by | Mar 13, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

And then he’s gone.

Corey Smith was a professional football player. He played here in Detroit. When journalists entered the locker room after a Lions game, they scattered to get quotes. Now and then they went to Smith. I did it. I did it without thinking. I played my role, Smith played his. A notepad. A question. An answer.

And then he’s gone.

Oh, you get used to that in sports. Players get traded. They get injured. But Corey Smith went fishing last weekend, on a boat off Florida’s gulf coast, and he never came back. The boat tipped over, the seas were rough, hours passed, and by the time rescuers arrived, three of the four passengers – including Smith – were lost.

Not traded. Not cut.

He’s here.

And then he’s gone. A terrible tragedy at sea

I have been trying to wrap my arms around this since the news broke and journalists began scrambling. Some wanted details. Some wanted a culprit. Some insisted – still insist – on re-creating the final, brutal minutes of the lives of the apparent victims, Marquis Cooper, Will Bleakley and Smith. Who let go first? Who took off a lifejacket?

I have been more stung by the thought that someone I met – not a friend, not a close associate, just someone I spoke with a few times – suddenly could be whisked away, not even a body to confirm the death.

He’s here.

Then he’s gone?

Ron Del Duca suffers this very thought. He is – was – Smith’s agent and friend. He spoke to him the night before the fishing excursion. They were planning free-agency trips a few days later.

“It’s like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” he says. “I keep waiting for the TV to be shut off and … Corey Smith’s back.”

How painful must this be for guys like Del Duca, and for Smith’s family and friends and for the loved ones of the other two victims?

It’s one thing to make hospital visits, whisper with doctors and brace yourself for a slow decay or a sad ending.

But a flipped boat? A watery grave?

He goes fishing?

And then he’s gone? One of the good guys

Corey Smith, 29, was an undrafted player who got one phone call from an NFL team coming out of North Carolina State, Del Duca said. Smith made that team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as a defensive lineman, and he won a Super Bowl ring. He played the last three seasons with the Lions, earning kudos for his toughness and dedication.

“Corey didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke,” Del Duca says. “He’s just a real humble – it’s kind of overused but – blue-collar guy.”

One time in the off-season, Del Duca called Smith and asked if, as a favor, next time he was near his home state of Virginia, he’d consider talking to a high school football team.

And Smith said, “How about tomorrow?”

The next day, spending his own money, Smith flew to Virginia, visited the team, gave a clinic, then, as a bonus, spent an hour with a second-grade class answering questions. And he told his agent, “I had a blast.”

“That’s the kind of guy he was,” Del Duca says. “Unfortunately, it takes something like this to show these guys exist.”

It shouldn’t have to. Everyone exists. Everyone is just a freakish accident away from being taken. But Smith’s case – nothing to look at, to hold onto, no body in the casket. How do you process that?

A writer once postulated what happens if an astronaut dies on the moon and is never brought back? Is it the same as a death on Earth? Does the soul know where to go? You wonder similarly about death in the hole of the sea. And you realize how strange and fragile life really is, that someone you passed or spoke to at work could so quickly be physically erased from our world.

“If this teaches anything,” Del Duca said, “it’s that if you have somebody you care for and you’re meaning to call them or see them? Do it now. Drive to their house. Pick up the phone. See them. Call them. Don’t wait.”


Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!