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Sports, Family, and the American Soul
By Marty Smith
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By Eric Church
There are two types of situations when lives change. One you recognize immediately and you know for certain, my life will never be the same. Second, and frankly more interesting, are those chance encounters that you don’t immediately put into the life-changing category.
Those are my favorite to look back on.
I tell you that, to tell you this: My life changed one night on my bus outside of a club in North Carolina, in a mundane gravel parking lot, in which about two hundred crazy people had parked their vehicles and planned to drink and party and puke the night away.
My job? Provide the drink and the party.
But before I did that, in those days, I would have my meet-and-greet in the front lounge of my bus. Why? Good question. The short answer is: The clubs were so damn small you couldn’t do it backstage.
There was no backstage. There was onstage, and in the crowd, that’s it.
But I digress. Back to the meet-and-greet protocol: two or three at a time, single file, quick hello, what’s your name, that’s nice, smile for the camera. So imagine my surprise and intrigue when a skinny redhead—-and I mean a coiffed redheaded fellow—-stuck out his hand and, with an intense emotional story in his eyes, said, “Your record Sinners Like Me saved my life. I’m Marty Smith.”
Bam! Little did I know that life had just changed forever.
No, that night we chatted about how music heals hurt and, in this case, how mine had healed his. I was touched but was oblivious to the future crop God had planted with the seeds of those words.
I don’t remember the show; Marty does. I don’t remember the place; Marty does. I don’t even remember which city the place was in, but—you guessed it—Marty does.
What stuck with me was his intensity and passion and sincerity. He carried his story in a way I hadn’t seen a story carried before.
This was thrust to the forefront of my mind a short time later when I was invited to join Marty on Percy Priest Lake in Nashville for a fishing derby to benefit a good cause. The cause? I don’t remember, but ask Marty.
I immediately said yes, and then proceeded to arrive ten minutes late just because, well, I’m always late, and these things never start on time. Except these things, being fish derbies, actually do start on time. Emphatically, do.
They had a shotgun start. Clock strikes 8 a.m.! Bam! Two hundred bass boats race out at warp speed to slay their scaled nemesis at the far reaches of the lake’s fingers.
So imagine my surprise and, truthfully, my amusement to pull up to a completely empty marina on tournament day.
All gone. Ghost town. Except for one lone boat, floating like a bobber on a backwoods catfish pond.
This lone vessel had two occupants. One had a mop of red hair spraying every which way. The other occupant, our fishing pro. His name escapes me; ask Marty. So I walk down and sheepishly utter my apologies. Nameless fish pro looked less than amused.
Marty, on the other hand, looked incredibly amused.
So now we got a real problem, says fish guy: “All the other boats have a ten-minute head start, and they will have all the best spots staked out.” I look around. Marty looks around. No one. Anywhere.
Marty says, “Let’s fish around the marina here.” Fish guy looks at Marty, takes about three deep breaths, looks to the sky, considers the epic waste of time this day (and probably his career choice) will be, takes an additional breath, looks back at Marty—because there is no way in hell he is gonna look at me—and says, “Why not? We are probably too late, anyway.”
Short story long. We won. In a landslide.
My favorite moment of the whole thing was after we got the trophy, a country music peer of mine, who took everything too seriously, walked up in a huff and said, “We scoured dis whole gol-damn lake and caught nary a thing. Where da hell yous guys catch dem?”
I just turned around and pointed at the boat launch and said, “Right there.” He was incredulous and, frankly, never the same professionally.
That day was the beginning of a thousand stories I could tell you. Stories of success, and recognition, and accolades, and world championships, and awards, and champagne, and beaches, and GOATS, and checkered flags, and pirate flags, and dammit moments so full of life you feel like you’re flying.
Sometimes truthfully—flying on the gentle flowing 96 proof wings of Jack Daniel’s. We damn sure were.
