The one-year anniversary marking the death of former Saint defensive end Will Smith will be upon us soon.
Who Dat Dish had the good fortune to catch up to three prominent mentors who played a significant role in the early days of Will Smith, when he played ball at Proctor High in Utica, New York. (A special thanks goes out to Ralph Leo, who was kind enough to arrange this interview between myself, Guy Puleo, Bruce Karam, and Ralph.)
Robert Gagnier: Mr. Bruce Karam, you’re the current Superintendent of Schools for the Utica City School District and were the Principal at the middle school when Will was in attendance. When did you first get the opportunity to meet Mr. Smith?
Bruce Karam: I first got to know him back when he was a student at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Utica, New York. I was the principal then, and he was a student there.
RG: What were some of your fondest memories of him as a student there?
BK: Mr. Smith was really a nice student. He displayed a lot of good qualities early on. He was a hard worker, and very respectful. To this day, I can recall how nice he was to his fellow students as well. Just a kind, nice kid who went on to become a good man.
RG: At what point did it become apparent to others that he was very gifted in basketball?
BK: I think that became apparent when he transitioned to the high school. I think that is when his athletic abilities really began to surface and he began to stick out.
RG: Mr. Ralph Leo, you were on the basketball staff and was an athletic manager when Will played for you guys. You have certainly seen your share of athletes come and go both before and since Will Smith. What made Will stand out to you?
Ralph Leo: You know, I have said this to a lot of people: You never knew if it was practice or a game with Will. He gave the same effort, broke the same sweat, and worked as hard in any practice session as he did in a game. He played on our JV basketball team as a freshman and played varsity basketball for three years. People didn’t realize just how good he was in basketball! He was a terrific high school basketball player with tremendous leadership and a hard, hard work ethic.
RG: What positions did he play throughout his career there?
RL: He was our center—and he was big. He was 6’4, 240lbs when he was in high school. He definitely anchored our defense and was the consummate team player. He wasn’t concerned with scoring, although I believe he did in fact average 11 or 12 points a game, and about ten rebounds a game. He started for us from his sophomore all the way through to his senior years. He was also the captain of the basketball team for both his junior and senior years due to his leadership skills and qualities.
RG: Was there ever any concern on the part of the staff that maybe this young man was overdoing it in terms of trying to be a two-sport athlete as well as being able to stay up on his academics?
RL: It was fairly seamless with Will. The coaching staff at the time encouraged kids to play other sports and, in fact, when Ohio State was recruiting Will, they actually mentioned that they loved the fact that he played basketball as well as football. With regards to academics, Will’s grandmother saw to it that he took care of business on that front. She knew where he was every single minute—there was no wasted time! It was always school, practice, and homework. Will’s grandmother made sure he was very organized and disciplined.
RG: Bruce, can you speak on what you recall about Will from an academic standpoint?
BK: Well, I can tell you that he was a good student who also played a musical instrument from what I can remember. I believe it was the trumpet. He was as solid a guy as you can come across, and I can tell you that the support system that he got from his grandmother really contributed to making him the man he was both in terms of his friendliness, thoughtfulness, and level of respect he showed others.
RG: Mr. Puleo, as his head football coach, is it safe to say that you had early clues that Mr. Smith had the talent to go beyond the high school and even college levels?
Guy Puleo: Well I knew early on that he had the tools, as I was fortunate enough to also be Will’s junior high football coach at John Kennedy Middle School. And so I had the honor of coaching him again at the varsity level. We knew he was going to go on and do bigger and better things.
RG: In addition to Will’s grandmother and the outstanding job she did, were there other individuals that you recall him spending quality time with?
GP: There were several families that he was close to. All of the boys played football and basketball, and ran track and did everything together. So Will had a close relationship with all of them and truly had a large, extended family as well.
RG: Mr. Leo, lets fast forward a bit now. Will is now among the Saints, and goes on to become a Super Bowl champ. Where were you when the Saints won the Super Bowl, and just how happy were you for Will Smith?
RL: I was at home watching tv and cheering like crazy! I loved every second of it. It was an exciting time for all of us and the thing is it wasn’t just New Orleans that won it, but rather our community as well because we were all pulling for him.
RG: Mr. Puleo, it’s our understanding that you were actually at the Super Bowl itself, in the flesh, courtesy of Mr. Smith himself! Is that correct?
GP: It was a tremendous experience and one of the most tremendous experiences that I have had as a coach. I went down there with another one of our coaches. Will got us the tickets, and made sure we were able to celebrate with him and the team later that evening. He also got us into the post game activates! Just a great guy!
RG: Hello Bruce, where were you?
BK: Like Mr. Leo, I too was at home watching the game. It was so exciting, and we were all very proud of the achievements of this young man.
RG: Bruce, where were you when you got wind of the shooting?
BK: I believe I was home when it happened, when the news came across on CNN. I was in sheer shock. It absolutely shocked me!
RG: How about yourself Guy?
GP: Same here—at the time my wife woke me up, because she had just gotten a text from one of our nieces saying Will had been killed.
RG: How about yourself, Mr. Leo?
RL: I received a text message about 6:30 in the morning from the local television station. It was utter disbelief for me because this was a Sunday morning when I got this info, and he was scheduled to be in Utica the following Thursday I believe. I was looking forward to seeing him.
RG: Gentleman, what are your collective thoughts on how we are doing as a society with respect to all of these senseless deaths?
RL: It’s hard to comment—it was needless violence. There is just too much of it in our country and our cities. It’s a sad testament to everything—its hard to put a finger on why this tragedy had to happen.
GP: You know, Utica is a city, but not a major metropolitan area, and yet we have the same major issues as everyone else does. It really was senseless—and is something that continues to go on all over the country. I just think we need to have more tolerance of one another, and need to get along.
BK: It was a senseless tragedy with no logic or reasoning to it. He was in the wrong place at the working time, and came across the wrong person. It’s just something that you can’t simply explain, why it happened.
RG: To close out on a positive note gentleman, what is the legacy of Will Smith?
RL: He just really loved everybody! He loved his immediate and extended family, and absolutely loved this community. When he came to town it was never a handshake, but rather a big bear hug. I was looking forward to that bear hug that following Thursday because he would always come over to Proctor, and go see all of his old coaches and teachers, and talk to the kids. He would encourage them, and then have a big bear hug for all of us. He was just a wonderful, lovable, lovable guy. Every single year, for his “Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way Foundation”, he would contribute to our program and honor all of the local kids, not just the Proctor High ones.
GP: As Will grew up, he was everybody’s friend. He wasn’t one to be in clicks or just hang with other athletes. Even though he was the big man on campus, you would never know it. He got along with everybody and associated with everybody. I saw that same repaired with his teammates at Ohio State. After games, you could see his influence because opposing team members’ families would want to come talk with him.
You could just tell that it was genuine—he got along with everyone. As part of his foundation, he sponsored a football camp for area youth and not just Utica or Proctor students, but for anyone who decided to come to it—Will paid for everything, including the banquet which was held to honor those kids, players, and coaches from all over the area. He put his name on it and wanted to make sure that he was promoting both athletics as well as academics and extended himself across the region to many young people.
BK: I think his legacy will be, for the people who knew him, for all those who came across his path, that they will remember him for being a good person, a good soul. He was a kind, respectful, hardworking, and dedicated soul. He had a tremendous amount of achievement in a relatively short life span—that is how he will be remembered.