The Thin Red Line

By Ramzy Nasrallah on April 13, 2016 at 1:15 pm
will smith in 2003
Will Smith and the 2002 BCS National Title trophy

It's the greatest day in the world! This is the greatest day ever!

Man, that's a fun thing to say. It's even more fun to scream. Some phrases are so powerful that even shouting them in jest feels good.

2003 fiesta bowl
E.J Underwood, Maurice Hall & Will Smith collecting commemorative front pages.

It's the greatest day ever is also fun to overthink, which is rare. Try ranking your own greatest days. Your wedding might show up on that list. A child being born, a career-defining moment, a legendary party, emerging triumphantly from a serious illness, that flawless vacation day, your team winning a championship, mom making pizza rolls - it doesn't matter; they're all among life's rich pageant and it's impossible to be wrong when you're stating your own trivial preference (not being wrong is fun too).

Contemplating the greatest day in the world is our finest retrospective brainstorm. It feels good. We should do it more often. Allow me to share my experience from Jan 3, 2003. We tend to talk a lot about Ohio State football here, so there's a strong chance that day is somewhere on your list. It's on mine.

It is a Friday. I'm in Sun Devil Stadium at the bottom of the stands near the field where Ohio State players, band members, coaches and fans are celebrating. It's probably around midnight. The sky is perfect. The scoreboard is perfect. Everything - including the 137 Tostitos logos splattered across every available space inside that stadium - is perfect.

Eighteen hours earlier an on-campus party began ahead of the BCS National Championship. We weren't sure exactly how that party would end as we assembled in Tempe prior to sunrise. The sun is now long gone, and on that field was the most beautiful chaos I have ever experienced.

Both of WILL'S giant arms are still extended straight into the air, as if he forgot or refused to lower them after finishing Carmen OHIO.

Fireworks are exploding above our heads. On the field is mass euphoria, rampant screaming, strangers hugging, old men crying - like, everywhere - and what is still the greatest rendition of Carmen Ohio sung this century. It's the version where the Buckeyes have just won their first national title in 34 years, as a 14-point underdog, in double-overtime against the defending and previously immortal champs who themselves were riding a 34-game winning streak.

There had never been a better game. It is the most exciting, agonizing and thrilling football story I've ever watched unfold in person. I literally black out as the final play concludes. Everyone still grasping the reality that Ohio State has just gone 14-0, beaten Miami and won the national championship one season after finishing 7-5 has to abruptly assemble enough composure to try and sing Carmen, Ohio's most cherished zombie funeral march soliloquy about surviving an 86-0 beating in Ann Arbor.

That's a great day. It will never fall off my list. I will take Jan 3, 2003 to my grave.

Carmen ends with hundreds of arms raised toward that perfect sky and the celebration explodes again. Even more fireworks are launched. More strangers are grabbed and hugged. 

The band is now playing Across the Field as players walk back toward where the stage from the trophy ceremony is now being removed. No more than 20 yards from me is Will Smith, Ohio State's junior defensive end, sack leader and - along with Tim Anderson, Kenny Peterson and Darrion Scott - the biggest and most important mismatch Miami faced on that perfect evening.

Miami's final gasp; the game's biggest mismatch.

Those four ravaged the Hurricanes' offensive line all night. Their efficacy changed Miami's entire game plan, held the defending champions to their lowest output of the season - even with the benefit of two additional frames - and ultimately won Ohio State the national championship. People will eventually talk about Maurice Clarett, one late whistle, many blown calls that benefited the Hurricanes, their crushing hubris - but Will knows exactly how the game was controlled and who won it for the Buckeyes. He knows it.

He is holding up one of those pre-printed giant headline fake newspaper front pages made for the winners that announce the Buckeyes' championship in one hand. He's got his sticker-covered helmet by the facemask in the other hand. Both of his giant arms are still extended straight into the air, as if he forgot or refused to lower them after finishing off Carmen. He's just standing perfectly still on the field, posing like that. Victorious.

And this hulking 22-year old has his face to the sky. He's shouting at it, defiantly, confidently - almost argumentatively - at nobody in particular or possibly at everybody who has ever lived:

It's the greatest day in the worrrrrrrld! This is the greatest daaaaay everrrrrrrr!

Will is on the field with all of his teammates and hundreds of others. And yet simultaneously, he's all by himself.

Will's declaration was immediately absorbed into the tapestry of that day which began before dawn and ended with fireworks. That moment only emerged from the depths of my memory Sunday morning, after I learned Will had been murdered in front of his wife and wouldn't get to see his three children grow up.

John Navarre won't be needing this
Will was at his best when it mattered the most.

It took a tragic night for me to remember a forgotten detail from the best one. Will was suddenly on the opposite side of the thin red line that divides the living from the dead. He was 34. That's not fair.

Death leaves too many ripples in its wake, and Will's has and will continue to produce American gun culture takes, crime scene conspiracy theories, plenty of litigation and a serial of new updates for an ongoing investigation.

That's no eulogy. It's an unwanted extenuation of a tragedy. 

Dwelling on how one catastrophic evening unfolded is unfair to all of the days and nights that preceded it, defined him and produced those great days we often got to benefit from too, though it is impossible to ignore the cruel irony that Will's children will now experience what he had to endure while he was growing up.

His own mother Lisa died when he was a kid. Will was raised knowing a little too much about loss. The most powerful energy you can harness from the joy/pain spectrum comes out of its two extremes. Indifference sort of sits in the middle of it, unwanted, unimportant and uninspiring. Will, the son of William, grew up already knowing what the worst day ever felt like. And that gave him tremendous energy.

He also grew up knowing exactly what he wanted to do with it. As a teenager Will dreamed of becoming an FBI agent and that's what he was working toward up until the day he died. He arrived at Ohio State a criminal justice major, graduated and had the Bureau in his horizon throughout his professional football career.

As for that career, it turned out just fine. Will got into all 12 games of John Cooper's final season and accumulated by far the most playing time of any freshman. He was the best sophomore on the team in 2001, its best junior during that 2002 title year and its best senior in 2003. During that football career he led both a national championship team - and six years later, a Super Bowl team - in sacks. 

Ohio State got four years of Will Smith. The rest of the world only got 34. We got lucky. The world got cheated.

buckeye grove
Buckeye Grove | April 10, 2016. via

When Will declared that January night in Sun Devil Stadium the greatest day ever he had not yet held the Lombardi Trophy as a New Orleans Saint. He hadn't married Racquel yet. Tempe happened before Will, the grandson of William was born. It was prior to Wynter arriving. Lisa, whom he named for the mother he grew up missing wouldn't come into his life for several more years.

They represent four of the greatest days days in the world. I like to imagine that he brought the same triumphant pose he struck in Tempe to his wedding and the birth of each child. Those are the days you chase. They are the ones we're better off overthinking, instead of repeatedly sojourning to the last night of his life.

Will has a tree in Buckeye Grove. He leaves behind a great family, legacy, and several of the greatest days in the world that we got to experience on his behalf. He was the defensive face of Ohio State's November rebirth. Consider that until 2002 the Buckeyes had gone 18 straight recruiting classes without graduating a single one that was able beat Michigan more than once.

Every class that has arrived since Will found Columbus has collected no fewer than three Gold Pants. His impact on Ohio State was transformational, and he was the face of the biggest and most important mismatch Miami faced on the greatest day ever.

Man, that's a fun thing to say. It's even more fun to scream.

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