There were other times when we didn’t fly. When we leaned on each other on the ground. Held each other up, overcome with loss, hurt, death.
I think back many nights to that show Marty knows, in that parking lot Marty knows, on that night Marty knows, in that city Marty knows, and I know only one thing, the most important thing.
He thinks my music saved him, but I know his friendship saved me.
Never Settle is like a record album. That was my entire philosophy toward its production, arrangement, and execution. It’s an unorthodox approach for a book. It’s different. But I’ve never been especially traditional.
Many books build, chapter upon chapter, toward a climax. It is a proven formula, centuries old. Meanwhile, great record albums tell a broader story through a collection of individual tracks, each with unique characters and diverse settings and great imagery that work together to share specific stories, which are often separate from the stories told by their sister tracks. One song can seemingly have no exact correlation to the next. The characters and their respective lessons are capable of standing alone. Just turn on the radio for proof.
But if done well, each individual track on an album blends with the others emotionally to create a thematic journey. Collectively, they wrap the listener in a comprehensive story. They might even shape a life, and often do. Like the songs on an album, each story within these pages can stand alone as a singular experience. But housed together, they collectively provide stops on a journey toward the goal for this book, which is the unyielding search for the American soul, and how sports provide a vehicle to find it.
The idea made sense. We love victory. That’s the purpose for playing the games. But the stories, the souls, the community, and the journeys within the games are often what move us. They are the foundation upon which the games are built. They are the “why” and the “how” that provide context to the “who” and the “what” we cheer.
As an interviewer, I’ve been blessed with a rare luxury: breadth. Rather than focusing on one specific theme or moment during interviews, I often have freedom to inquire and learn about the “hows” and the “whys” of the interviewees’ stories.
I consider us all pieces of clay. Every win, loss, acquaintance, relationship, and experience along the way pinches at that clay to remold us. Every individual we meet sculpts our evolving shape. Some soften our sharp edges. Some strengthen our weak foundations. Some take small pinches. Some take chunks. I love learning about those chunks, who took them, and how they reshaped our perspectives and redirected our paths.
Some of my greatest blessings are the editors, producers, and executives who believed in a brand of storytelling focused on the human element. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to introduce an audience to a side they may not have seen before of someone they admire. From the moment I left college and took my first reporting opportunity at the Lynchburg News & Advance, my bosses enabled me to learn a certain storytelling craft, long-form and detail-oriented, in real time. I cannot stress how rare that is, especially today, in a 280-character news world that can shift seismically in an instant. It did not come without mistakes. I’ve made plenty. Nearly every one of my bosses championed a philosophy that dug deeply into the “who” beneath the “what.” And my bosses and colleagues at ESPN most certainly champion that approach. I am so grateful for all of you—including those who told me to my face it would never work.
They helped title this book. Their doubt provided an edge for me. Their doubt disallowed complacency and demanded accountability. You will learn about my doubts and insecurities within these pages. I’m intense, but generally easygoing. And I’m competitive as hell. I pride myself on being a tireless workhorse. There are better reporters. But nobody will outwork me. No one will have more passion than I will. No one will have more joy than I will. I can control those variables: work ethic, passion, and joy.
“Never settle” has been a personal philosophy for many years now, as a husband, father, friend, brother, athlete, and professional. I haven’t always succeeded. But failure only motivated me to try harder and strive to be better. I want to give every ounce of everything within me while I’m here.
“Good enough” ain’t good enough. My parents died young. I learned that pain early. And I decided then that I would live and love as hard as I could, in as many areas as I could find. Try new things. Take chances. Love hard. Play hard. Pray hard. Work hard. Listen. Be kind. Ask for forgiveness.
In Never Settle, you will read about lessons I learned from time spent with icons like Nick Saban and Tiger Woods. But you’ll also read about my family, my mentors, and my roots. My wins and my losses. Those I’ve loved, many of whom are gone too soon but live on within me, good and bad. This book has the tendencies of a memoir. It is not a memoir. It’s a chronicle of memorable moments that helped shape the man I am right now, a man in his early forties still trying every day to figure out what he’s doing here and how he might do it better; a man who has seen the world but is forever rooted in rural America.
