Nov. 19, 2011
Note: The following story is the 14th installment of the Stories That Live Forever series. The series originated in 2007 to commemorate Memorial Day and honor the names listed on the Washington State University Veterans Memorial on the WSU campus. Beginning Veterans Day 2008, the scope of the series has been expanded to include Washington State student-athletes who have served, or are serving, the United States in the military.
By Jason Krump
This is what Wendell Smith sees when the Cougar flag flies on ESPN Gameday.
"That's WSU, that is Cougar Pride. Every Saturday you will see that flag.'"
It's been a while since Smith has seen the WSU flag fly on the Gameday show, but he sees the American flag fly daily, serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.
Smith played defensive back for WSU from 1999-2003, following a four-year service with the Marines.
For the Cougars' first game since the Sept. 11 attacks on Sept. 22, 2001, Smith was bestowed the honor of leading the Cougars out of the tunnel with the American flag.
But a hamstring injury derailed the honor, and another Marine, running back Dave Minnich, led the team out.
"It was very disappointing," Smith recalls during a phone conversation from Afghanistan. "I had the honor to pay tribute to the 9/11 victims in my hands but I couldn't do it."
However, Smith says, "I was proud to see another Marine do the honor and carry the flag out. That was just fine by me."
Smith enlisted with the Marines after graduation from Spokane's Gonzaga Prep High School in 1995. During the next four years, he served as a member of the World Famous Body Bearers and participated in burial detail at over 400 funerals. In addition, he served with the Presidential Ceremonial Honor guard and was in President Bill Clinton's second inauguration.
Smith decided to attend college after his service and applied to several different schools, including Washington State. He first heard back from WSU with an acceptance notice.
He decided to call an old high school teammate for advice.
"I called Steve Gleason to let him know there is a chance I may be there and can you give me some pointers?" Smith recalls.
"He said, `Good, I need a roommate, I need you to come to Pullman.'"
And Smith did.
"He needed a roommate, I was available, and when it was all said and done I decided to go to WSU," Smith says.
And it was Gleason, a linebacker who went on to an NFL career, who got him to walk-on to the football team.
"He (Gleason) came home and said the walk-on tryouts are in a half-hour," Smith recalls. "I grabbed my shoes, went down to the stadium and walked on."
"I can always rely on the fact that there's going to be a WSU flag flying in the background every Gameday, just like I can rely on people standing up and putting their hand over their heart when there is a national anthem. It's one of those things I can always count on."
Smith's football career was highlighted by a blocked punt recovery in a 1999 game vs. Cal that helped lead the Cougars to a win. After graduating with a civil engineering degree in 2003, he reached a crossroads for the next direction of his life and decided to return to where he was comfortable.
"I was not getting ahead in life as much as I wanted to," Smith said. "I decided to go back to the Marine Corp because I was happy there."
But this time he had a different approach from his first four years in the Marines.
"Before, I just wanted to do four years because after high school, I really didn't know what I wanted to do," Smith says. "This time around I wanted to make sure I come out and be more marketable."
Reenlisting in 2005, Smith attended avionics technician school and an officer commissioning program. He now holds the rank of captain.
Smith was stationed in Okinawa and is currently serving in Afghanistan with the duties of directing an air support center.
"I am the air support element officer in charge for a regimental combat team," Smith explains. "We support them by providing aviation assets. At the same time we are very proud of giving them any medical evacuation so if someone does get injured we will provide an aviation asset."
Smith is continuing his education by taking further education courses and plans to pursue his master's degree at Boston College when he leaves the Marines.
And though he is unable to watch the Gameday show in Afghanistan, Smith knows the flag flies every week.
"I can always rely on the fact that there's going to be a WSU flag flying in the background every Gameday, just like I can rely on people standing up and putting their hand over their heart when there is a national anthem. "It's one of those things I can always count on."