Forget Cowboys; the world needs more Sams

Uinta County Herald and Kemmerer Gazette sports editor Don Cogger and Lovell Chronicle sportswriter and photographer Sam Smith during a Powell Panthers basketball game in 2018. (COURTESY PHOTO)

It was a lousy night for a drive.

My wife Aimee and I had gotten a late start to begin with, as we lit out in the eye of a winter storm, heading for the 2023 Wyoming Press Association Annual Convention in Cheyenne. This year’s event was scheduled for mid-January at the Little America Hotel and Convention Center, and after white-knuckling it the entire trip, we finally rolled into the parking lot around 2 a.m., well after the rest of our colleagues at the Uinta County Herald (and probably every other paper in the state) had called it a night.

As we lugged our bags up the icy outdoor staircase that led to our room on the second floor, the glass door at the top of the stairs suddenly flew open, and a figure stepped out, holding the door against the bitter wind and ushering us inside. I turned to thank whoever it was, and found myself face-to-face with the smiling mug of Sam Smith, sportswriter and photographer for the Lovell Chronicle. What he was doing up at that hour, I have no clue; probably waiting for members of his own party to arrive. But I remember thinking I’d never been happier to see Sam in my life.

Which is saying something, because I was always happy when I saw Sam. I had gotten to know him during my years at the Powell Tribune, when our towns’ proximities to each other often found us covering the same events.

Tragically, a little over a month after the WPA Convention, Sam passed away as a result from injuries sustained in an automobile accident, as he drove back to Lovell from covering the state wrestling tournament in Casper. Even as I type this, it doesn’t seem real.

When I look back at my time covering sports for the Powell Tribune, it just seemed like Sam was always there — quick with a smile and a handshake, asking how things were going for me in Powell, whether I thought the Panthers or the Pioneers — depending on the season — could stack up against Cody, our cross-county rival.

We became friends, and I began to look forward to the games and meets that I knew Sam would be at, just for the unbridled enthusiasm and joy he brought to his work. He loved his teams, and he loved his players; he could spout stats like it was nobody’s business, and he usually knew more about the kids I was covering than I did. He was always friendly, always smiling and I never heard him say a negative word about anyone. He took pride in the fact that he was a community sports reporter, and he wasn’t afraid to ask questions if he thought you might know something that could help him do his job better. To that end, he was always quick to offer his help, as well; if you needed stats from a game, or a photo he might have captured that you might have missed, he was just a phone call away.

More than that, though, was his heart. He wore it proudly on his sleeve, and I’ve never met anyone in this business with a bigger one. He cheered unabashedly for his teams and players, and it was hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm. Unbiased reporting didn’t exist when you were standing next to Sam, and, more often than not, you found yourself cheering right along with him.

When I left the Powell Tribune for my current gig at the Uinta County Herald in the fall of 2019, one of the things I found I missed was covering events with Sam. Thankfully, we still caught up a couple of times a year, at state events and press conventions, and running into him was always a highlight of my weekend. He’d ask how things were in Evanston, how married life was, had I been to any Jazz games. We’d sit together occasionally at sports seminars, or kill time between heats at state track, talking sports and trading stories.

The last time I spoke with Sam was the night before his accident. I had seen him a couple of times the day before at the Ford Wyoming Center, but we hadn’t had an opportunity to chat; that would come Saturday afternoon, just before the start of the championship finals. Kemmerer — one of the schools I was covering — had five wrestlers in the finals, so I found a seat over by the 2A mat and waited for the face-off to begin.

Sam wandered over a short time later, and pulled up a chair next to me. As was usually the case, conversation came easy. He was excited about his new PlayStation 5 gaming system and accessories he had just bought with his tax return, and I teased him about clearing the purchase with his wife, Natalee. He laughed, and told me she had dropped a fair amount of cash at Bath and Body Works (or Bed, Bath & Beyond, I can’t remember which), so they were even. We then talked about how cool it was that our wives had come with us on this particular trip, making the boring nights at the hotel a little more bearable.

We talked for about 20 minutes, about everything, and nothing, the kind of idle chatter you find between two friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. As the PA announcer called for the wrestlers to start making their way toward the mat for the face-off, Sam asked how things were in Evanston, if I was still enjoying myself at the Herald.

“Oh, yeah, the community’s been great, and I enjoy the people I work with,” I told him. “Love the kids, love the coaches, love the parents. It’s been a blast. Though I’ll always miss Powell.”

“And my friends in Lovell, of course,” I added, almost as an afterthought.

Sam’s face broke into a grin. “Well, we miss you, too,” he said. “I’m glad we still get to see you at these things.”

I think about that moment a lot.

I told Sam I’d see him soon — most likely at state track in a couple of months — and we made our way to the edge of the mat for wrestler introductions. It was the last time I spoke with him.

Aimee and I stayed Saturday night in Casper, then headed back to Evanston Sunday. The road out of Casper to Shoshoni was closed most of Sunday morning; we didn’t get on the road until after 11 a.m.

I found out later that Sam and Natalee were about an hour behind us. Just outside of Casper, they were involved in a head-on collision, sending them both to the hospital. Natalee was released a couple of days later, but Sam’s injuries were much more severe. Despite several surgeries, he never regained consciousness, and was declared brain dead on Wednesday, March 1st.

Doctors kept Sam on life support until they could get him to Denver to harvest his organs, because, of course, he was an organ donor; one last act of kindness from a gentle soul to a world that didn’t deserve him. Sam’s funeral service was held at the Lovell High School gymnasium — Sam’s alma mater — last week, and the very place where his love of sports journalism was cultivated. I wasn’t surprised to hear it was standing-room only.

As we head into the spring sports season, it’s hard to know how to feel. State track will be here before anyone knows it, and it will be hard to imagine it without Sam, running around with his trusty camera secured around his neck, bouncing from one event to another, trying not to miss a thing.

At his funeral service, stickers were handed out, adorned with the logo of Sam’s beloved University of Wyoming Cowboys. Instead of the phrase “The World Needs More Cowboys,” the slogan had been changed to, “The World Needs More Sams.”

Boy, does it ever.

I miss you, my friend. See you on the flip side.