MICHAEL SMITH IS the most famous person in Coolidge, Arizona. Somebody has to be, I suppose, but it's probably a bit strange that it would be a 16-year-old high-school kid. Wherever he goes in town, he draws a crowd. Kids flock to him and tell him the stories of how they saw him do this on the football field or that on the basketball court, even if they're just passing along the third or fourth generation of a story which drifted through town weeks or months earlier. Adults pat him on the back and kinda wish he were their kid. And girls eyeball him hard.
All with good reason. Only halfway through high school, Smith is one of the greatest athletes in the history of a town with a spectacular athletic tradition. He made first-team All-State in basketball as a sophomore after leading his team to its second consecutive 3A state championship. He was Most Valuable Player on a team full of studs that ran away with the state crown. He's also a star on the resurgent Coolidge football team.
But it's not all sports. He's a good kid, polite and friendly. Works hard at his studies and is kind to animals.
Now if only he had a place to live.
For the past couple months, Smith has been bouncing around town, staying with friends, family and coaches. It's been this way since the early morning of June 14. Around 3 a.m. that morning his mother, Elnora Mathis, smelled smoke coming from the back room of the small wooden house that she and her son had been living in for more than a decade. The house had been left to Mathis by her mother, Lenora Mathis, who died in 1992.
When Mathis got up and drifted into the kitchen, she saw that a fire, which had started with faulty wiring in the wash room, was roaring out of control. She ran into the living room and screamed for her son to wake up. Once awake, he frantically gathered a few clothes and ran outside. But when he tried to go back into the house for the many medals and trophies he's earned over the years, his mother physically stopped him.
The house, on which there was no insurance, quickly burned to the ground. Everything was destroyed, including the furniture Mathis had bought in March and was still paying for.
Still, things could have been worse. Mathis' three small grandchildren often slept over at her house where they could play with their famous Uncle Mike. But this night, Grandma wasn't feeling well and told the kids they couldn't spend the night.
"I guess the good Lord was looking out for us," said Elnora Mathis, counting her blessings even as all she owned in the world turned to ash.
The house had been in Randolph, a fourth-world section of largely third-world Coolidge. Part of a string of anomalies in Arizona, Coolidge is one of several small towns with relatively large black populations sprinkled along the interstate between Tucson and Phoenix.
These towns are a living testament to the grit of people who refuse to give up, populated by the descendants of migrants who were driven west from Texas and the South by the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the prospect of steady work in the cotton fields of sun-baked Arizona.
Coming to the harsh land, they scratched out a hardscrabble existence, settling in places like Eloy and Randolph and Rillito. As the years went by, some moved on to the big cities at either end of the interstate, but somehow these tight-knit communities turned out to be, even more so than Tombstone, too tough to die.
After the house burned down, the community rallied as best it could. The Red Cross put Mathis and Smith up in a hotel for a few days and kicked in some money for clothes. They were able to stay with friends and family, crowding into too-small houses for a day or two each.
Michael got some help from his Varsity basketball coach, Dave Glasgow, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite sports success stories. When I first met Dave, he was coaching an adult city league team. For the uninitiated, this is like standing by the water cooler, trying to teach people how to drink. If they don't know how to play ball by the time they're in city league, coaching ain't gonna help.
But Dave wanted to be a coach. He coached elementary and middle school teams, organized leagues, and sent out coaching applications everywhere. Heck, if he was driving by a park and saw a pickup game, he'd stop and try to give tips on how to talk mess.
Which is all the funnier since he's the absolute whitest dude you've ever seen in your life. If he were any paler, he'd be see-through. Plus, he can't play ball worth a lick.
After bouncing all over the Southwest from one job to another, he landed at Coolidge. What seemed at first to be an odd mix has turned out to be a match made in heaven. Call him The Whiter Shadow. Coolidge quickly became a power under Glasgow's omnipresent tutelage. A bachelor, Glasgow is a coach/tutor/father figure 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Smith is the best player Glasgow has ever coached, but we're all sure that the coach would have helped him even if that weren't the case. The two were pretty much inseparable all summer as they drove to leagues in Tucson, tournaments in Phoenix, All-Star competitions in Vegas. Glasgow also helped organize a fund for Smith and his mom. Donations are being accepted at the Community Bank in Coolidge (account number 8229-14-7828).
Smith is back in school and doing double duty as a running back and defensive back for the football team. His domestic situation is still uncertain, but he rolls along as best he can.
He misses the trophies, medals and state championship rings he lost in the fire, but just shrugs. "I guess we'll just have to win a couple more (championships) while I'm here so I'll have something to show for it."