One George gave Will Smith an opportunity he’ll remember for the rest of his life. Tonight at 7 at Martin Family Stadium at Albert-Daly field, another George could start Smith on the road to a similar feeling.
Tonight’s “George” is the university named for George Mason, whose soccer team Smith and his mates will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Patriots, former rivals of William & Mary’s when both were members of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), are the Atlantic 10 champion and finished with a regular-season record of 12-2-5.
The Tribe, runner-up to Drexel in the CAA tournament, finished the regular season with an 11-5-2 mark, more than good enough to qualify for their first NCAA invitation since 2010.
“It’s a comfortable match for us,” Smith said. “I feel good about it. We’ve played them before, and I know a bunch of their guys. The guys from Northern Virginia who are on our team know a lot of them really well. They’re a good team, but so are we, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t get by them.”
If they do, Smith likely will play a key role. The senior center-backer from Connecticut was recently named the CAA’s defensive player of the year. He’s quick to deflect the credit to the other defenders in the lineup, as well as goalie Mac Phillips, saying, “There’s no way it’s just me. It’s a testament to everyone around me.”
Still, voters noted the fact that W&M posted nine shutout victories (one tie) this season and allowed a goals-against average of 1.0 and pegged Smith’s contribution as paramount. Opponents scored 11 fewer goals than the Tribe this season, despite taking just 11 fewer shots.
“The goals-against average and the shutouts are the two things most directly related to Will’s leadership and his ability as a player,” added Coach Chris Norris.
The winner faces 14th-seeded New Mexico in Albuquerque on Nov. 23 at 9 p.m. EST.
Smith’s relationship with the "other" George began last summer when Smith was in Liberia working on an honor’s thesis, funded by Ted Dintersmith ’74, on the impact of hand-held solar lights on the productivity and welfare of people in several villages.
It seems an unusual topic until one realizes that, on average, Liberians live on $2 or less per day, that all of them have cellphones, and there is an electric monopoly there that charges them 20 cents a day to charge their phones. In a town such as Banjor, no one has access to electricity.
“I was interested in Liberia and, specifically, monopolies in Africa,” Smith explained. “There is one electric company that basically controls the whole market, so I wanted to see if there were any alternatives.”
There were. Smith met an American who runs a company called the Liberian Energy Network. He distributes solar lights and gladly provided some for Smith’s villagers.
Smith is still going through all of the data he collected, but several things stand out: There has been a definite cost savings for the villagers, the performance of their school children has improved and they feel safer. Turning these solar lights on at night has deterred outsiders from coming in to steal from them.
On weekends, Smith would seek out soccer scrimmages to help keep in shape. He met a former player on the Liberian National team who eventually introduced him to George Weah, nicknamed “King.”
Formerly one of the greatest African soccer players of all time, in 1995 he was named the World Player of the Year by an international soccer organization. Nine years later, he was named one of the top 125 greatest living players. He’s also run for president of Liberia twice, both times finishing second.
“In the United States, he’d be Michael Jordan,” Smith said. “He’d be Pele in Brazil.”
One day, Smith received a call from a friend, telling him there was a match he could not miss. It turned out to be between Weah’s team and the Liberian National team, a tune-up for the National team’s World Cup qualifier against Senegal. Smith played with Weah that day; the former superstar liked his style and, soon, Smith and Weah began playing together more often.
“Being able to go out onto that field – especially that one game – in front of 35,000 people and playing with guys who have done it at the highest level and feeling comfortable ... When I step onto the field now, no matter what happens, I say, ‘I can handle this.’”
Though he chuckles and confesses that he was concerned that spending a summer in Liberia would interfere with Smith’s soccer training, Norris believes the experience was beneficial to every aspect of his player’s life.
“It certainly gave him a different perspective on life and the world,” Norris said. “It helped him grow as a leader and gave him a different perspective in general.
“It helped to tie things together for him. It was (entering) his senior year, (he had) been through the type of (down) year we had last year, he’d been on a championship team before and he wanted to make sure that we could compete for a conference championship and make the NCAA tournament.”
One other thing: Unlike previous years, Smith never wondered whether he’d receive any recognition for his play.
“I think the first few years, everyone thinks about ‘Am I going to get this accolade? Am I going to get this one?’” he said. “This year, I came into it not caring at all; funny how it all worked out.”