I wanted to include poetry within these pages, musings jotted down on cross-country flights over the years. I wanted to place stories and quotes from insightful interviews between chapters. So I did. Artists need great producers to adjust and mold their visions and their talents into their most powerful forms. I call that “making it a copyright.” I am beyond appreciative that my friends at Twelve agreed to hold my hand on this journey, embrace a weird approach toward a common project, and make it better than I ever dreamed it could be. They let me achieve a dream.
Any record album worth its salt is vulnerable.
If nothing else, Never Settle is vulnerable. Not only because I have made myself vulnerable through the act of writing this book but because the subjects included herein made themselves vulnerable to me as they opened up to share intimate slices of their life journeys. As for me? I do not share all of my shortcomings or insecurities in this book, but I share a bunch of them. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I’ve wandered from my faith at times, and for lengthy periods. I strive to be kind to everyone, but I have not always succeeded. When I have failed, I’ve sought forgiveness.
I have tried to live by the Golden Rule: to treat others as I’d like to be treated.
I don’t know how long I’ll make it here on this earth, and ultimately I want my children to have a piece of their daddy, a way to know me more deeply even after I’m gone. A way I never knew my daddy. Lainie and our kids have sacrificed so much for my career. They wonder aloud why Daddy has to leave again and why he’s on airplanes all the time. I hope that this book can help answer some of those questions when they’re older. And I hope it makes you consider your own hopes and desires for your own life.
I’ve long told my friends in music how envious I am that they create art that lives forever. “Copyrights.” With Never Settle, maybe we’ve done that.
I have experienced moments of euphoria and moments of great sorrow. I’m a dad and a husband who grew from an immature, egocentric person into something of an accountable man. Maybe some of you will relate.
The great albums are just that: relatable. I hope this one is, too.
Jumping off the boathouse roof was Nick Saban’s idea.
Saban’s boathouse, on the banks of Lake Burton, Georgia, is a gorgeous structure. It is two stories, the bottom made of ornate stone and staggered wood shakes, providing a covered two-boat garage of sorts for his watercraft. One stall held a pontoon boat and the other a stunning antique cherrywood cruiser, with real glass and gold trim and Old Glory waving off the back. It looked like art.
Atop all of this sat a flawless wood-floor landing with an unimpeded lake view, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, the back half of which included a pavilion in which to dine and evade the sun. Up the hill and a rock walkway sat the lake house.
It was early afternoon, late August, and Saban, Tim Tebow, and I stood at the edge of the second-floor wooden platform, overlooking the water below. During some small talk, Saban said we should jump.
The moment was spontaneous but hinted at a dare.
“I do it all the time, boys. Sack up.”
One of those deals.
It seemed the perfect payoff to an introspective morning, during which Saban—arguably history’s best college football coach—donned swimming shorts, captained a pontoon boat, and let his hair fly in the wind as he navigated Lake Burton, his second home and refuge, and discussed with Tebow and me the remaining hopes and desires that drive a legendary career. He also spoke of his regrets, his philosophical approach to growing high school boys into NFL men, and his own evolution as a coach and as a man.
I’d never experienced Saban like this. I’m not sure many people have. He was completely disarmed. No football. No veneer. Smoother edges. An easy smile. Jokes. Laughter. He’s an elite ball-buster. He enjoyed showing us his jet skis and his boats. He adores this place. The surrounding area is 85 percent national forest; Lake Burton, the first of six lakes in the Tallulah River basin, comprises nearly 2,800 acres and 62 miles of shoreline.
Saban is here three weeks a year. You sense he finds himself during that time.
