When I first met Warner Smith, Pima College men's basketball coach Brian Peabody and I were reffing a high-school summer league. Warner was playing for the San Manuel High School Miners. He was a football player first, second and third, but small-town kids did (and do) what all prep athletes should do and that is to play multiple sports.
When he stepped onto the court, I remember thinking that someone had cloned Man Mountain Dean and had then pasted young Bill Walton's nasty-ass red beard onto the man-child. (Walton's beard was at its worst during his NBA championship days with the Portland Trail Blazers. Back then, thankfully, you couldn't get Walton to talk.)
These were the glory days for San Manuel. Prospectors had been drawn to the area as early as the 1880s, but the copper mine didn't really take off until the U.S. government declared copper to be a strategic wartime metal during World War II. After the war, the mining and smelting operations in San Manuel and nearby Winkleman went into high gear. It's a poorly kept secret that many mining/smelting companies make enough from the gold, silver and molybdenum that are often found near copper ore to cover all of their costs, with the proceeds from the copper itself being all profit. By the 1980s, the San Manuel mine was the largest underground mine in the world and would eventually produce 7 million tons of copper ore.
As had been the case in other places around Arizona, the well-paying (but tough) jobs attracted tough people who tended to have tough kids. So, as had happened in places like Ajo and Bisbee, Morenci and Superior, the local high school in the mining town started turning out stud athletic teams. (There was a stretch where the San Manuel softball team won the conference title a ridiculous 20 years in a row!)
Warner Smith was the prototypical small-town stud—hard-working and disciplined, polite but fearless. While his match-ups on the basketball court often took on the appearance of man vs. boy, he played a clean game and respected his opponents. But one time, some kid's dad yelled something at him and Warner was ready to go.
He got a football scholarship to the UA and was part of those really successful teams in the early 1990s that were famous for the Desert Swarm defenses. Warner's college roommate and best friend was defensive All-American Tedy Bruschi. Both made it to the NFL, but Warner only lasted a year with the Indianapolis Colts while Bruschi went on to fame, fortune, and Super Bowl rings. They remained close and Smith was best man at Bruschi's wedding.
Over the years, I'd see Warner at different places and he was always gracious. One time I took my son to some knucklehead concert at The Rialto and Warner was working as a bouncer. There wuddn't nooo trouble that night.
He got into sports officiating as a way to keep active and he was moving up the ranks as a football official. He got married and he and his wife had a daughter.
Then he found out that he has ALS, a thus-far incurable disease more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
According to the ALS Association, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis "is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal column." People with ALS will lose the ability to speak, eat, move, and even breathe. There is no cure, but there have been some important breakthroughs recently that could lead to a better understanding of what causes it and what might someday be used to treat it effectively.
He's a couple years into his fight with the disease and he's hanging in as best he can. He has to wear braces on his calves and walk with a cane. The life expectancy of someone with ALS is in the range of 2-5 years. He wants to hang in long enough to see his 5-year-old daughter graduate from high school. He'd love to walk her down the aisle someday, but he knows that the odds against that are incredibly long.
His many friends know that as well, and are doing what they can to help him out. He's probably going to need round-the-clock care sometime in the future and the costs can be astronomical. To help out, his long-time friend, Steve Hopkins, has put together a weekend event to help raise funds for him. On Friday, June 24, there will be a dinner, silent auction, and celebrity roast for Warner at the Starr Pass resort. Warner's coach at the UA, Dick Tomey, will emcee the festivities and the hope is that Bruschi will be able to make it. There are some spectacular raffle prizes, including one of $5,000 cash.
The next morning there will be a golf tournament, followed by a full day of family activities at the Resort. There will be even more fun and games after check-out on Sunday. (Starr Pass has put together an attractive weekend package on room rates.) There are still a few spots open for the dinner and the golf tournament.
To find out how you can help and/or take part in the effort known as Give Warner a Fighting Chance, please go to http://callemin.wix.com/give warnerachance. He's one of our community's really good guys.