Bobby Smith has partied with some of the biggest rock stars in history; has been teammates with the greatest soccer players in the world; was an integral part of the most popular professional team American soccer history; and is a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Ask what makes him proudest, however, and he will list none of that. For the man commonly known as “Smitty”, it’s all about the process.
“I’d have to say that just caring about something enough to give everything in your life to it, is what I’m most proud of,” Smith said. “You gotta love what you do. I was happy that I found something that I loved since I was a 12 and did into my 30s.
“I’ve played with Pele’, played with the National Team. Those things are way up there. Those are great accomplishments. But going out there with my guys, looking out at the other team and both of you are going to war – ‘C’mon, let’s go!’ – I really enjoyed that. That was awesome. To me, that was the best.”
Smith is arguably the second-most recognizable Hamiltonian in the world next to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito. He played seven years for the U.S. National team and was part of the internationally acclaimed New York Cosmos professional team that listed guys like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart as their groupies. In the mid-1970s English writer Gavin Newsham termed the Cosmos “The most glamorous team in the world.”
And yet the 63-year-old Smith still calls Hamilton home, and Mercer County is lucky enough to have him nurturing soccer youth at the Bob Smith Soccer Academy in Robbinsville. He has never felt the urge to get on a big-time stage, be it with Major League Soccer or in the U.S. National program.
“The Trenton soccer community is so tight, and I have so many great relationships in this community, it’s just natural for me to come home here,” Smith said. “Training kids. Watching kids develop. I really enjoy that, especially in the soccer community in Trenton. It’s a small, tight group.”
That attitude was not lost on the Trenton Select Committee, which has made Smith its keynote male honoree at its 42nd Annual Dinner on Nov. 9 at Mercer Oaks in West Windsor.
And despite the fact he is in four halls of fame, this latest honor resonates with Smith because of the company of previous honorees that he now keeps.
“When I first got the call, I thought the coolest thing is it wasn’t all soccer people,” Smith said. “Guys like Sonny Pittaro, Vince Ardery, Greg Grant, Rich Giallella. I know these guys, but I’ve never been involved with being put in a group with these guys. It’s usually Smiths and Donigans and Finks and a bunch of soccer guys sitting around.
“These are some of the most well known athletic people in the community. This is the first time I’ve ever gotten honored by a group like this. I think it’s pretty awesome.”
TSC President Rick Freeman, who grew up across from Smith in Hamilton Square, figured it was a no-brainer.
“He’s been arguably the greatest soccer player ever to come out of this area, and he’s also a first-class person,” Freeman said. “I’ve known him from the time we were little kids. We all looked up to him as kids.
“He’s just so modest. He was a pretty good baseball player, a great soccer player, and he also won a punt, pass and kick competition in football. He could have chosen any of those avenues, and he chose soccer and he’s one of the greats.”
He has stayed humble and he has stayed home.
“That’s important to us in our selection, giving back to the community,” Freeman said. “He hasn’t forgotten where he’s from. The fact guys like him have stuck around says a lot for our area.”
When asked why he chose not to move elsewhere when his playing career ended, Smith laughed.
“I was out of work,” he said. “I needed a job!”
When Smith purchased the old Greenwood Tavern and re-named it “Smitty’s Kicks,” it was his first real job. Pro soccer was always a passion.
After graduating from Steinert in 1969, Smith set records for goals in a season and a career at Rider College before getting drafted by the Philadelphia Atoms of the North American Soccer League. As a defender, Smith was named to the All-Rookie team and helped the Atoms become professional sports first expansion team to win a league title in 1973.
In 1976, he joined the Cosmos and became part of The Happening. Between 50,000 and 75,000 people would pack the Meadowlands to see legendary international players like Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and Pele’ put on a show on and off the field. Pele’ signed with New York on the condition they surrounded him with talent, and Smith was the kind of guy the Brazilian superstar had in mind thanks to his aggressive, break-neck playing style.
Smith stayed with the Cosmos until 1978, and played with three other North American Soccer League teams before leaving the game after a season with the Montreal Manic in 1981. From 1973-80 he also played on the U.S. National Team.
And then suddenly, it was over.
