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PHOTO COURTESY OF TOWSON ATHLETICS

Like Father, Like Son


This article appears in the March edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to US Lacrosse members. Join or renew today! Thank you for your support.

Koby Smith walked confidently into Towson’s Field House on Jan. 30, some 100 yards from the parking lot where he parked his 1997 Chevy Suburban.

On a day when his teammates wore costumes like Jimmy McElroy from “Blades of Glory” and a suit jacket inspired by flamingos, Smith let his Mocha 1 Air Jordans do the talking — fresh kicks with the black Nike logo working alongside slabs of brown and black.

“There’s nothing better,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to show out a little bit.”

Any time Smith puts on Jordans, he thinks of his father, Albert, a sneakerhead who wore anything from signature Kobe Bryant shoes to Jordans himself.

“He was rocking everything,” Smith said. “He’d have five or six boxes of brand new shoes in the back of his car.”

The Towson men’s lacrosse team was about to play its first intra-squad scrimmage of the 2021 season. After 10 months without lacrosse, Smith was locked in. He entered the facility at Johnny Unitas Stadium with headphones blasting some of his favorite hip-hop artists — a mix of G Herbo, King Von, Lil’ Baby and Pop Smoke.

Once Smith took the field, he got right back to work showing coach Shawn Nadelen and his teammates why he was tabbed as a preseason All-American. A Swiss-army-knife defenseman who doubles as a long-stick midfielder, Smith has the speed to run the field in transition and even score goals when needed.

At 6 feet and 195 pounds, Smith’s athleticism compensates for his lack of size relative to Division I defensemen. His vision and field IQ also helped him anticipate passes and dodges more quickly than many of his teammates — traits his father once used to his advantage as a star basketball and football player for Dulaney High School (Md.) before a car accident derailed his college dreams.

“I’ve never seen an athlete like Albert,” said Steve Wheeler, Smith’s uncle. “He was built like an Under Armour athlete. Koby has that same unbelievable strength. How can they be that strong?”

Albert Smith died in 2012, when his son was just 12 years old. He wasn’t able to see Koby grow into one of the most dynamic players in college lacrosse. However, parts of Albert Smith live on through his son— in addition to the skills Koby Smith learned in the wake of his death.

Smith’s father influenced his style. He gave him his musical taste. Teammates describe Smith as a great listener, an ode to the time he spent being a shoulder to lean on for his mother, Kristin.

As Smith continues his ascent in the college lacrosse world from a raw prospect to a player with pro potential, he knows his father isn’t far away. He thinks his father is behind the spiritual nature of the No. 26. Before every game, he looks up to find a bird flying overhead.

“I always know he’s there with me,” Smith said. “I want to be able to do something for my family and be able to do what my dad couldn’t. I want to be the man he wanted me to become.”


“I always know he’s there with me. I want to be able to do something for my family and be able to do what my dad couldn’t. I want to be the man he wanted me to become.”


***

Six feet and a hallway separated Smith’s room from his mother’s in their Timonium, Md., single-family home. The space was enough room for Smith and his brother to have privacy when playing games or talking with friends.

In the early-morning hours Aug. 4, 2012, those six feet weren’t enough to drown out their mother’s crying. Kristin Smith, mourning the loss of her husband and Koby’s father, Albert, had just woken up in a terror and was weeping audibly. Smith’s door was open and he ran across the hallway to check out his mother.

“My mom has my heart,” he said. “I knew that she always had my back, so I wanted to have hers.”

Smith wrapped his arms around his mother and comforted her in the only way a 12-year-old can. Then he offered the words his mother will never forget.

“It’s going to be OK, Mom, I promise you,’” Smith told  her.

Smith comprehended well enough and internalized long enough the loss of his father so he could be there for his mother when she needed someone. Less than a day had passed since Smith, his grandmother, mother and brother, Cameron, had left Timonium for Dewey Beach, Del., where the family frequently stayed in a beach house owned by Wheeler. Once they got to the ocean, something did not seem right. Smith and his brother stayed in the car at the beach house until their mother returned, crying.

The Smith family immediately turned the car back toward home, where they were met with relatives from both sides of the family. There, they got the news that their father died of a heart attack at age 38.

Albert Smith was in great shape minus a blood clot and the injuries he sustained in a car accident when he was in high school. He was an avid basketball player whose physical abilities translated to his two sons. He regularly woke them up Sunday mornings at 5:30 a.m., ushered them into his gold Cadillac with tinted windows and drove to the Dome, a basketball court in East Baltimore.

Along the way, Albert Smith cranked 1990s hip hop on the speakers, a mix of The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Jay-Z, Usher and Chris Brown. Koby Smith still listens to many of those artists today.

At the Dome, the Smith boys watched their father battle it out with former Division I products and high school stars.

“My brother and I would sit on the sideline of the court in this school gym in the city and we’d watch him go to work on the court,” Koby Smith said. “After that, we’d go back home and do the same thing.”

