ESPN’s Marty Smith on fatherhood, lake life and writing a book in a 140-character world

As a sports journalist, ESPN’s Marty Smith gets to meet elite athletes and cover some of the biggest sporting events of our time. His fans know him as fun, lighthearted and entertaining.

But sitting on a couch at his home in Cornelius, his eyes well up when he talks about the story he considers his most important. “The one that probably impacted me in terms of my world view the most was in 2015,” he said.

Smith was in Los Angeles for the Special Olympics World Games. ESPN was broadcasting the event for the first time. “We made the decision that we were going to treat it like a global sporting event. My role was to take all of these unknowns and go out and really dive into the United States team and meet the athletes and learn their stories,” he said.

He started by speaking with the coach for the U.S. team. “The air is buzzing with the intensity and the joy and the glee for all of these athletes who, for their whole lives, have been told ‘You can’t, you’ll never, you’re not good enough’ — all of these ridiculous assertions,” he said. “As I’m watching this unfold, I look to my left.”

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‘I’m just so tired’

He saw an athlete sitting on the sidelines, stretching on an aluminum bench. “‘I’m just so tired,’” she told Marty. He asked why — the games had just begun. “And the athlete said one word: ‘chemotherapy.’”

The athlete’s name was Olivia Quigley, and she had stage four breast cancer. After five months of chemo, the 24-year-old told her oncologist she was forgoing treatment to go compete in the Special Olympics and win medals. She was determined to inspire other women to keep pushing forward, even in the face of such a devastating diagnosis.

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“And dammit, she went and did it. She won the hundred, and it was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “I made it my mission that her story would become known.”

That year, she was voted one of the most 25 influential women in sports. Eventually, the cancer made its way to her brain and she passed away in 2016, at age 25.

A letter

One afternoon, upon arrival at home after a college football assignment, Smith went to his mailbox and there was a manila envelope waiting for him. Inside was a letter and a black velvet box.

He opened the letter first, and it was from Judy, Olivia Quigley’s mom. It stated that the attention ESPN had given Olivia had washed away much of her anger and frustration. Before she passed away, Judy wrote that Olivia said she wanted Smith to have that black box. “Inside that box was her hundred-meter gold medal,” Smith said. “Isn’t that unbelievable? It makes me emotional every time I tell it.”

He writes more about her in detail in his new book, “Never Settle: Sports, Family, and The American Soul,” which is available for pre-order and will be released in August.

“I have been blessed beyond what I deserve to meet and interact with — and in some cases, befriend — some of the most accomplished athletes in this world, but none of them ever affected me more than her,” he said of Olivia Quigley. “She was a light in the world, man.”

Charlotte: home base

Sports fans all over the country know ESPN personality Smith as the vibrant, fun storytelling journalist who has traveled the globe, interviewing the world’s top athletes and coaches — Tiger Woods, Cristiano Ronaldo, Nick Saban.

He’s a reporter for SportsCenter and College GameDay, and he hosts his own ESPN show, Marty Smith’s America. He has a weekly ESPN Radio show, Marty and McGee, that he runs out of a studio in Ballantyne with his buddy and co-host, Ryan McGee.

Smith, 43, is originally from Pearisburg, Virginia, and has lived in Charlotte half of his life. “I came down here because I wanted to chase a dream,” he said. His career began in NASCAR, and it was all he covered professionally until 2014. Now, he runs the gamut  — covering a range of sports, including college football, basketball and professional golf.

Lake life

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He’s fun and spicy on air, attracting viewers with his mischievous spirit and easygoing personality. So what’s Smith like when he’s off the clock?

With all the glitz and glamour that comes with having a national platform, his fans may not know that when he returns from jet setting, he’s a family man settling into the quiet moments that surround lake life.

His favorite Charlotte-area hangout is his family’s home in Cornelius, where he lives with his wife and children: Cambron, 13, Mia, 10, Vivian, 7. When it comes to local eats, you might find him at Cabo Fish Taco (he always orders the salmon tacos), Cowbell Burger & Whiskey Bar, The Cowfish or Brixx Pizza.

He jokes about how living with a teenager is comparable to living with a copperhead — you just never know when he might strike. He calls his wife Lainie of 19 years both wonderful and stunning — and the look in his eyes are proof that he means it.

Not a traditional autobiography

Just like everything else Marty Smith does, his book is an exception to the traditional formula of autobiographies. His publisher, Twelve Books, gave him the green light to write whatever he wanted, so he did. “I wasn’t going to write a standard book with the age-old formula. I wrote a book that is a series of individual tracks that, if done well, takes you on thematic journey,” Smith said.  

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He covers the athletes he’s interviewed and how it helped to shape him, just as every interaction we all have with each other in this life shapes all of us. “Us meeting today might be to the most miniscule degree, but it’s going to shape us,” he told me as we sat on leather couches in his basement’s living room, near the glass doors that lead to the family’s hot tub and pool.

He writes about finding the soul of sports in America. He writes about his grandfather, who served in Patton’s third army. He writes about his wife and his three children. “I write about my parents and how my father was so hard on me. I didn’t understand why, until I had my own boy that was a lot like me,” he said.

Smith said he’s always been so envious of his friends who are musicians, that their music gets to serve as the legacy they will leave behind. “In our business, it’s here and then it’s gone. It’s bottle rockets in this world of 140 characters.”

The autobiography stands in stark contrast to the lack of permanence of digital publishing for the man that spends his evenings — when he’s in town — sitting by the water in an adirondack chair, watching the sun set from across the cove.

“This book is something I can leave here. If nothing else, it’s vulnerable. It’s going to let my children know their daddy in a way that I didn’t know mine,” he said.

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