“I’d like to think that I’m no different than I was when I was a kid growing up in West Virginia, in terms of how I treat people and how important relationships are,” he told me, standing alongside the boat bobbing on the water near his dock. “And I think this [lake] gives you a chance to do it. Because I don’t think many people here care that you’re the coach at Alabama, or how many games you won. And that’s refreshing sometimes.”
That’s not the only way it’s refreshing.
Saban loves Lake Burton so much it’s his bathtub. During summertime vacation here, he typically plays 18 early holes of golf at the Waterfall Golf Club, of which he is part owner, then heads back to the house to jump into the lake with a bar of Dial soap to scrub up.
You read that right: Nick Saban bathes in Lake Burton.
He loves the water. It seems to buoy him emotionally, to provide some navigation toward perspective. Growing up in West Virginia, he enjoyed jumping off the waterfalls throughout the mountainous terrain in the area and riding the rapids on his butt.
When he went off to college at Kent State in Ohio, that opportunity did not exist. So when he went home for the summer, the first thing he did was go jump into the river. Lake Burton reminds him of those simpler times.
He used to ski like a madman out here, prior to neck fusion surgery in his early sixties. These days he just cruises. After Saban takes a lake bath, his wife, Ms. Terry, walks down the hill to the dock with a lunch she prepared. On the day we were there, we had chicken salad that tasted like the South, sweet, with a healthy hint of mayonnaise. They take lunch, hop into the pontoon and cruise the lake, and blast the Eagles and the Rolling Stones and Elton John and Michael Jackson so loudly on the speakers that the neighbors joke they’re disturbing the peace.
At the time, the country music icon Alan Jackson was Saban’s neighbor. Jackson was a valuable resource. When the boat gave Saban trouble, he dialed Jackson for some advice on how he might fix it. Sometimes the Country Music Hall of Famer just walked next door and turned the wrench himself.
“He’s [an avid] boat guy and a good mechanic, and he’s fixed my boat before,” Saban said. “And I sure do appreciate it.”
I love country music, so this fascinated me. I wondered if Coach and Alan ever tossed back a couple of beers and fired up the karaoke machine, maybe sang “Between the Devil and Me.” Tebow figured their go-to song had to be “Drive.” Coach corrected us.
The song he likes is “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”
We all laughed pretty hard at that.
Coach wanted to drive Tebow and me around the lake in his pontoon boat. We brought some fishing poles. It took about five minutes to realize that was a bad idea. I sat down in the boat and almost instantly felt a stick in my shoulder blade. The fish hook had hung up in my back. So there I was, sitting on Nick Saban’s boat, I barely knew him, and he and Tebow were digging a three-pronged barb out of my scapula.
I wasn’t embarrassed. But it was an inauspicious moment.
Once I shook the hook we took off. I had a hole in my back, and the fancy new SPF shirt we purchased on the way to the shoot was torn and bloody. But the conversation was free and easy.
“I had great parents,” Saban said. “When I was a kid growing up, my dad was sort of a perfectionist. He had high expectations, not just how we played football or baseball, but he had high expectations for how we treated other people, what kind of compassion we had for other people, how we helped other people.
“He’d ask, ‘Did you go to church? How did you cut the grass? Did you trim? Did you mow? Did you clean up?’ I mean, there was a reckoning for everything that you did.”
We all laughed pretty hard at that, too.
He continued: “When you didn’t do it right, you had to do it again. When I washed a car and it had streaks in the side, he said, ‘Go wash it again.’ So I grew up learning that if you didn’t do it right, there were going to be consequences that you had to deal with.
“And it was much easier trying to do it the right way the first time.”
I felt like I was listening to my dad. For as long as I can remember, my father said, “If you’re gonna do it, do it right the first time.” Meanwhile, Momma had a cross-stitch hanging on the wall that read, “A stitch in time saves nine.” In other words, take your time and do it right so you don’t have to correct mistakes.
When we returned to the boathouse, I figured the experience was over. I figured wrong. Saban wanted to jump into the lake like that kid from West Virginia would.