Naturally, the first thing Smith thought about upon hearing of his father’s death was basketball. He and his brother immediately headed for the front steps, sat down and peered ahead.

“We just stared at the basketball hoop, just knowing we’d never be able to shoot a couple buckets with him again,” Koby Smith said.

Not only did the Smith brothers lose their mentor and idol, but Koby Smith knew his mother had also lost her ballast. Albert Smith said yes to every favor and never asked for anything in return. At age 15, Koby Smith got a job as a busboy at a local restaurant, Michael’s. He cooked dinner for the family. He helped clean the house.

“He thought he was going to be the father at 13 years old,” Kristin Smith said. “He put the weight of the world on his shoulders and I was like, ‘Dude, you are 13.’”








***

As the lights at Johnny Unitas Stadium shined down on a mostly quiet field, the Towson locker room was raucous. Smith tuned his phone to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” and it bounced off the walls. He and several teammates started dancing. Smith went with a slight shimmy before shuffling over to the middle of the room, where a dance circle developed.

Tyler Canto broke out the worm, Mo Sillah performed a mix of “The Woah” and a few other indistinct trendy dances. Smith then approached the middle of the circle, spun around once and then did what can best be described as the Ray Lewis dance mixed with some sort of Cha-Cha. 

Towson had just topped No. 1 Loyola 12-10 on Feb. 27, 2019, and the Tigers took the necessary time to celebrate. “I guess I just thought we got the win and we showed this is how Towson lacrosse does it,” Smith said.

As much as the win was important to Towson as a program — it was the Tigers’ first win over a top-ranked team since 1992 — it also was the game that introduced Smith to the lacrosse world at-large. His assignment that night? Pat Spencer.

The two had met previously when Smith was at Loyola Blakefield and Spencer played for Boys’ Latin, but the latter had blossomed into the best player in college lacrosse.

None of that mattered when Smith took to the turf, wearing a throwback yellow jersey and fighting off whatever nerves he had.

“You saw Pat Spencer jumping at the goal when the crease dive was a thing, and that was one thing we really didn’t want to happen — ending up on “SportsCenter” for Pat Spencer dunking on somebody,” Smith said.

Smith played close defense and marked Spencer throughout the night, matching the Loyola star step-for-step, dodge-for-dodge. He held Spencer to one goal on eight shots, one of his lowest outputs of the season.

With each missed shot and ground ball Smith brought in, the intensity from the packed crowd heightened. Even Spencer had to take notice of Smith, who he described as one of his toughest matchups in his career.

“That was a frustrating game,” Spencer said. “Koby is a gritty guy. He’s one of those guys that’s not going to back down, and I respect that. He embodies what that program stands for.”

That night, Towson coach Shawn Nadelen saw an erratic but promising recruit arrive as a full-blown college lacrosse star.

“Koby played the most controlled, poised game I’ve ever seen him play,” Nadelen said.

What Nadelen saw that night was the potential he hoped would come to fruition when he recruited Smith, who turned Towson down for Navy.

“It rips your heart out at the time,” Nadelen said. “I left the door open.”

In the summer of 2017, Smith entered into Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I. He never quite felt comfortable. The screaming, the pressure, the rigorous classes and the distance from home rattled Smith, who suffers from attention deficit disorder. His mother sent him notes of encouragement, but he had reached a breaking point by Parents Weekend in October.

Wheeler and Kristin Smith made the trip to Newport to help comfort Smith.

“He’s a little bit of a homebody,” Wheeler said. “He literally melted in my arms. He’s like, ‘Get me out of here.’”

Weeks later, Smith and a couple teammates loaded into his car and headed back home. His time at NAPS was over, and his recruitment was open yet again. After Smith made the difficult call to then-Navy coach Rick Sowell rescinding his commitment, he knew where to go next.

Towson was the first school to offer Smith a scholarship, and he wanted to stay home. Smith had to call twice after Nadelen accidently hung up the phone in excitement.

“I said something like, ‘Koby, I’ve been hoping and waiting for this call for a year,’” Nadelen recalled.

The raw but talented defenseman that Nadelen hoped he’d have a chance to develop was headed to campus in the spring of 2018, just a couple weeks removed from NAPS. He struggled through the preseason fitness tests, throwing up once according to teammate Jake Stout, but he was home.

“Towson is just a safe place and where kids can feel like they’re safe,” Kristin Smith said. “Coach Nadelen is almost like another dad for him.”




PHOTO BY MATT RILEY


***

Ryan Conrad had captured the attention of the youth lacrosse community by the time he was 6 years old. The future Virginia All-American hit his growth spurt much earlier than his peers. Opposing defenders couldn’t stop him from imposing his will.

Then Koby Smith delivered the hit heard ’round Baltimore County. Standing near midfield at Seminary Park, he saw a ground ball scrum developing 20 yards from the goal line and Conrad was in the middle of it.

