On Monday, November 19th, Ron Smith passed away.
Most of you outside of the state of Maryland and surrounding areas – and perhaps upstate New York, where Smith was born – may not have heard of him, as common a name as it may be.
For over a quarter-century, Ron Smith made a living on Baltimore radio as a popular talk-show host. And it helped that the mega-popular syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh shared the airwaves at Smith’s station, WBAL, for about two decades.
Now, you’re wondering what this has to do with sports, or sports media. This would be it: Ron Smith was a household name in Baltimore, so much so that upon his announcement in November that he would retire due to health conditions as a result of his diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer – the deadliest form of cancer in that it is rarely caught in its early stages – tributes came pouring in from everywhere.
One source was his favorite football team – the Baltimore Ravens.
On Friday, December 2, two days before the Ravens would play the Cleveland Browns, head coach John Harbaugh had a telephone conversation with Smith at his home in Shrewsbury, Pa., where he had been receiving hospice care at that point. Harbaugh called the chat session “one of the most encouraging and motivational conversations that I’ve ever had with anybody in my life.”
One would not expect less from a man known as “The Voice Of Reason” on the radio for over 25 years – even off the air and on his deathbed.
Harbaugh recalled Smith having “a message for the team that we carried” the night before the Ravens/Browns game, “and they carried [it] with them on the field [on game day].” That blunt message, according to baltimoreravens.com: “If the team doesn’t understand that they have to be at their best every game, they don’t have a chance to win the Super Bowl anyway.”
And on a game day which saw the Ravens defeat the division rival Browns 24-10, in Cleveland, Harbaugh announced after the game that he would present the football used in that game to Ron Smith and his wife, June. “This game ball is for you,” Harbaugh directed to the Smiths as he would begin the postgame press conference.
Smith later commented in The Baltimore Sun that Harbaugh’s game ball presentation made him feel as if he had been cured of his terminal illness. “It was a tonic,” he said.
Smith had expressed to Harbaugh how important the Ravens’ success was to the city of Baltimore (the perennial playoff contender did win a Super Bowl in 2001). And that’s coming from someone who had been successful in Baltimore not only as a radio talk show host, but as a television news anchor in the late 1970’s.
The point of this column is to illustrate the impact one person can have on a community, including (but not limited to) a major NFL franchise. It didn’t matter which side of the political spectrum Ron Smith leaned (for the record, he was a conservative); that he was known and beloved by many people, it made him an icon – especially to his favorite football team.
Unfortunately, the last game that the Ravens would play while Smith was alive was a Sunday night matchup in San Diego in which they lost by 20 points. Smith would die about 24 hours later, as the Monday Night Football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers was being played. The host 49ers would eventually win the power-outage plagued contest, and deal the Steelers a crucial loss. John Harbaugh’s Ravens would actually receive a little help thanks to his brother Jim, in his freshman year as the head coach of the 49ers.
Incidentally, the Ravens’ next opponent will once again be the Browns.
But this time, it’ll be in Ron Smith’s neck of the woods.