The jump appeared to be about forty feet, down off the platform roof and directly into Lake Burton. Coach Saban drew up the play: He and Tebow would jump simultaneously—Coach aiming right and Tebow aiming left. I’d go last and split them, right down the middle like a game-winning field goal.
And suddenly: Poof! They were gone. Splash. So there I was, moment of truth, and I began to leap off the roof, and I noticed that Saban didn’t go right and Tebow didn’t go left, and I’m airborne and they’re bobbing right in front of me and I’m thinking: Oh my God, I’m going to take out Nick Saban and Tim Tebow.
Rather than make national headlines, I contorted my body a bit sideways and missed them. In the process I landed left-ribs-first and damn near knocked the breath out of myself.
We all howled with laughter while trying not to drown. I hollered a yee haw like Bo Duke, then dragged myself up onto the dock and doubled over, sucking air.
I thanked Coach for inviting us to his refuge and opening his doors to us.
He reminded me that we had invited ourselves.
And we all laughed pretty damn hard at that, too.
Just Trust Me
I didn’t want to make the phone call. I knew my words would crush my wife but wouldn’t shock her. As a reporter’s wife, she lived every day braced subconsciously for the unexpected. Sometimes the phone rings and I rush to the airport. That’s the job. For several minutes I sat and stared blankly at the wall in my living room, partly euphoric, partly terrified. I fidgeted, sipped my coffee, read and reread the directive.
I dialed her number. As the phone rang in my ear, the emotional roller coaster rose within me, from deep calm to spiking anxiety, that same feeling in your heart and your gut as when the train climbs the rails toward the heavens and the tow chain beckons: click, click, click.
She answered the phone with five words: “Where are they sending you?”
Life is about balance and relationships. That applies spiritually and physically. As life progresses and priorities shift, both are increasingly difficult to cultivate and to maintain. We’re busy. We get distracted and stressed. We lose touch. Our desires evolve. We seek material things and base importance and self-worth on stuff, not experiences. Bigger house. Nicer car. Fancier clothes.
That’s a shame. Because when we’re eighty years old and rockin’ chairs replace rock ’n’ roll, all that stuff means nothing. The experiences and the memories are precious. That’s why consciously seeking balance as we feverishly chase dreams is so imperative.
Who we are is so much more important than what we are. That tug-of-war is difficult. The toughest part is the idea that there’s always tomorrow; that we’ll get to it later. And then later becomes now, and all your kids want from you is money and car keys, not time and attention and affection. And then one day you wake up and your babies are graduating from high school, and you think, Damn, I should’ve dressed those dolls with her or thrown him those pitches. Why didn’t I? What was so important that I said, “We’ll do it later,” only to see “later” come and go before we seize the moment?
It’s the story within the seventies Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle.” That song’s message is piercing. It scares me because it’s true.
I love my job. I love my family.
To excel at both, I have to work for both. Working for both is exhausting. But I don’t ever want to look back and wish I’d been more attentive.
I hesitate to explain that battle for me. Though it’s not my intention, it will seem exceedingly haughty, because the truth is, my life is a Tiger Woods interview in the morning and a game of H-O-R-S-E with my son in the afternoon—in two different cities after three different airplanes. It’s beautifully chaotic. And it requires tremendous selflessness from my wife, Lainie.
Back to that phone call. In retrospect, my response to her intuition was impossibly unfair and self-absorbed.
“If you’ll trust me, this will change our lives.”
It was November 17, 2014, sometime around seven o’clock on a Monday morning. These are not exact numbers, but at that moment I’d been gone from home for approximately 100 of the past 150 days—or nearly the entire second half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, spanning a period of time from the final weekend in July to the week before Thanksgiving, and race locations from Indianapolis to Boston to Chicago to Dallas to Phoenix to Miami and little nowhere towns everywhere in between.
