TONY STINNETT, Sports Editor
There was a time when football was the talk of the town in Woodbury and quarterback Al Smith was at the center of the conversation.
Smith, the son of Betty and Bobby Smith, led Woodbury Central to an unblemished 10-0 regular season and a berth in the TSSAA State quarterfinals in 1974. It is the only undefeated season since but those who remember the team recall how special it was.
In fact, Smith led Woodbury Central during its most successful run. He quarterbacked the team to a 7-3 mark and a bowl game in 1973.
Smith is one of six individuals who shaped the landscape of Cannon County sports and will be inducted into the Cannon Courier Sports Hall of Fame at the Arts Center of Cannon County, May 15, at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 6.
"Football was the talk in Woodbury," said Woodbury Mayor Harold Patrick, who offered play-by-play of the games for radio and will serve as Smith's presenter when he is enshrined into the Hall of Fame. "There were overflow crowds and enthusiasm. Forty years later we honor Al Smith for the exciting season we had at Woodbury Central. Al is the second inductee from that team (joining Steve Bullard), and we are just four years into the Hall of Fame. That speaks volumes about the Class of '74."
Smith downplays his importance in leading the team to perfection. He deemphasizes the fact that he was any more important than the next guy.
"That was my life. It is all I wanted to do," Smith says of his love for football. "If not for that, I would not have cared about school. We had a great team, and I was fortunate to be part of. We had talent at all of the positions. We had great offensive linemen, great receivers and great running backs."
They had a great quarterback, too.
Smith earned All-District, All-Region, All-Midstate and he received a scholarship to play at Northwest Mississippi Junior College.
"You hear the saying, 'There is no I in team,' but you have to have people that will step up and lead. Al Smith was won of those people," said Randy Gannon, an offensive lineman and Smith's classmate. "Al was not afraid to lead. He did it without any hesitation or making anyone mad. Al was unselfish. He was also very humble."
Dennis Banks, currently a professor at Michigan State University, said Smith was the most complete athlete in a class full of standout performers. He was also an outstanding basketball player, earning All-District, All-Region and All-Midstate honors for his work on the hardcourt.
"Al was always the most complete athlete in our class," Banks said. "We were together from fifth grade all the way through high school. Al was not necessarily the fastest or strongest but, as far as being complete, he was it. He understood the game. Al was instrumental in developing the position of quarterback very well. He could do a lot of things very well."
Al Smith was a difference maker.
Smith did not play football as a sophomore but came back out onto the gridiron as a junior in 1973.
His return signaled a change in fortunes for Woodbury Central football. It also made Banks a very happy man.
"The thing I remember the most is Al didn't play football our sophomore year," Banks said. "I was the quarterback our sophomore year and we won one game. We just were not very good. I was so happy when Al arrived back as a junior because I didn't have to shoulder that responsibility anymore. That was a blessing. We went from winning one game to winning the conference in 1973."
Smith completed long, tight aerials to his playmaking teammates. He ran the power I to perfection, baffling foes with his elusive moves and accurate arm.
"Al Smith is arguably the best quarterback ever (in Woodbury)," Patrick said. "Al Smith was not just a football player. He was an athlete. He could do it all and it helped him being the quarterback he was. He was very agile. His composure was remarkable. The most impressive thing about Al was his arm, not his arm strength but the accuracy in throwing the football.
"When the team went 10-0 in 1974, Al couldn't have done it without the team and the team couldn't have done it without Al. He was the key component in the team going 10-0 in 1974. How many former players can say they quarterbacked Woodbury to a 17-3 record in a two-year span? Al developed the position of quarterback for those teams and that was a big key."
Teammates say Smith's intelligence was as important as his overall ability.
"He was always cool and composed," Gannon said. "He was extremely intelligent. Coach (Mike) Mayfield (also a member of the Cannon Courier Hall of Fame) would relay in plays. They would bring one in, Al would listen to it, get in the huddle and call something else. We ran the Power I. If it was power right, we ran right. If it was power left, we ran left, but Al would mix it up and coach Mayfield would not know the difference. Al had such intelligence and we fed off of it. You never saw any panic. We were a close bunch and part of those closeness was due to his leadership."
Smith says he didn't change plays. He altered them.
"When you are on the field you get a feel for the game," Smith said. "You know what you need to be doing. I always loved to play football. We kind of turned it around in 1973 when we won several games, went to a bowl game, and just continued to get better. Nobody cared who did what. We just wanted to win. I enjoyed playing the games and winning, and my teammates and coaches. I had some great teammates. I had some really good coaches. They pushed us hard and wanted us to be our best."
Smith played for two Hall of Fame Coaches. His basketball coach, Bobby Parker, was inducted in 2012, and Mayfield was inducted in 2013.
Patrick says Smith's play reminded him of another great quarterback that would come along more than a decade later.
"Al reminded me of Peyton Manning before Peyton played," Patrick said. "When I saw Peyton play I made the comment, 'This guy plays the game like Al Smith did back in the 1970s as far as his accuracy and running the team. Another characteristic of Manning that Al possessed was when the game was on the line he put his team in position to win."
Perhaps the greatest example of that quality was displayed against rival Cornersville in 1974. The Lions were 5-0 and in a home tussle with their undefeated season in jeapordy.
Cornersville led 8-6 when Woodbury regained its final possession deep in its own field position with less than five minutes remaining. Smith led the Lions downfield, completing several passes, including a fourth-and-seven, to keep the drive alive. He moved the team to the seven with time running down. Gannon came on, kicked the game-winning field goal and the rest is history.
"Al is just a winner," Gannon said. "He always put the team in position to win and that was the job of the quarterback."
History suggests Al Smith did the job better than anyone to ever play the position in Woodbury. Forty years following the completion of Al Smith's prep career, his name is still at the center of the conversation when it comes to football in Woodbury.