He used to be somebody before he became a father

January 03, 1995|By SUSAN REIMER

When ESPN's "SportsCenter" called to interview Steve Smear, it was his college-age son, Matt, who took the message.

From Matt's breathless reaction, you'd have thought a voice had boomed from the clouds: "This is your father, in whom you can be well-pleased."

"He called me in the most incredulous voice I have ever heard," says Steve. " 'Dad, ESPN wants to talk to you.' "

" 'SportsCenter' is, like, the only TV show I watch," says Matt. "It's the same with everyone I know."

"Steve could have been offered a Cabinet post and Matt wouldn't have been this excited," says Steve's wife, Diana.

So Matt spent much of this past weekend watching "SportsCenter," looking for ESPN's interview with his dad.

His dad, defensive tackle on Penn State's undefeated teams in 1968 and 1969. His dad, two-time co-captain for coach Joe Paterno, fourth-round draft choice of the Baltimore Colts. His dad, member of the 1970 Canadian Football League champion Montreal Alouettes.

His dad, now an insurance agent in Annapolis, who was somebody once, who had a life before Matt did.

"I knew he was a good player because people would come up and tell me about him," says Matt. "But it isn't like he ever stressed it. He never bragged."

In 1969, Penn State was riding what would be a 31-game unbeaten streak, and Matt's dad was a big reason. Very big. Newspaper clippings describe him as "6-foot-1, 230 pounds and with the rugged physique of a blacksmith."

With Mike Reid in a legendary defensive tackle tandem, Steve played with an odd mix of power and politeness. He would pat an opponent on the butt after knocking him on it.

As a sophomore in 1967, he single-handedly tarnished the Heisman Trophy season of UCLA quarterback Gary Beban. "Smear spent more time on Beban's back than the numbers on his jersey," the yellowed newspaper clippings say.

But after the game, Steve ran the length of the field to shake the hand of his opponent, calling him "Mr. Beban" as he wished him luck in the Heisman Trophy race.

There are fewer newspaper clippings these days. Steve is certain each one will be the last. But Penn State had an unbeaten regular season, and the reporters called again.

"All the kids are amazed when somebody calls and wants to talk football. Or when somebody sends me one of my old football cards," says Steve. "I don't think they care too much. And they can't relate to it. There was never the kind of money or notoriety there is today."

It is hard for Steve's two daughters to imagine that their father, whose tree-trunk legs made him instantly recognizable on the Penn State campus, was once a football god.

"It is hard to imagine him as a wild young athlete," says Matt of his father.

Diana was delighted for him. "The truth is, life can be a grind, and it is often very dull," she says. "He has a past and he got to recall the glories of it and Matt was here to see it."

We were all in our prime once, but because our children were not there to see it, it is incomprehensible to them. I was somebody before I was your mother and your chauffeur. I had a life before I was so consumed by yours.

I was stunned to learn my father had once beaten golf legend Arnold Palmer in an amateur tournament. My dad? I knew my mother had been a legal secretary, but I'd imagined her chained in a typing pool. The truth is, she was Della Street to one of Pittsburgh's most powerful attorneys. My mom?

My shameful disregard for my parents' lives repeats itself in my own children. And I want to impress them, to have their respect.

Hey, Joe! Before I was just another mom on the sidelines of a soccer field, I was the reporter who found the letter from the Weather Underground when it bombed the Gulf Oil Building in Pittsburgh. I hid from the FBI for three days while my bosses decided whether investigators would be allowed to fingerprint and question me.

Hey, Jessie! Before I was just another mom leaning against the wall outside your dance studio, I was a finalist for North Hills Junior Miss, riding on the boot of a convertible in a parade, dressed in an evening gown, waving my gloved hand at the crowd that lined the streets.

Hey, kids! I was somebody before you were somebody. All of we grown-ups were. We are just waiting for ESPN to call.

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