Try as one might when covering high school athletes, it’s tough not to have favorites.
At this time, I will freely admit that former Timberlane wrestling standout Alex Smith, who passed away tragically last week, was one of my favorites.
For me, it was tough not to like Alex. He was blue-collar tough, had a great work ethic and was exciting to watch on the mat. But, off the mat, he was open, respectful, told you what he thought and — it was obvious — was a good teammate and leader, if mainly by example.
That’s why I never felt worse for a highly competitive high school athlete as I did for Alex back in 2010, which was his senior year with the Owls.
After finishing third at New England as a junior while compiling a 49-7 record, he was having a monster senior campaign in quest of his dream to finish his career as a New England champion. He had finished third at the rugged Beast of the East in Delaware and, at the Division 1 state meet and Meet of Champions, he pinned all six of his opponents in the first period. He was ready for New England.
And then Alex got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although he did nothing wrong, it was a case of guilt by association and he was suspended from the New England tournament. His dream was over and I felt terrible for him, even if he later became an All-American by finishing seventh at Senior Nationals.
And yet I never heard Alex complain about getting a raw deal or whine about those responsible for his unfortunate predicament. In my mind, that was a great reflection of his character.
Then, I felt it a case of delayed justice when Alex got an appointment to West Point and, after the usual adjustment period, had a fine career there on and off the mat. Then, he served proudly and honorably as a Ranger.
There have been many success stories among those who have wrestled for Barry Chooljian in his 36 years of building a New Hampshire dynasty (598-50-5, 26 Div. 1 titles in last 27 years, 16 straight MOC titles, 172 straight wins in New Hampshire), but Alex Smith ranks up there with the best.
That’s why Alex’s death hit Chooljian and others in the Timberlane wrestling community hard.
“I’m heartbroken and feel so badly for his mother Rebecca, and brother Will and his whole family,” said Chooljian. “For me, coaching Alex, and being a part of his life has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.
“I loved him and, when he got accepted into West Point, I couldn’t have been any prouder and then him inviting me to his (West Point) graduation and being there for him was one of my proudest days as a coach.
“All my coaches had such a great relationship with him. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a more likable kid in the last 20 years. Everyone liked him — opponents, coaches ... everyone. His teammates loved him. He was a great leader for them, a great teammate who always had their back.
“Of course he was a tremendous competitor — one of our all time greats. He was an All-American on the mat, much more off it.”
Another former Owl standout and current coach, Tim Brown, had similar impressions.
“If you took the best qualities of our top wrestlers over the years; their leadership, toughness, competitiveness, drive, resiliency and confidence, and you created the epitome of not only a Timberlane wrestler, but a person, you would get Alex Smith,” said Brown. “He was absolutely one of a kind and there will never be anyone else like him. He’s the greatest Owl I have ever known.”
Those sentiments have been echoed again and again the last few days by former coaches and teammates alike on Facebook and other forms of social media.
And it helps me understand why I never have felt guilty about Alex Smith being one of my all-time favorites.
“I loved him and ... him inviting me to his (West Point) graduation and being there for him was one of my proudest days as a coach.”
Timberlane coach Barry Chooljian
Tim Brown’s top (Alex Smith) memories
1. Seeing how proud he was to get accepted to West Point.
2. Being in his corner when he became an All-American.
3. Almost defaulting him out of the state tournament as a junior because he was so ill, but he convinced us to wrestle and won States.
4. Watching him compete. He was as ferocious and relentless as a competitor that I’ve ever seen.