(Event photos by Larry Gill/Symetra)
In between being the Seahawks’ first running back and now coaching the position for the team, Sherman Smith was a teacher at Redmond Junior High School.
So when he talked to the Heroes in the Classroom honorees at Qwest Field on Friday, Smith was speaking as one of them rather than simply to them.
“Not only was I a teacher at Redmond Junior High School, in 1988 I was voted teacher of the year at Redmond Junior High School,” Smith said in the Seahawks’ locker room, the surprise final stop on an afternoon intended to give something back to those who give so much to their schools and students.
But wait, there’s more. Smith’s daughter, Shavonne, was just voted teacher of the year at the elementary school she teaches at in Nashville.
The following teachers were honored Friday by Symetra Financial and the Seahawks as part of the Heroes in the Classroom program (In-depth roster at http://www.symetra.com/heroes/seahawks/roster.aspx):
Kathryn Pihl, Echo Lake Elementary School
That announcement brought another round of applause from the two dozen teachers who had just finished lunch and a quick tour of the stadium. In the locker room, they found cubicles adorned with their names, personalized plaques commemorating their selection in the program sponsored by Symetra Financial and a mini Seahawks helmet that Smith then autographed for each of the honorees.
But the biggest “prize” might have been a letter Smith shared with them from a former student who now owns a real estate company – and wrote the letter to his employees regarding receiving gifts for Christmas.
“You don’t expect this stuff as teachers. I came back here after 20 years, and this guy writes a letter to me,” said Smith, who left Redmond Junior High in 1990 to take a job as running backs coach at Miami of Ohio – his alma mater.
Smith then quoted from the letter: “I clearly remember a person who has impacted my life so greatly over 20 years ago.”
He paused to add a disclaimer, “Now I’m not reading this letter to you to pump myself up. I just want you to understand where it’s coming from.”
Back to the letter, and the former student meeting up with Smith again after all these years: “Coach Smith was the first teacher I met when I moved from Tacoma to Redmond when I was about 14 years old. Being able to meet with him again – and have an opportunity to thank him from my heart, in person – is the greatest present I’ll receive this Christmas. … He did not give me money or overshoes. He gave me confidence to lead, to dream and never to quit on my life and to live with passion. I’m sure coach Smith could have just quit on my life and my dreams. But his honest words and the time he invested in me and the trust he had in me was the greatest gift. A lifelong gift.”
As the teachers in the locker room began to applause, Smith added, “When I read that, I was like, ‘Man, this is what teaching is all about.’ You do it to make a difference.”
That five-year stay at Redmond Junior High School made a huge difference in Smith’s life. He played for the Seahawks from 1976-1982, leaving as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher at the time. He then played two seasons with the San Diego Chargers. After his stint as a teacher, Smith began the journey that led him back to the Seahawks – first at Miami of Ohio (1990-91) and the University of Illinois (1992-94); then with the Tennessee Titans (1995-07) and Washington Redskins (2008-09).
It also helps explain why the 24 teachers who were selected for the 2010-2011 Symetra Heroes in the Classroom program got the royal treatment at Qwest Field. They have made a difference in the lives they touch on a daily basis at elementary, middle and high schools in the Seattle area.
“I want to congratulate all of you because I really understand what you do, and you guys are difference-makers,” Smith said. “You have all the qualities we look for in our players. You’re focused. You’re passionate. You’re dedicated. You’re responsible. You’re dependable. You’re accountable. You’re convicted about what you do.”
Smith then shared a story from his job interview at the University of Illinois with coach Lou Tepper.
“It was interesting what he asked. He said, ‘Why do you coach?’ ” Smith said. “And I thought, ‘Oh man, if I answer this question honestly, I won’t get the job.’ If I said to him, ‘Coach, I don’t coach to win championships. I don’t coach because I want to be remembered as some great coach. I’m not coaching so I can become a head coach in the National Football League.’
“I said, ‘I coach to make a difference. That’s why I want to coach.’ ”
Tepper got the message, so Smith got the job.
“He said, ‘You either coach to make a difference, or you coach to make a living.’ Believe you me, I know teachers you don’t coach to make a living.”
Smith then shared what he calls the “as if” principle.
“I’m pretty sure you guys, since you’re here today, you already do this,” he said. “And that’s the ‘as if’ principle. It goes something like this, ‘If you treat a person the way they are, that’s the way they’ll stay. If you treat them the way you want them to be, that’s what they’ll try to become.’
“If you have an impact on your students’ lives like I think you do, you don’t look at the way they are. You look at them the way you want them to be. … We learn as teachers and coaches that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And to be a teacher, you have to be caring and responsible.”
Friday, it was Dede Ford’s turn to get the Smith-delivered message.
“I love this. This is amazing,” said Ford, who teaches at Syre Elementary School and attended the function in a personalized 12th Man jersey.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving. But the thing that I found really impactful about it – I’ve taught primary and intermediate – and when you teach primary, the kids will tell you they love you. But in intermediate, you don’t often know if you make a difference. You hope you do. So when I found out the family that nominated me for this, I was surprised to realize I had impacted that family in that way.”