Last weekend I was walking the sideline at Ames Field in Michigan City, covering the Wolves' football regional against Valparaiso.
A few other media were there and the talk turned to a loss that hit home both for us and the larger Region sports community: the death of longtime NWI journalist Mark Smith on Nov. 10. He was 67.
The comment that tells you a lot about Mark was this: "He cared as much about a softball game in April as a football regional."
There was no hierarchy of sports in Mark's mind. If you were in his coverage area, you mattered to him. I came to realize that myself when — full disclosure — I briefly oversaw his work with the Lake County Star.
That was after he was laid off as the weekly's sports editor and just before the company that owned the Star decided to eliminate its freelance budget entirely.
Some might have given up and moved on then. But Mark wasn't going to walk away from the work he had a passion for: telling the stories of the teams and athletes of southern Lake County.
A transplant from Chicago in the 1980s, Mark was a pioneer in his presence across a variety of media. He had a sports talk call-in show, which is where he and David Woodworth first crossed paths in the early '90s; he appeared on Lakeshore Public Media's "Prep Football Report"; and he took photos and wrote stories for print and online outlets.
Mark's most recent work, since the early 2000s, had been with Woodworth and usa-365.com, writing web stories and doing internet broadcasts, mainly football but also with some basketball and spring sports mixed in.
"It was a labor of love," Woodworth said.
Mark wasn't in it for the money, or the recognition — though there was plenty of the latter from folks who appreciated Mark's uniquely personal mix of opinion, play-by-play and historical perspective.
Five or six years ago, Woodworth said, Mark — then in his early 60s — "was complaining a little bit about climbing the stairs to the press box."
A year or two after that, Mark was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, Woodworth said. It would have been bad news for anyone, but it was worse for Mark, who did not have health insurance.
"He couldn't start treatment till he qualified for Medicaid," Woodworth said. "It was almost four months till he started getting treatment."
But Mark kept working, right up to the beginning of the pandemic. He covered the girls basketball regional semifinal between Crown Point and Penn in March, 2020, just before COVID shut down high school sports.
When sports returned last fall, Woodworth wasn't quite ready to resume broadcasting and he felt the same this school year. But Mark got back to work, filing stories and photos for the usa-365.com website. Woodworth and his boss, John Meyer, worked together to find Mark a new camera lens, and Mark kept writing and taking photos.
His last story was on Hobart's regular-season football win over Lowell, posted on Oct. 2.
"He went as long as he could," Woodworth said.
Mark passed away a few weeks later. Tributes poured in on social media, and some Region schools turned on their football stadium lights to honor him.
Coaches who appreciated Mark's coverage over the years, including Pete Iussig and Jim Carlson, helped with the funeral arrangements. Woodworth also noted the creation of the Mark Smith Memorial Fund at Centier Bank's Crown Point branch; checks made payable to the fund may be mailed to: Centier Bank, 117 E. Joliet St., Crown Point, IN, 46307.
There also is a GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/f/mark-smith-memorial-fund. Proceeds from the two fundraisers will be used to cover costs of a memorial service and any remaining end-of-life expenses, according to Woodworth. Any remaining money will be divided among Mark's favorite charities: The Salvation Army Holiday Relief Fund and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The memorial service will be at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 30 at Burns Funeral Home, 10101 Broadway in Crown Point. Visitation will be followed by a chance to share tributes for Mark at 5 p.m.
All of this attention is something Mark might be uncomfortable with. Though he wasn't shy about sharing his opinions on high school sports, he intended the focus to be on the kids — not on him.
"He wasn't the story," Woodworth said of his friend's outlook. "He was the storyteller."
And an uncommonly successful one at that.
Football recap: Brothers practicing over the summer helped Andrean get to state
Three Region teams competed for state championship berths in their respective classes. Get caught up on the action!
“In the summer we went out to a field by our house and ran routes so many times. We ran through every route in the route tree and that’s our favorite route."
"They made a bunch of plays when it mattered. They’re a good football team, battle tested. We just picked a bad time to make mistakes and you can’t make mistakes against a really good team.”
Merrillville travels to Westfield with a state berth on the line.
“I’m proud of this team. We’re all hurting right now. We had bigger goals and we were one game away but I’m proud of these guys."
Michigan City hosts Zionsville at Ames Field with a state berth on the line.
Mike Clark can be reached at (219) 933-4197 or email@example.com. The opinions are the writer's.