Saline Cross Country Family Pays Tribute to the Late Coach Mike Smith

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They traveled from Florida, Ohio, Illinois and locales across Michigan to be at Saline’s Mill Pond Park Saturday morning.

And then they ran, of course.

They did this memory of their beloved coach and teacher, Mike Smith, who died June 25.

Smith taught in Saline Area Schools for 28 of his 33-year teaching career. He also coached cross country for 40 years and turned the Saline High School girls cross country program into not only a state powerhouse that won conference and regional titles every year, but a tight-knit family within the Saline community.

With the chance to pay tribute to their coach, turnout at the annual Saline Cross Country Alumni run was four or five times higher than usual Saturday morning.

Mary Thomas, Smith’s wife and best friend for 28 years, said coach Smith would have been so happy to see his pupils and runners.

“He would have joked, ‘Why weren’t you here last year?’ And then he would have given them a hug,” Thomas said.

She said she wasn't surprised to see the outpouring of love.  Thomas recalled a visit from the Hospice nurse toward the end of Smith's life. She pulled back a bed sheet to show the nurse Smith's legs.

"He ran 50,000 miles on these legs. That's twice around the world. And every step along the way, he touched someone's life," Thomas said, recalling her conversation with the nurse.

Before the alumni run many old friends renewed acquaintances. Their pursuits have taken them to medical schools, Ivy League universities and prestigious jobs. For one day, at least, the memory of coach Smith brought them home to Saline.

Following the 5K run through the park, people signed the Saline Cross Country team's rock in the park. Alumni Maria Romero and Gloria Park painted the rock, which featured Smith's iconic Nike ball cap on one side and Smith's familiar message to the team on the other: Happy Trails, to you, until we meet again.

Carl Spina, coach of the Saline High School boys’ cross country team, said he knew Smith as a mentor. He recalled a moment early in his coaching career. It was 2007 and Spina was coaching one of his first strong teams. At the regional championship, Spina made a coaching mistake that cost the team. Other coaches went over the math with Spina and told him what he did wrong. But coach Smith took a different approach.

“walking towards me, he didn't tell me what I did wrong. He let me know that he felt that too. He knew that it was a hard day for me. He knew it was a hard day for the boys. He knew it wasn't what I wanted and I could tell he cared," Spina said. "He gave me the look, he gave me the handshake and gave me the hug and the pat on the back. I don't remember what he said, but I knew he was there for me."

Susan Draffen, known as "Mama J" to legions of Saline girls, was an assistant coach to Smith. She said it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces gathered for the occasion at Mill Pond Park.

"It's a tremendous honor to stand together on Saline's home course and feel coach's light shining through everyone," Draffen said. "It's so wonderful seeing so many familiar faces - especially at a time when the color of our world has been altered dramatically."

She said the group that met Saturday had something important in common.

"Our own hearts for deeply after losing our beloved coach way too soon," Draffen said. "We were each so fortunate to have shared a significant part of life with him.  Let's promise to carry him within our hearts and minds as we move steadily in the direction of our dreams. It truly is what coach would want for us."

David Hesse, a 1990 graduate of Saline High School, ran for coach Smith when he coached the girls and boys teams. Over the years, he's continued to come to the alumni events to meet new people, meet cross country families and to see Mary and Mike. He said the smile and handshake made his day.

Hesse said Smith accepted his athletes for who they were and didn't try to change them - but tried to help them improve. He remembers being impressed by Smith's willingness to run alongside his team.

"One of the things I loved about coach was that he led by example. He ran with us in our daily workouts, whether it was the town loop, the track or any hill workouts we did. How could you not respect the coach that was out there putting in the working with you, day in and out, and keeping up with the top groups," Hesse said. "Coach was excellent at motivating a team, whether or not you needed a pat in the back, or a kicking in the butt, a push or a big hug?"

Hesse said he uses many of Smith's motivational tools to this day. He said he'll always remember the hand-written notes Smith used to motivate his runners. One time, the note simply read "15-46." That was the score by which Lincoln had upset Saline at a previous meet. That was all the motivation Hesse and his teammates needed to defeat Lincoln.

Hesse said coach Smith built many of the program's traditions  - pasta dinners, time trials, hill day and more - around the idea that everyone in the program felt part of the family.

"Coach lives on in our hearts and in our minds and will continue to motivate us, even though he's no longer here," Hesse said.

For results from the Saline Alumni run, click here.

For a full photo gallery from the event, click here.

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