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A pitch for the heart

Ross Smith's life moves smoothly from the field to the broadcast booth
by: Christopher Onstott Ross Smith, soccer defender-turned-radio commentator for Portland Timbers games, surveys the pitch from his press-box perch at Jeld-Wen Field.and says things have turned out well since his playing career was cut short by a heart condition.

Fate is a mercurial force. It can smile down upon a man, making him believe in its generosity, then rob him and leave him for dead. Fate can also turn around and pay that man back with interest.

Portland Timbers radio analyst Ross Smith knows both the cruelty and kindness of fate.

During the past few years, he has gone from a shot at American soccer's elite level in Colorado, to heart surgery in Canada, to the Division-2 pitch in Portland, to the radio broadcast booth for the Timbers' inaugural MLS season.

And Smith, 30, has seen his outlook on life become what perhaps all of us wish for.

'I used to be such a selfish person when it came to soccer,' Smith says. '(The health problems) opened my eyes that there's so much more out there. Football means so much. But there is so much more that you want to wrap your hands around.'

In January 2009, Smith was signed by the Colorado Rapids to play defender. About that time, Smith had what he can best described as a mini-heart attack. Smith had complained of chest pains since he was about 15, but that night brought the problem to a head. He had himself checked out. Nothing alarming came back on the report.

Right before preseason, the doctors looked over his results again. A cardiologist in Colorado discovered that something was seriously wrong.

Smith was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. Where a normal aortic valve has three flaps, Smith's had only two. Because of that, Smith's aorta had become massive.

'If I took a knock or something, if my aorta went - then I went,' Smith says.

Smith returned to his homeland of Canada to have surgery. Afterward, the doctors told him he might still be able to play the game he loves.

Smith did not ask for much after his heart surgery. He just wanted one more year on the pitch.

'I didn't know if I would be playing again,' he says. 'I always remember asking just for one more year. I don't know who I asked for that, but I was hoping for one more year of soccer. I was cleared to play, and the Timbers gave me that chance.'

Even with his recent health problems, the D-2 Timbers of 2010 were more than happy to take on a player of Smith's pedigree.

Smith grew up the child of Scottish parents in Milton, Ontario. He went to a school that was taught half in French, half in English. Soccer became a big part of his life.

'It became such an obsession,' he says. 'The love wasn't always there. But the obsession carried me through (those) times. When you're on a soccer pitch, life just seems right. It has felt like I'm my happiest there.'

Falling in love

Smith left Canada to go to high school in Scotland, where his father thought it would toughen him up for more soccer. Smith's parents stayed in Canada while Smith lived on a farm with his aunt, uncle and cousins in 'the middle of nowhere,' he says.

A self-described 'goody-goody' in Canada, Smith got toughened up in Scotland in places beyond the field.

After being in Scotland for less than two weeks, Smith attended a party. A few older guys were picking on one of his friends. Smith tried to stick up for his friend. Mistake.

'I got jumped by about eight guys,' Smith says, laughing about it now. 'I just had to cover my face. I was getting kicked and everything. Luckily, one of the guys went to kick me and ended up hurting his leg. In just that split second, when they all stopped and he shouted for his leg, I was out of there. It was a rude awakening that you really have to watch the places you go in Scotland.'

Smith would learn to avoid those kinds of situations, and he made it through high school. He went on to play soccer at Rhode Island University.

After college, Smith spent the majority of his career in Europe. He began playing for Scotland's Montrose FC in 2003-04. He then played for English clubs Margate FC (2004-05), Gravesend and Northfleet FC (2005-07) and League Two club Dagenham and Redbridge (2007-08). He also played 15 matches for the Rochester Rhinos of the United Soccer Leagues first division (2008).

Last season for Portland, Smith endeared himself to his teammates and was an anchor on the backline.

'He was one of the best teammates I've had,' says Timbers midfielder Ryan Pore, who is among Smith's closest friends. 'Great player and strong. Talked a lot in the back, which we needed. Just a good player. Good technically.'

When Smith was told that the Timbers would not be taking him up with them to MLS this year, technical director Gavin Wilkinson hinted that if Smith was willing to hang up his boots, he would like to have him stay with the club in some capacity.

'I love Ross,' Wilkinson says. 'He's just somebody you want around an organization. You want to be surrounded by good people, and he's a good person.'

Smith admits he wished the Timbers had seen him playing for them in MLS.

'I don't think you're ever OK with not being taken onto something you love so much,' he says.

But when Smith was offered a job as a broadcaster, he remembered that he had fallen in love with Portland and that the Timbers allowed him to play that one final season.

'They gave me that chance,' Smith says. 'No one wants to look at a 29-year- old with health issues who has been away from the game for a year.

'I don't think I could be doing broadcasting at many other clubs. The pull of it was the city and the people. The broadcasting was sort of the reason to come, and a nice little cherry on everything.'

Veteran Timbers radio announcer Andy McNamara was excited to work with the player who had been one of his go-to guys for quotes the year before.

'He was a guy you could always count on to provide some good feedback and not just necessarily give you the cliché answer,' McNamara says. 'I was happy for him, and I was happy for our broadcast team.'

Smith's voice is clear and crisp. His accent is mostly Scottish, but it has traces of British and Canadian. His King's English turns of phrase make listening to him a quintessential football experience.

Getting better

Smith had occasionally been in a radio booth during matches when he was injured earlier in his career. His current role is filled with much more pressure, though.

'Now, all of a sudden you're going to get paid for it and they're expecting you to do well,' Smith says. 'When you're thinking, 'I've got to come up with something intelligent here,' it was a bit nerve-racking (at first).'

McNamara is pleased with Smith's growth as a commentator.

'He's done a great job,' McNamara says. 'It's not easy to step right into that role. During the course of the year, I've seen him get more comfortable. He's improved with each match, and it's been a pleasure on my part to have him along.'

Smith says he isn't sure if he wants to do broadcasting long-term. But he is having fun and working to get better.

'I enjoy it, but I'm always looking to push on with things,' he says. 'Right now, my idea of pushing on is getting better with what I'm doing.'

Broadcasting gives Smith a different satisfaction than playing. Being in the booth does not bring him as high or as low as being on the pitch. Yet, he still gets his soccer fix by working out with the Timbers' Premier Development League club.

He is healthy, although he will need a tune-up in 10 or 12 years on the prosthetic piece in his aorta. As he looks back on the hand fate dealt him, Smith admits he sometimes asks, 'What if?'

The question is not so much what if he had been able to play for Colorado. Smith is happy that one of his best friends, Scott Palguta, took his place and is still playing for the Rapids.

Instead, Smith asks what might have happened if his heart condition had not been discovered. And he asks what he might be doing if fate had not brought him to Portland.

'I'm lucky that things got spotted,' he says. 'Just the way things have gone, this is the best thing that could have ever happened to me.'