“After playing, I did not want to coach at all,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to do anything (in soccer) if I wasn’t playing. I wanted to keep playing when I stopped playing. But the league was changing, everything was changing.
“I didn’t want to be a coach, I didn’t want to be running camps. I wanted to be on the field. That was very hard for me to make that adjustment from being on the field. That’s why I bought a bar. I couldn’t get on another team.”
At first he laughed when his buddy, Billy Otto, suggested they buy a tavern.
But Smith’s wife Claudia, who he met in New York while playing for the Cosmos, thought a bar might be a good idea if he got the right people to run it. Smitty hired soccer friends Toby Hankins and Alan “Rock” DeAngelo as his main bartenders and suddenly he felt that teamwork aspect that he had in soccer.
“I couldn’t get on another team,” Smith said. “That became like my team.”
The bar opened in 1983 and became wildly popular, not just with the soccer crowd but for a wide range of pub crawlers from all age groups. It was a great way for Smith to transition from soccer.
“I really didn’t pursue any soccer jobs, and they didn’t pursue me so in that way we’re even,” he said with a laugh. “I was doing my own thing. I left the soccer loop for a while. I’d had enough and they had enough of me.”
He still played, however, competing for over-30 teams and going on the road to play anywhere in the state when New Jersey soccer guru Manfred Schellscheidt beckoned him. He also helped out coaching some of the top high school talent in the state as well, which served as a hobby to relieve the stress of running a business.
With a growing family that included sons Dylan, Corey and Ryan and daughter Gabby (who all played for Steinert), Smith decided the hours of the bar business had become too much and last call for Smitty’s Kicks came in 1995. At that point, Rutgers women’s coach Charlie Duccilli asked Smith to be an assistant, and he accepted.
“That’s what got me back into the structure of soccer in that form,” Smitty said. “I went there, I did soccer, and then I found the need to get into soccer more as a business. I was training a lot of teams and things like that. That’s how that transition came into play.”
He began working more frequently with youth players. In 2005, local entrepreneur Chris Vernon built an indoor athletic complex in Robbinsville and asked Smith if he would be interested in being part of it. He jumped at the chance, which has since spawned the Bob Smith Soccer Academy.
With the invaluable help of partner Joe Donigan, Smith’s academy has become one of the most popular in Central Jersey, and his formula for success is the same he used as a player – don’t worry about the outcome, worry about how to get there. The result is 200 teams playing in the winter, along with 40 men’s teams and over 600 players training.
With Smith’s connections, everyone involved is top-notch.
“I know the guys around here who can do good jobs,” Smith said. “I want them in there. If people get proper training, they’ll come back. You gotta have people that know how to go about training tactical and technical abilities. I don’t have to tell these guys what to do. They know what to do.”
Once that gets taken care of, everything else falls into place.
“We’re developing kids, that part of it is very cool,” Smith said. “I’m not looking at the big overall numbers, how much we’re charging and how many kids we can get in to make a lot of money. I’m looking at the quality of what we’re doing first.
“I’m not worried about that register, I’m worried that people are having a good time and getting something out of it. If they are, the register will take care of itself. That’s just my philosophy. You get some places and all they worry about is that register. When that happens, you’ve got problems. It will be fine if you do it right. I mean, that’s common sense, give me a break. So that’s where our program is at, it’s a good program.”
Smith is loving life right now. His mom, Dotty, is still on the scene providing support. He is helping to promote an up-and-coming professional soccer team called the Trenton Rebels that oldest son Dylan is playing for. And he has Claudia, who still plays a huge role in his successes after 28 years.
“What can I say about Claudia?” he wondered. “Anybody that knows my wife, they know I have a lot to say about my wife. If you don’t, try to get to know her. You’re missing something if you don’t know her.
“If all I got out of soccer was her, then I’m even, I’m clear. There was a lot of aggravation and BS that went with it, but you deal with. But with the love of playing, getting to play with Pele’ and against George Best, and I come out of it with Claudia, too? It doesn’t get any better than that.”
And Mercer County has discovered it doesn’t get any better than having their soccer legend still giving back to his roots.
The TSC dinner will be held on Nov. 9 at Mercer Oaks in West Windsor. To reserve tickets, call (609) 588-0152 by Nov. 5.