|Linebacker Fred Smalls helped West Virginia to back-to-back victories over Boston College and Penn State in 1984.
|WVU Sports Communications photo
Talk about a midlife crisis, most of us approaching middle age who begin taking stock of our lives may consider changing our hairstyle (if we have any hair left), losing a little weight or buying a new sports car.
Well, Freddie Smalls took it a few steps beyond that by joining the Army – at age 45!
Now 51, Smalls, a chaplain with the rank of captain, says he would like to remain in the service until at least his 60th birthday.
“My challenges in life were always rooted in football,” Smalls said recently.
Freddie “Boom-Boom” Smalls was a playmaking outside linebacker for the West Virginia Mountaineers in the early 1980s best known for making Doug Flutie’s life miserable in 1984 during one of the most memorable games in Mountaineer Field history.
Smalls and Co. blitzed Flutie into oblivion, turning a 20-6 halftime deficit into a surreal, 21-20 victory. Flutie went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Eagles to a Cotton Bowl victory over Houston that season.
“We had a (blitz) called sic ‘em and we called it every time in the second half,” said Smalls. “Sic ‘em, sic ‘em, sic ‘em. What many people don’t know about that game was that it was the first night game in Mountaineer Field history.”
I remember that because I was one of those nutty high school kids down on the field running around afterward like I actually had something to do with that great victory.
But all I wanted to do was find Freddie Smalls and slap him on the back of his shoulder pads and personally thank him for finally doing what no other player in college football could seem to do that year - flatten Doug Flutie!
I wasn’t able to track down Freddie the way he got to Flutie that night so I guess I can finally thank him now.
“Great memories,” he laughed.
After playing a little Arena league football, Smalls traveled the world as a celebrity bodyguard. Among those he protected was movie star Mark Wahlberg, who out of the blue telephoned Smalls just a few days ago.
“My kids were going crazy when he called,” laughed Smalls.
“I had a great life as a bodyguard for a lot of entertainers that I traveled the world with, but as I was getting older with a family and the challenges in life were starting to dissolve - not evolve - I just needed another challenge,” he said.
That meant Being all (that) he could be – to borrow the Army’s old slogan when guys like me were still in high school.
“It’s the same relationships that I had in the locker room in football,” explained Smalls. “You have unity, teamwork, taking orders, being disciplined and working hard and I just wanted to wear that uniform. To me, it was my greatest step in life and I’m glad I did it.”
Now, five years later, Smalls has become an Army counselor with a tremendous impact on young people’s lives. The issues that he deals with are complex, multifaceted and sometimes very serious.
Recently he got a call from someone who was considering committing suicide. She had been on three deployments and felt like she was losing her family and didn’t know how to cope with her situation, so Smalls’ cellphone number was given to her.
“This was right in the middle of my daughter’s AAU (basketball) game,” he said. “I had to step out and take that call.
“I always wanted to help people so I get a lot of opportunities,” Smalls said. “I’m called on a lot by my commanders and I’ve been able to have an impact because of my football background. That has given me a leeway in the military to be able to deal with problem issues with soldiers.”
The one name Smalls always brings up with his soldiers is his college coach, Don Nehlen. It is rare for him to say anything about his old ball coach without becoming emotional.
“A lot of my life is based on the teachings of Don Nehlen,” said Smalls. “Coach Nehlen is always on my mind and the things I learned at West Virginia are the way I live.”
When Smalls came back to speak at Nehlen’s retirement in 2000, he sobbed like a baby trying to explain the impact the man had on his life – helping a young, unsure city kid from Philadelphia who was seeking direction discover it while playing college football in Morgantown, W.Va.
“The impact and the power that he had in my life … as a commander those same attributes are the ones that I give to the soldiers I’m working with,” said Smalls. “I learned to do what Don Nehlen would do. That man is like an Earth God to me and I pray that a lot of these coaches today are like him.”
As we celebrate the Fourth of July holiday weekend, grilling our favorite food and checking out those wonderful nighttime firework displays, Freddie Smalls will also be quietly celebrating the Fourth with his family in South Carolina. His daughter is playing in another AAU tournament down there.
Naturally, he will be staying on a Marine base, surrounded by men and women in uniform - just as he did 30-some years ago when he was surrounded by uniformed men such as Darryl Talley, Jeff Hostetler, Oliver Luck and Ronny Wolfley.
Smalls said he will be reflecting on his fellow soldiers, their personal problems and the sacrifices that they are making to preserve our freedoms. He will also be thinking about all of the meaningful experiences that he had at West Virginia University where he developed into the man that he is today.
“These are the things that remind me of the Fourth of July,” he said. “That’s a joy for me knowing that I’ve helped United States soldiers who are serving their country – have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan - and I’ve been a part of their lives.
“And, all of those great memories that I have of West Virginia University … I can also include those in my Fourth of July, too.”
Indeed, he can. And thanks once again, Freddie, for sacking Doug Flutie.
Happy Fourth of July!