Longform

The Quiet Man

Page 5 of 6

"I never thought I'd get the job," he says. As sports director, he was a one-man show, writing and airing seven broadcasts a day, covering press conferences and going to games. He didn't get into talk radio until the mid-1980s, when he had to fill in unexpectedly for a KDKO talk-show host who couldn't make it into the studio. Looking to create a show similar to Clough's Broncos post-game session on KOA, Smith started "Broncos Rap" in 1985. A few years later he expanded it to "Sports Rap." Hosts have come and gone, but the show has basically remained the same.

Shortly after going to work at KDKO, Smith also began a business partnership with Diana, who already worked in marketing for another local station. She sold ad time on his show and wrote the copy herself, and profits began to roll in. Soon after, K-Big officials came calling, hoping the Smiths could work the same magic for them. They made the jump to K-Big in 1987, and before long "we had sponsors clamoring to get on," Smith recalls. "They wanted me on board 'cause they were letting too much money get away."

But even as Smith and his callers found a steady rhythm of give and take, MS was destroying his body. His hands and feet became numb and tingly. "It was difficult for him to admit it," Lauren Smith, Thierry's father, says. "He probably should have had a wheelchair a lot sooner."

Smith at first tried to deny the reality of what was happening to him. "But people around you, you're scaring them to death," he says. An avid cyclist and ballplayer, he was generally able to keep active through the 1980s. But gradually he ran out of space to run.

Soon he was holding on to walls and using friends as crutches, all as inconspicuously as possible. "What would happen is, we'd be walking from the car to a door to an office, and one of his legs would just almost give out," says Scott. "He'd have to hold on to me. It didn't happen every day--just once in a while. He was very good at hiding it."

The disease struck just as Smith was finally getting a taste of the success that had so far passed him by. His Broncos show was popular among players and fans. "He attracted a lot of players," says Scott. "Players started coming over to his house. His popularity skyrocketed. When [former San Diego Chargers tight end] Kellen Winslow was in town, he invited Thierry out to dinner."

When MS finally put him in a wheelchair, it hit hard. "They didn't expect to do any good with this radio deal," remembers Billy Scott. "None of the DJs ever made any money at KDKO. All of a sudden he got all this notoriety, all of a sudden he was going out eating free dinners all the time, being wined and dined by everybody, then all of a sudden he's handicapped."

Smith's move to the wheelchair full-time in 1991 coincided with his twentieth high-school reunion, an event he says "I wasn't planning on going to. No way I was going in front of all my high-school friends in a wheelchair."

Friends finally coaxed him into coming, but the normally gregarious Smith was "apprehensive," recalls Diana. "Everyone knew him, heard him on the radio," she says, but he "isolated himself" at the event, staying in another room as the class assembled at night's end for a group photo.

"Everyone started gathering, ending conversations," remembers Graylon Cole, a classmate and friend of Smith's. "I said, 'Come on over, Thierry,' and he said no. So you kind of respected his decision. But just before they snapped the picture, a group of us said, 'Let's not snap this picture yet.'"

Cole and several other classmates went into the next room and retrieved the sports host, picking him up in his wheelchair and carrying him onto the stage. "He was like 'No, you guys,' and we were like, 'Oh, yeah, you're part of us,'" Cole says. "We sat him at the end of the picture, and everyone just clapped. There were about a hundred of us in the picture, and everyone felt this brotherhood."

The stoic Smith doesn't like to talk about that moment. But, he admits, "It was pretty emotional."

Despite the acceptance from his old classmates, MS was making his radio job tough. "At first it was difficult," says Lauren. "People would elbow him away. Let's say he was going to a game. Black players would give him answers, but it took a long time for him to get respected."

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T.R. Witcher