Danny Smith’s voice is a wreck. Already. A week into training camp, the new Pittsburgh Steelers special teams coach’s folksy drawl has already been reduced to a raspy whisper.
Except, of course, when he’s working.
For all the agony Smith puts his vocal chords through on the practice field, it never deserts him when he’s got a whistle around his neck and a football in his hands. Then, almost magically, the rasp is replaced by a steady roar that thunders off the dormitories at Saint Vincent College.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Smith said. “The dear Lord gave me an opportunity to get [my voice] back quite often and fast. I don’t really know why. I never studied that. I’ve just been lucky.”
He’s also been loud. Smith coaches at a volume that attempts to command order out of the chaos. During his more than three decades on the sidelines the 59-year-old Smith has coached everything from running backs to tight ends. Yet he’s found a home running the part of the game that is often left to the wind or the bounce of an oblong ball.
It’s a position that comes with its own set of neuroses. During his nine-year stay with the Washington Redskins from 2004-12, Smith would pace frantically during warmups out of fear he’d see a bad kick that would sense his heart rate soaring.
“If you hit one bad punt in pregame or missed a field goal in pregame, he’d be all over the top of you,” Redskins punter Sav Rocca said. “He’d get too stressed and think ‘Why the hell have we got this guy here for if he can’t hit a punt in pregame’ sort of thing.”
Eventually, Smith decided to hide in the locker room until opening kickoff. Not that it does much to calm him down. Out in the middle of a stadium, Smith doesn’t have much need for calm anyway. Last he checked it’s not part of the job description.
What is part of the job description is finding a mix of players at various parts of their career to work together for a common goal. It’s the part of the job that Smith loves the most. Nobody comes into the NFL wanting to play special teams, but everybody from rookies looking for a roster spot to veterans holding onto the last threads of their careers will find their way into Smith’s meetings.
That’s where he’s at his best, histrionics aside.
“I just have a passion,” Smith said. “I feel like I’m a good communicator. I feel like I’ve got good leadership skills. It’s just I take great pride in coaching and teaching and seeing that stuff on the field and getting guys in successful situations.”
Even if the instances can sometimes be hard to come by. One wrong shove on a punt return here, one missed blocking assignment on a field goal attempt there can shift the whole momentum of a game. The fact Smith survived nine seasons — under three different head coaches — in Washington speaks to his commitment. It’s why the Steelers didn’t hesitate to scoop him up, returning Smith to his hometown after a nomadic 30 years in the business.
Though he’ll turn 60 two days before the season opener against Tennessee, Smith does not hesitate to get his hands on players barely a third of his age. He’s well aware a nudge here and a push there can mean the difference between a penalty and paradise.
“The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack,” Smith said. “I’m going to determine the rate of this pack and on the field they’re gonna take over.”