Nearly twenty weeks straight, all over the country.
That’s hard on a man. It’s harder on his spouse.
Children are resilient. They know what they know. And all mine have ever known is that Daddy has to go to the airport. For years they thought my job was flying on airplanes. Sure, they miss Daddy when he’s gone, and the older they get the more they say so. But if Mommy is committed to the grind, the kids are committed to the grind without even knowing it.
And to this very moment, Lainie is committed to the grind.
That’s not to say she enjoys it.
Lainie and I have three young children. In November 2014 our son, Cambron, celebrated his ninth birthday. Our daughters, Mia and Vivian, were five and two, respectively. Those are wonderfully tough ages.
And it deserves noting that Lainie and I don’t have a standard parenting scenario, if there is such a thing. Cambron has Tourette’s syndrome, and as most Tourette’s parents will attest, a myriad of complicated variables accompany that. Tics. Outbursts. Attention deficit issues. Social anxiety. Raising any child is challenging. Raising a child with a neurological condition presents additional difficulties. Many parents today can relate.
But don’t get it twisted. We have no complaints. Our blessings overflow. We’re exceedingly proud of Cambron. God blessed us richly with his perspective, no matter how confusing and frustrating that perspective can sometimes be to those of us who don’t share it. He’s a special person who constantly teaches me more about myself than anyone else can. I adore my son. I am so proud of him. I love you, buddy.
On November 17, 2014, I was the lead reporter for ESPN’s NASCAR coverage, and at the time the network was in the last season of an eight-year agreement to nationally broadcast the final twenty races of the sport’s premier series.
I wasn’t part of the actual racing broadcast team. Instead, I reported news, conducted interviews, and produced feature pieces that aired on the network’s ancillary programming, shows like SportsCenter and the NASCAR Countdown prerace program.
That meant I lived on airplanes and in hotel rooms. And that meant Lainie was alone, a lot, managing our children and our home. The mom routine is monotonous and unrelenting: Alarm. Snooze. Alarm. Wake up. Peel self from bed. Stumble to kids’ rooms. Wake kids. Strip urine-drenched sheets. Laundry. Juices. Medicines. Breakfasts. Pack lunches. Pack backpacks. Dress Mia. Dress Vivian. Hope Cambron got dressed. Hope Cambron brushed his teeth. Buckle up. Traffic. Car pool. Traffic. Drop-off. Traffic. Laundry. Grocery store. Traffic. Car pool. Traffic. Practice. Traffic. Dinner. Dishes. Pajamas. Bedtime story. Prayers. Pound wine. Fall into couch.
If you don’t respect a stay-at-home mother, you’re just ignorant.
By the time she got ten minutes alone, she’d spent nine hours in the car. Lainie was a different brand of exhausted.
I’ve always respected and honored that effort, with consideration that so much of what she manages is intangible. There’s no office or title. There’s just work and love.
- "Marty Smith is fantastic! The thing I really admire is his passion and enthusiasm. Marty is engaged the whole time -- he hustles and gets involved emotionally in the stories he tells. He's a great professional, great for college football, and I just have a great admiration for him."—Jim Harbaugh, Head Football Coach, University of Michigan
- "I've known Marty for what seems like our entire lives. He's an extremely hard worker. He's full of life. He's the friend everyone hopes to have. His life's been an incredible journey, and within the pages of Never Settle, you're along for the ride."—Dale Earnhardt, Jr., two-time Daytona 500 champion and New York Times bestselling author of Racing to the Finish
- "Marty Smith's gift exceeds his power to connect with those he chronicles. For through that connection, with people famous and obscure, with some of the biggest names in sports and others you've never heard of, he conjures moments universal and intimate. This is a book of uncommon humanity -- shaped by stories, including Marty's own -- rendered in a voice as pure as the soil where it was nurtured."—Tom Rinaldi, national ESPN correspondent and New York Times bestselling author of The Red Bandanna
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages