When you’ve been an athletic trainer for 50 years, there’s going to be a moment, or moments, that stand out.
For Gary Smith, who is being inducted into the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame on Sunday, that moment was obvious.
“I had to pinch myself,” said Smith. “To get to the White House, we were picked up by Air Force 2 and flew to St. Andrews. We boarded school buses and rode to the White House. The streets were lined with people.
“I gave the goalie coach my camera and told him to take my picture as I shook hands with President Carter,” he added. “The picture turned out blurry, but you can kind of tell it’s me and you can kind of tell that it’s the president.”
Smith was the athletic trainer for the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
“That game (4-3 “Miracle on Ice” upset of the Soviet Union in the medal round of the 1980 Olympics) was more than just a game,” said Smith. “It was our way of life vs. the Russian way of life. It was politics.
“Our 20-year-old kids beat their professionals,” he added. “They were the best team in the world. It was unbelievable.”
Smith graduated from Northern Iowa University, majoring in physical education and minoring in health.
“They didn’t have athletic training degrees back then,” said Smith.
His first job was that of a “trainer in waiting” at Bettendorf High School in Bettendorf, Iowa.
In his first month, he saw a dislocated knee, an injury similar to the one Teddy Bridgewater suffered as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
“I knew it was bad, so I called the operator,” said Smith. “There wasn’t 911 back then.”
While attending a trainer’s convention, Smith read about a job opening at the University of Minnesota.
“I would be one of three trainers,” he said. “I applied, went to an interview and got the job.”
Smith added that it wasn’t credentials that won him the opportunity.
“I think I got it,” he laughed, “because I was the only one who would pay their own way to the interview.”
Smith worked at the University of Minnesota from 1969-77.
In 1975, he started working with Herb Brooks and University of Minnesota men’s hockey team.
In 1976, the Golden Gophers won a National Championship.
“I was on a nine-month contract,” said Smith, “so I would moonlight like crazy. I worked the North Stars hockey school and I worked a lot of hockey camps. One summer, I opened the U of M golf course.”
He would also serve as the trainer for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
“Joe Theismann was the quarterback,” said Smith.
He worked for the Minnesota Kicks professional soccer team, the Minnesota Buckskins of World Team Tennis and the Minnesota Thunder.
In 1977, he helped open the Institute for Athletic Medicine.
All the while, he worked Minnesota State High School League state tournaments.
“Once,” he added, “I worked a wrestling tournament by myself.”
As an athletic trainer for the Institute of Athletic Medicine, Smith was assigned to Eden Prairie High School in 1997. He’s been at Eden Prairie ever since.
Eden Prairie Activities Director Mike Grant calls Smith the “best trainer around.”
“Gary is as good as anyone at the college or pro level,” he said. “He has a lot of experience and in training, experience is everything.”
Grant added that he’s always been impressed with Smith’s rapport with high school athletes.
“He’s good on both physical and mental sides,” said Grant. “It’s why he gets kids back so soon.”
Smith said the Eden Prairie job is the best job he’s ever had.
“Coaches, parents and kids,” he said, “they’ve always been so appreciative.”
When asked about favorite Eden Prairie memories/moments, the longtime trainer said that when he’s in the gym, he’ll count banners.
“I’ve been at Eden Prairie for 78 state championships,” he said. “If I had to pick one, I’d probably say one of their first football championships.
“There’s also the time Winegarden (Greg Winegarden) intercepted Joe Mauer and brought it back 67 yards in Eden Prairie’s state-championship-game win over Cretin,” he added. “Rau’s goal (Kyle Rau’s game-winning goal in triple overtime in the 2011 state championship game) is up there and so is Schaeffer’s shot (Grant Schaeffer’s basket with 0.04 seconds on the clock forced overtime in a 75-68 win over Eastiew in the 2012 state quarterfinals). When I think about it, I have a lot of good memories.”
Smith now serves Eden Prairie High School as a Twin Cities Orthopedics employee. In addition, he works Minnesota Vikings and Big Ten football games as a concussion spotter
“It’s that one line on my resume,” laughs Smith. “And to think, it all started because I paid my way to an interview.”
Smith will be inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame at a 1 p.m. ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 20, at the InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront Hotel. Honorees include: Natalie Darwitz, Tony Sanneh, Dave Stead, Kahlid El-Amin, Dave Harris, Cliff Janke, Faith Johnson, Bill Kronschnabel, Byron Olson, Gary Smith and Bill Webb.