“I just see [Koby] from the corner of my eye,” Conrad said. “I’m off-balance and so vulnerable and I know I’m about to get blown up.”

As cars whizzed by on nearby Interstate I-83, Smith transferred his full horsepower into the older and bigger Conrad, sending him straight to the grass below. No one had ever seen Conrad bodied like that.

“The ref threw a flag and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” said Wheeler, who was coaching. “He said, ‘I have to call something. I’ve never seen someone get hit like that.’”

No one will forget the day Koby Smith decked Ryan Conrad. Even now playing in the Premier Lacrosse League, Conrad still gets teased about the hit.

When he looks back on the moment, Smith can still laugh, but he also sees it as symptomatic of a child who had trouble handling his emotions on the field. Wheeler remembered a handful of instances of Smith crying as he sprinted up and down the field.

 “He would come off the sidelines after wrecking somebody,” Wheeler said. “He wasn’t hurt, but he would come over crying. I’m like, ‘Dude, are you OK?’ He said he was fine. ‘Why are you crying?’”

Smith had to harness his emotions to succeed in lacrosse, and sports in general. The physical abilities were there — as a speedy, stocky pre-teen whose father starred in basketball and football — and coaches could see his potential.

After his father died, Smith had trouble hiding his anger and sadness. Those emotions manifested themselves in hard checks and a few penalties. However, as time passed, the rawness started to dissipate, and an extremely focused high schooler emerged.

By his freshman year of high school at Loyola Blakefield, Smith was still an unfinished product. He tried out for the junior varsity team in the spring of 2014, but was cut and sent to the freshman-sophomore squad. After dominating at that level, Smith spent the ensuing summer questioning his future in the game.

Would he play in college? Or was football a better option?

Smith joined FCA and flourished. He continued to grow and become more physically imposing, but he also developed stick skills and a lacrosse IQ superior to most of his classmates.

When it came time to try out for Loyola Blakefield’s varsity team in 2015, at the encouragement of Max Wheeler, Smith made sure he was ready. He wowed the coaching staff and emerged as a starter on defense his sophomore year, bypassing junior varsity entirely.

In three seasons at Loyola Blakefield, Smith was pitted against stars like Alex Roesner in practice and Spencer from Boys’ Latin in the competitive MIAA-A conference. He played close defense, but also helped the Dons with his speed in transition. Sometimes he wielded a short stick to stay on the field and play offense.

“The confidence came his sophomore year when he made varsity and then he really took off,” Max Wheeler said. “He was shooting from farther out. His fakes were getting better. His stickwork was off the charts.”

The short but strong “mini-Buddha” of a child that could not control his emotions found his stride in the sport.

“It was almost like in ‘Forrest Gump’ where the kid starts running and the things come off his legs and he becomes an all-world sprinter,” Steve Wheeler said. “He just became an unbelievable lacrosse player.”

***

Smith still has his ups and downs emotionally. He’s still prone to occasional outbursts on the field. This past fall, he was kicked out of practice for angrily slashing a teammate. He sat and watched the rest of the session from the hill behind the field. After practice ended, he sat down on a metal bench with Nadelen and his assistants to talk about different strategies to cope with his emotions.

“It was an emotional reaction,” Nadelen said. “As a captain, you’re expected to hold yourself to a higher standard because you’re the one that’s leading the team at all times. We just got at the root of what transpired on the field and it bled into how he reacted.”

That was the day Smith fully embraced his role as team captain.

“From that point on, I’ve been pretty good with handling my emotions and staying positive on the field,” he said.

“He’s become the definition of a leader,” Stout said. “He used to be the person you pulled aside in practice. Now, he’s the one pulling guys aside to help them.”

Although Smith hopes to play in the PLL, he has his sights on coaching. He also has a year of college lacrosse eligibility left if he wants it.

Smith has enjoyed mentoring his brother, Cameron, who’s now a junior at Loyola Blakefield looking at a future in college basketball. He felt responsible for leading his brother through the struggles of adolescence — a role that would have been filled by their father.

While Smith was coping with his father’s death, he had more than a few mentors to which he could look — his uncle and cousin, then-Navy assistant Ryan Wellner and later Nadelen. He wants to guide others the way they did him.

“This sport has given me so much that I want to give back to it,” Smith said. “It’s always been an interest of mine, just seeing the positivity in little kids. It just brightens my day.”

“He’ll be an unreal player and reach the next level,” Steve Wheeler said. “He’ll be an even better coach if he chooses. He has a certain way of talking to kids and getting them to open up. To be able to recognize that and see how you can motivate people is a really good trait.”

Smith has his goals set on being the same man as his father — a giving, caring family man whose humility left an impression on everyone he encountered. At 21, the son is well on his way to becoming what his father wanted him to be, and much more.