It doesn’t seem like the Bishop Hendricken football team needs any added motivation, not with the way the Hawks are steamrolling Rhode Island competition these days.
They’ll have some anyway on Friday night against Barrington.
Sitting in the stands, sporting his green “Bishop Hendricken” fleece jacket, will be longtime NFL executive A.J. Smith, a 1967 Hendricken grad and the former general manager of the San Diego Chargers.
This week marks the first time that Smith has been back to his alma mater since he graduated 46 years ago. A current senior executive with the Washington Redskins, Smith returned on Wednesday to Hendricken, where he was once a standout football player himself, and took part in a number of events during the day, including a chat with the football team.
“They’re so fortunate to be a part of this and how fortunate they are to be a part of a tremendous athletic tradition, particularly the football team and their achievements,” Smith said. “I want to wish them luck Friday night. Focus on the game, don’t worry about the scoreboard. Let the coaches worry about that and get after it. Try to get us a victory over Barrington.”
The Hawks have won 39 of their past 43 games, including playoffs, and that was without the motivation of having one of the NFL’s most well-known executives watching and rooting them on in the stands.
At 6-0 so far this year, you think they want their first loss of the season to come with that guy in the stands?
“He’s walked in these kids’ shoes, he’s worn the uniform,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said. “I think it gives the kids something to shoot for. I know his message in school today was don’t stop chasing your dreams.”
Smith had dreams of his own when he was playing football for former Hendricken coach Emo DiNitto, and later when he graduated and went off to college. Initially, those dreams centered on teaching physical education in Providence and coaching at Cranston West.
But as time went on, they grew. He played some semi-pro football and became a part-time scout in the NFL for the Houston Oilers, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants, all the while still teaching.
Then one day he got a phone call that changed his life. It was 1985, and he was being offered a full-time job as a scout.
He took it and never looked back.
“I did that, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate that I’m still in it now with the Washington Redskins,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time. I just enjoyed it, but you never know. I just got lucky, took the opportunities and ran with it.”
His career unfolded like a book, as he started new chapters every time he moved up the ranks. In 2003, he was named GM of the Chargers, and they quickly became one of the most-talented and high-profile teams in the NFL.
During his 10-year tenure in San Diego, Smith built a team that went 97-69 and made the playoffs five times. After last season, in which the Chargers went 7-9, Smith was let go from his position.
But someone of his stature doesn’t just hang out on the market very long. He was scooped up by the Redskins, where he serves in a consultation role. He also gets to work with his son, who is a scout with the club.
It’s been a journey that was impossible to predict, but one that is plenty inspirational. Because of the flexibility in his new role, he was finally able to make it back to Warwick, and he hasn’t wasted the opportunity. He took a tour of Hendricken on Wednesday, and was surprised to meet up with some of his old teammates and his old coach, DiNitto. He had lunch with Hendricken’s administrators, and he spoke to the senior class as well. Then he spoke to the football team, two days before the Hawks host fellow-unbeaten Barrington in a battle of the top-two ranked teams in the state.
“I’m sure they have dreams and aspirations,” Smith said. “I hope the one thing that hits them is, I’m one of them. I went here. It’s not like an NFL executive from someplace else as a guest speaker. I’m one of you guys. And to come back – I’ve got my colors on proudly, and I’ll have them on Friday night – I hope that’s an extra kick for them. And I wish them the best.”
Smith, a 2003 inductee into the Hendricken Hall of Fame, lives in Del Mar, Calif., with his wife Susan, who is also back in Rhode Island to enjoy the trip with him.
Together, they’ll be cheering on the Hawks. Smith makes the trip only once every half-century, roughly, and he picked a good week to come back – Hendricken-Barrington is as big as it gets in this state.
Smith knows a thing or two about big games. He watched his Redskins beat the Chargers, his former team, on Sunday before flying into Rhode Island.
“Big thrill,” Smith said with a smile, about Washington’s victory.
Another victory this weekend would be the icing on a pretty special week.
“I can’t wait to go to the game Friday night. I hear it’s a big game, by the way,” Smith said. “I did some research. No. 1 against No. 2. So I’m getting an extra bonus to sit there as a fan and cheer on my old high school.”
You think the Hawks won’t be ready?
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.