“I have a lot of fans back there who support me; all of my coaches back there support me, and Utica has been real good to me.” —Will Smith
Will Smith never forgot where he came from. The short 28 second clip below is a testament to those statements. Perhaps it’s why yet another two coaches chose to talk with WDD and share their thoughts and sentiments about the New Orleans Saint who was killed on April 9 of last year.
The first coach the Dish caught up with was Will’s former Track and Field coach, Ralph Lupia. Lupia, back in 2005, was inducted into the Utica Sports Hall of Fame.
Robert Gagnier: When did you first come across Will, and just how long did he run track and field with you?
Ralph Lupia: I first met Will when he came out for track as a varsity freshman. It had to be about ’96 or so since he graduated in 2000. I coached track until I retired in ’05, so I’ve been out for a few years now. But we stayed in contact after he left high school and went on to Ohio State and ultimately to New Orleans. In fact, I had seen Will shortly before his death because he came up here to attend one of his friends weddings in Utica and we spent a little time together and it was there that I met his wife Racquel for the first time. As a freshman he was the man among boys—he was always the big kid and very mature physically for his age. So by the time he got to be a sophomore and a junior he saw a lot of time on the varsity squad.
In fact, he was on our 4×100 relay team. People think of him as a Saint getting after quarterbacks, but even in high school he was very fast for a 220 id. He ran the second leg of the relay in his junior year and we came in sixth in the state, so he contributed there as well. By the time he got to be a senior and Ohio State recruited him, he then shifted a lot of his time and focus toward football by working out and lifting so he saw about half a season with us for his senior year. But we stayed in contact and I can’t say enough about him. He had a quite type of leadership about him. He was never bossy and a lot of kids looked up to him. He was great in football, and was fairly fast with us in track and field, so he got a ton of respect either way. He ran with us for three and a half seasons.
RG: What made Will so special to you, from the perspective of a track and field coach?
RL: I’ve always had a great deal of admiration for those who played individual sports-not taking anything away from team sports to be sure. My own son played baseball and football, but he also wrestled. The individual sports to me are more demanding from a psychological standpoint. It’s all on you, and there is no one else to hide behind. And I think for Will Smith to come out in an individual sport and put his talent on the line without a team (whether it be the 100 meter dash or on the relay team) showed a lot of guts. You can’t hide behind the reff or say you weren’t getting the ball or the plays don’t come your way.
I respected him because he came out when he already had a name in both football and basketball, and didn’t need a name in track and field. So I thought that it also was good for his confidence levels as well.
RG: At what point in your program had it become obvious that football was going to be his calling?
RL: Well, in his senior year he started to get bigger, and his speed didn’t suffer at all. He was rock solid with no body fat whatsoever. And when he was playing high school ball, he was always being double and tripled teamed, also you knew once he got to Ohio State things were going to get pretty interesting. In fact, when Will was being recruited by Ohio State, Miami was also interested in landing him. But one of the mistakes Miami made was that they made it clear that if he chose them they were going to red shirt him for the fist year. Ohio State, on the other hand made it clear that they were going to start him immediately as a true freshman and that is what influenced his decision to go on to Ohio State. He wasn’t afraid.
RG: Where were you when you first heard about Will’s passing?
RL: I came home and as soon as I walked in my wife said Will Smith was killed. And I said to her the actor, or our Will Smith? And she said, “our Will Smith”. And then I wanted to know just what happened, and to this day I am still not sure. I don’t know where the case is. You try to keep track of it, but it gets depressing and you end up not trying to think about it too much. I am very good friends with some of his friends to this day who go to the same gym that I do. I can tell you it just affected so many guys around here-and it was just terrible.
RG: Were you lucky enough to attend any of the charities that Will had, and can you speak on the effect it had on the community?
RL: I have always admired him because unlike many others who have gone on to make it professionally, many do not come back or remember where they were from. And he came back to Utica with the “Where there’s a will there’s a way” foundation. He was very humble with the high school kids and the kids looked up to him. He never had an arrogant attitude-he was still quiet. Even when he joked, his humor was deadpanned and quiet. He was a gentleman.
RG: How would you best describe the legacy that Will Smith left, particularly in the community that you called home?
RL: Well I think the goals that he set athletically, he achieved all of that at the high school, college, and professional levels. The people that he came into contact with in the Utica area always speak well of him. I never heard of any confrontations or negative sayings about him. At this local level he was always looked up to. It also looked as though he wen ton to become a great dad and husband. For the time that he was here with us, I think he did a great job.
The second coach WDD caught up with was Will’s former basketball coach, Norm Stamboly.
RG: Coach we’ve heard quite a bit about Will from a football and track and field stand point. Just how good was he in basketball?
Norm Stamboly: Will was a good rebounder and defender. He played his butt off every time we played. Ultimately he led us to a sectional championship game which we eventually lost in double overtime. He was a very coachable kid and great for the program. Will was just a kid who practiced all the time, was a leader on the team, and was great to work with.
RG: What was his effect on the other basketball players on his team?
NS: I can put it any more bluntly: he was a natural-born leader. All the kids respected him, looked up to him, and thought the world of him. He came into practice ready to give a 100 percent, and always came ready to lead.
RG: When did you first come into contact with him?
NS: When he was a seventh, eighth, and ninth grader we were watching him. When he became a tenth grader we asked him to play varsity. But he chose to play on the JV team, a testament to just how humble he was even then.
RG: What position did he play?
NS: He went back and forth and could play center-forward.
RG: Can you comment on the news about his death?
NS: I can say that it was and remains devastating.
RG: What are your final thoughts about the impact that Will Smith had on Utica?
NS: I went to all of the “Where there is a will there is a way functions” up here in Utica. He had a tremendous impact on the community-on both youngsters and oven their parents, and continues to have that influence on the youth of our area through his foundation.
In addition to the two coaches who joined WDD for interviews, WDD found this relevant video below that again speaks volumes about how Will Smith left lasting impressions on not only his coaches, but teachers too.
This is the second installment of a series dedicated to the powerful legacy left behind by the all-time great Will Smith.