith said of the comparison of playing sports and becoming successful in life.
“Still today, and I’m 49 years old, that I took from coach Roddy – is preparation,” Smith said. “We were a high school team, but it was unbelievable how prepared we were to go up against any team.”
“You learned to face adversity and you learned confidence,” Smith said. “Self confidence is so important. These are things you need to be successful in life.”
“Sports does that for kids,” Smith concluded. “As a kid you are just having fun and you don’t necessarily realize what you are being taught.”
“I wholeheartedly endorse sports for kids,” Smith said. “I always encourage moms and dads to get their kids in some kind of sport – whether it’s soccer, tennis or whatever they might be interested in.”
“Sports was a big part of my life and I still love it,” he added. “I think it helped me become who I am.”
Sports can mold youngsters and help them become successful adults. Smith is certainly a shining example.