When he was growing up in St. Helena in the 1960s, Brian Smith was pushed towards baseball and basketball by his father, a 1939 St. Helena high grad and standout athlete.
But those sports “didn’t fit” Smith, who instead pursued track and field.
Had Smith played the sports of his father’s choosing, he may never have become the legendary track and field athlete at St. Helena that still holds school records 47 years after graduating.
Later this month, Smith, a member of the class of 1971, will be inducted into the Saints’ athletic Hall of Fame. The school record holder in the discus and the shot put is one of five other inductees in this year’s class which includes his former coach Roger Snipe.
The induction ceremony is Oct. 13 at Native Sons Hall in St. Helena. A cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m. and precedes dinner, which begins at 7 p.m., followed by the induction ceremony.
Smith, who currently works as a project manager at Taylor Bailey Construction in St. Helena, will attend with his family.
“It’s a big deal,” said Smith about his induction. “I wondered if this would happen to me because they only started it five or six years ago. I go, ‘Wow, maybe I’ll still be alive when they do this.’”
Track was not the only sport Smith excelled in. During his time at St. Helena, he also participated in basketball and football and joined the wrestling team his senior year.
For all his athletic prowess, Smith was not an imposing figure. He remembers he measured only 5-foot-10 and weighed 190 pounds when he graduated, and that was after growing into his body during high school.
But even as a tweener, Smith didn’t take long to make an impression in sports. He joined the track team his freshman year and immediately began setting meet and league throwing records. Before track he had played football and basketball but after that first year of throwing, he was hooked.
“It was something, that first year,” Smith said. “That’s when I realized, OK, this is going pretty good.”
Back during the Roger Snipe coaching era, the St. Helena track and field team didn’t have assistant coaches to teach focused areas. So Smith had to teach himself how to properly throw. He rented books from the library that diagrammed proper footwork and technique and went to work applying his newfound knowledge.
“It really got under my skin freshman year,” Smith said. “I took the implements home and threw all summer and came back, I think I only threw two meets as sophomore before being called up to varsity because I was the best thrower in the school. I won league in the shotput and got third in the discus sophomore year.”
From that point, Smith was off. He dominated league meets and established himself as one of the best throwers in the county. He rarely lifted weights, finding that putting on too much muscle inhibited his movements and made him a worse thrower. He said that his strength came naturally and thinks it was aided by doing construction work for his father when he was child.
“I physically worked had, so that’s the only thing I could think of that gave me muscle,” Smith said. “I guess that’s where it came from.”
His small stature made for some entertaining confusion at meets since his reputation preceded him.
“Everybody thought one of the big guys was me,” Smith said. “We’d show up at a meet and they’d go, ‘Oh, there’s Smith.’”
All his talent culminated his senior year in 1971 at the state meet at UCLA. He had already set the school shot put record that year with a throw of 53-feet 7-inches. But it was at the state meet where Smith added to his trophy collection with a school-record discus throw of 169-feet and 10-inches.
“Normally, you don’t see the discus hit. You’re typically not supposed to, but all I can remember is it hitting and seeing a puff of white, so I knew I hit the 170 line,” Smith said. “I remember that, absolutely.”
Following his successful career at St. Helena, Smith spent two years at Santa Rosa Junior College, redshirting for the track team one year then throwing the next. After that, he transferred to Chico State where he walked onto the track team and became the top hammer thrower for the Wildcats. His 1977 throw of 186 feet and 3 inches still stands as the third-best in school history.
For all of his success, though, Smith felt there was more he could have done. He feels his lack of training robbed him of untapped potential. With that still in the back of his mind, Smith started coaching throws throughout the Napa Valley, in hopes that he could give young athletes the help they need to reach their full potential.
“I just wish I’d had that when I was young and had it at an earlier age,” Smith said. “Man, what I could’ve done if I’d had some good coaching, somebody to take me on and coach me. I know I was doing the wrong things even in high school, being self-taught.”