Marty Smith’s new book is a love letter to the New River Valley.
Smith, an ESPN reporter who graduated from Giles High School and Radford University, has interviewed plenty of sports figures in his career. And some of them are featured in his book, “Never Settle: Sports, Family, and the American Soul.”
But the book, which goes on sale Tuesday, is more about Smith than it is about the famous folks he has profiled.
Smith’s New River Valley roots are featured prominently in the book, as Smith details growing up in Pearisburg; playing football for Giles High School; going to Virginia Tech football games with his late father; and meeting his future wife, Lainie, when they were Radford University students.
“Coming from rural Appalachian and having those roots, no matter the fact that I’ve been able to go all over the world, I’m still rooted in that culture,” Smith, 43, said Thursday in a phone interview from his suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, home. “I wanted everybody that buys this book to know how special that is and what a unique way to grow up that is.”
Smith paints a picture of what his life was like in Giles County — recalling everything from his late paternal grandmother’s Newport farm to going cruising to attending Pearisburg Baptist Church.
“It was important to me to give rural America and certainly Southwest Virginia and the New River Valley a voice,” Smith said Thursday. “Because when I go home, that is what a lot of people say to me — they are very appreciative of me, that they are represented well [on ESPN].
“There’s going to be people in New York City or Los Angeles who read this book and they don’t know what the New River Valley or Appalachia or that type of area is. They’ve never experienced it. They’ve never paid it any mind. I wanted everybody to pay it mind.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to see a lot of places, and I’ve never seen anywhere that was more beautiful than the New River Valley.”
Smith is a reporter for ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and “College GameDay.” He also co-hosts the “Marty & McGee” TV and radio shows, which air weekly on the SEC Network and on ESPN Radio. He also does interviews for his podcast, “Marty Smith’s America,” which was also the name of a series of ESPN specials.
This is the first time he has written a book.
“It was something I had always wanted to do,” Smith said.
“Religion, sports, music are some of these avenues and sanctuaries that allow us to be reflective and passionate. … That for me is part of the American soul. … I hope that I encapsulated that in the book.”
So while the book does revisit interviews he has done with Alabama football coach Nick Saban, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr., golfing great Tiger Woods and others, the book doesn’t skimp on the people and places of Southwest Virginia.
The entire “We can beat the Green Wave!” chant that Arnold Tickle would yell at Giles football games? It’s in the book.
The entire address Smith gave as Radford’s commencement speaker in 2015? It’s in the book, too.
The first two words of the book’s title, “Never Settle,” refer to Smith’s philosophy about never being complacent. Those words were the first subject heading of his commencement speech.
Smith writes in the book about his family and his high school buddies, but he also shares memories of Clate Dollinger, who was the barber at Barton’s; Mr. Peters, who taught Smith chess after school; current Giles football coach Jeff Williams, who was an assistant coach when Smith played for the Spartans; and Harold Chafin, who was the public address announcer at Giles football games.
“I wanted everybody back home to know how much I appreciate that I got the opportunity to grow up there,” Smith said Thursday.
Smith wore No. 9 for the Giles football team, so he made the ninth chapter of the book, “Forever Friday,” about his high school playing days. Smith was a cornerback and return specialist for the Giles team that won a state title in 1993.
“I carry those Friday nights with me every day,” Smith said in the interview. “Those moments are so special, and you never get that back again. … That walk from the shop building across the track to having your name called by Mr. Chafin, you never have that exact feeling again. … I tried to really encapsulate it and put it on paper.”
Smith writes of weeping when he saw a giant No. 1 illuminated atop the Angel’s Rest mountain peak after Giles won the state crown.
Smith also writes a lot about his father, Leo Smith, who died in 2008 at the age of 60. He writes that his dad was “a god” to him. But he also writes that his father “wrestled demons” and was “hard as hell” on him.
“My dad was a tough cat,” Smith said Thursday. “I never understood why he expected so much of me until I had my own son. I wish so much that I had the opportunity to tell him that now.”
Smith hopes the book will eventually enable his three children to know their dad more deeply than he knew his.
“This book’s so vulnerable that it’s going to allow them, when they’re old enough to process what I’m actually … writing, … to know me,” Smith said Thursday.
He also tells readers how much he adored his mother, Joy Smith, who died in 1998 of cancer at the age of 47.
He did not learn until after his parents’ deaths that his mother used to give lunch money to his former high school teammates Anthony and Aaron Myers, who were raised by a single mom. Smith writes of how hard he cried when Anthony Myers told him of his parents’ generosity.
He also details how hard it was to clean out his family’s home after his father died, writing that he would “drink enough Jack Daniel’s to tranquilize a moose.”
Smith hopes readers will respond to his book.
“I have many friends in music, … and they told me when they were putting out a new record, there’s this weird anxiety that comes with that,” Smith said Thursday. “One of my friends in music articulated it so well — anything worth its salt is vulnerable, and you’re putting this piece of your soul out there.
“I never got it until now. … I have that same anxiety.
“You hope people get that inspiration out of it that you tried to put in it. It’s so much effort. It’s so much vulnerability. It’s so much joy, and in my case, hurt.”