Showing Lovie the love: Smith makes city proud

The Chicago coach grew up in the small town of Big Sandy, Texas.
BIG SANDY, Texas (AP) -- Damontray Darty is bouncing on a trampoline outside his trailer home, parked amid the run-down houses in this one-stoplight town.
The 9-year-old is wearing a blue football jersey, clutching a big white teddy bear, and even bigger dreams.
"I want to play football," he said, "then be a coach in the NFL."
Why not? A guy who grew up 100 yards away did exactly that.
Lovie Smith is living proof that a little boy's dream can come true in small-town America.
"Everyone talks about him, looks up to him, wants to be like him," said 17-year-old Vanity Darty, Damontray's sister. "If he can do it, I can, too."
Sunday, Smith will be calling the shots for the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl. Lest anyone think the folks in Smith's hometown regard him differently now, perhaps as someone unapproachable, forget it.
"Around here, he's just Lovie," high school classmate Marie Rogers Dotson said.
"About the only thing that's changed in Lovie is his Afro," said Big Sandy elementary school teacher Lynda Childress, who befriended Smith during his year working there.
"What you see with Lovie is what you get," she added. "He's always been that way. He never had a bad word to say about anybody, just a positive attitude that would boost your spirits -- always. I cannot think of a better goodwill ambassador for Big Sandy."
Important person
To make sure he knows how important he still is back home, Childress faxed him some handwritten letters from her students.
Said one: "I'm so glad you are from Big Sandy. You have shown me that if I set goals, I can be anything I want."
Said another: "Everyone in Big Sandy is excited that you became the first Black American coach in the Super Bowl. It will be even better when you win the Super Bowl."
Heck, there's no telling how folks will respond if that happens. This little town hasn't had this much attention since murder suspect Jerry "Animal" McFadden escaped from the county jail in 1986, prompting the largest manhunt in state history.
Big Sandy is 100 miles east of Dallas, roughly halfway to Shreveport, La. The name came from piles of beautiful white sand that long ago were sold and hauled away on the two railroad tracks that cross here.
The town was founded in the 1870s, when the first train chugged through. The population was around 1,000 in 1958, when Smith was born. The latest census counted only a few hundred more residents.
Driving across town on U.S. Highway 80, the main road, takes two minutes, three if you hit red on the town's only traffic light.
Although one of the city-limits signs boasts "Needlecraft Capital of the South," the biggest employer is a company that fills magazine subscription and catalog orders. There are no fancy neighborhoods, no major attractions. The movie theater left decades ago. The old roller-skating rink is now a dance hall for senior citizens. The Dairy Queen was replaced by a pizza joint that has since been abandoned.
Drawing card
There is one drawing card: booze.
Big Sandy is one of the few "wet" spots in East Texas, which explains why five liquor-wine-beer stores occupy the intersection of 80 and Texas 155. Two stores even offer drive-thru service.
"It doesn't pose any problems," Mayor Sonny Parsons said. "And it does play a great part in our economy."
Smith grew up in a house two blocks from where the Darty children live, on what was called Church Street until two years ago, when it was renamed Lovie Smith Drive.
Only 250 yards long, the street is a mess of scrubby woods and chain-link fences. The Smith home burned down years ago. The lone house left is boarded up, with a "Keep Out!" sign on the door.
Mae and Thurman Smith raised all five of their children in this neighborhood. While Mae was pregnant with Lovie, Thurman's Aunt Lavana vowed the child "won't never want for nothing" if the baby was named after her.
"Then when Lovie came, he was a boy, so I had to change that around. I couldn't name him Lavana, you know," Mae said, laughing. "I just thought, 'Lovie Lee sounds like a boy's name to me."'
Mae and Thurman stressed religion and education, telling the kids they could be anything they wanted through hard work and by treating people the right way, regardless of skin color -- not always an easy thing in East Texas in the '50s and '60s.
Thinking back, she recalls her simple parenting formula: "I tried to raise them all to be nice and get along with everybody. I tried to send them all on the right path."
Mae went to work every morning making chairs at a furniture company. Thurman mostly went drinking.
Big responsibility
Alcoholism forced him into hospitals when Lovie was just a youngster. Because older brother Will already had moved away, Lovie became the man of the house to his mother and three sisters.
Although he was always the first to meet Mae when she arrived home on Fridays to unload a week's worth of groceries from the car, Lovie had a mischievous side, too.
His sister, Sandra, recalls 15-year-old Lovie, cousin Gary Chalk and others playing volleyball outside their church, deciding it was too hot and moving their game into the air-conditioned chapel.
Until the deacon caught them.
"Mother and Gary's mother were all upset. They'd never heard of anyone playing volleyball in the church before," Sandra says, giggling. "Gary and Lovie had to apologize to the community, so I think they learned their lesson."
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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