Here's how he explains it: "In modernist theory, the wide-out would go down six yards and sprint to the sidelines, and the quarterback would throw it to him. But in post-modern football, that receiver has several options for routes depending on the defense, which is also in the process of changing based on the offensive lineup they see even as the ball is snapped! It's all an intellectually fluid situation of 'if this, then this,' like analytic philosophy. But even better, it's analytic philosophy with violent accountability!"
Forgive him. Smith's high-falutin' rambling might be dismissed as intellectual piffle from the ivory tower, but he's no outsider at all. In fact, Smith has been a regular member of the Panther equipment team since their first game in Clemson in 1995. For nine years this Davidson prof has spent up to 25 hours a week during the season amid modern gladiators he adores, polishing their helmets, doing their laundry, and hauling their water. Since the college's summer vacation falls during pro football's pre-season, he also gets to live with the team every year at its training camp in Spartanburg, SC.
Though he's paid a minimal wage for his job as "home team locker room guy," there's no doubting Smith's sincerity when he says, "I'd do it for free, but I don't tell them that!"
Inside the chest of this scholar of 17th-to-20th century art beats the heart of a 54-year-old kid who just loves to get hit. "I've gotten hit a couple times on the sideline and it felt great!" he said enthusiastically.
Although Smith didn't expect to be going to Houston with the team for the Super Bowl, he will be in the stands courtesy of the Panthers. Needless to say, he's overjoyed.
Smith fell in love with football as a youngster growing up in Davidson, serving as water boy for the college's Wildcat team, and playing the game steadily from age 3 or 4 through age 33. He was a defensive back, punter, and return man for the North Mecklenburg High team, but wasn't good enough to make the team at Carolina, where he enrolled as a Morehead Scholar. Rather than be discouraged, Smith helped found UNC's club-level football squad, and played cornerback and safety with that team from 1970 to 1980 throughout his undergraduate and graduate years. Smith has been a permanent member of the Davidson faculty since 1986. He initiated contact with the Panthers as the team got organized, and has been in their locker room and on the sideline since the first game in Clemson's stadium in fall 1995. "What we try to do is make things easier for the players so they can concentrate on their job," he said.
On a typical Panthers home weekend, Smith drives the 20 miles from Davidson to the stadium in Charlotte early on Saturday morning, and spends eight hours preparing uniforms and straightening up the locker room.
On Sunday morning he and other equipment staffers are at the stadium at 7am, six hours before kickoff. They make the coffee, polish and wax helmets, test the quarterback's helmet radio receiver, and set up the classrooms for the players' eight-minute audio-visual halftime strategy lesson. During the games the staff must be ready to react instantly to any emergency.
"Football is all about 'now,' and I love that sense of urgency," Smith said. "Everything is on the clock and when something breaks, you've got to get it fixed immediately. It forces you to consider contingencies, to have backups for backups ready at all times."
Things slow down after the game, but the volume of cleaning and laundry keeps Smith and his buddies busy until he finally gets home about 7pm.
Smith has a similar equipment position with the Davidson College football team, helping manager Dan Morphis prepare the Wildcats for their Saturday contests, working on the sideline during the game, and often traveling with the team to away games.
Smith says his academic interests and football passion are totally compatible. "Football is the most intellectual team sport, by far," he said. "It's not even close."
He contends that football players spend far more time in the classroom than players of all other sports combined, and points out that the Panthers offensive play book is nearly 2,000 pages long. "The thing I wish other academicians would understand is that the two endeavors aren't that different. It's not either/or between body and mind, the two are intimately connected. It's an idea the Greeks and Romans understood totally. All the intensity of working with all this power, and in a situation of ultimate accountability on the field and the scoreboard, is a tremendously taxing intellectual exercise."
This is from a man who understands intellectual exercise, who has spent long hours poring over dusty tomes in the Louvre studying the 19th-century French artist Eugene Delacroix and his contemporaries, who recently lectured on Delacroix at art conferences in France, Spain, and Cuba, and at the Mint Museum and Museum of the New South in Charlotte.
He continued, "The French writer Charles Baudelaire said of Delacroix, 'He was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to find the means to express it.' And that's exactly what football is! It's based on Nietzschean will, the ability to impose yourself physically over someone else on the field, and decide that no matter what the conditions are, you can still get it done. It couples power with the mental with the aesthetic. It's visceral, like a Delacroix painting. It hits you in the gut and in the mind."
Smith hasn't been working with the Panthers, as team owner Jerry Richardson said, "just for funsies." Smith said, "It's not just about having fun doing this. You work to get to the Super Bowl. That's why you fold hundreds of towels in the laundry room in Spartanburg, and drip sweat loading trucks in Charlotte in the heat. It's about winning, and this year we've finally got the chance to win it all!"