For Smiths, Football Is Family

Legacy Gift Opportunity Excites Smith Family

Eddie Smith and his family have been discussing making a legacy-type gift to the University of North Carolina athletic department for years. They've talked about it over meals, on fishing trips and at games. They've discussed it in the car, on planes, and—of course—on boats, as you would expect from the owner of Grady-White Boats.

All those discussions, all of those moments, led to perhaps the most unexpected possible way to make an announcement everyone in the family will remember forever: a Zoom call.

It's been a challenging past ten months for the Smith family. Eddie and Jo Allison's only child, Chris, was diagnosed with ALS on July 1, 2019. It is an insidious disease that presents a host of physical challenges, but the family has noted one area that remains completely unchanged: Chris' sense of humor.

Chris' illness was not the family's only medical battle. On February 15, 2020, Jo Allison passed away. The woman whose father was a prominent ACC football official and with whom Mack Brown loved to talk football with after games and practices—"She knew a lot more football than Eddie," the head coach says with a grin—had fought Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

So as Eddie Smith pondered his family's opportunity to make the biggest donation in Rams Club history, he was well aware of how quickly anyone's circumstances can change.

Kenan Stadium has been important to the Smith family ever since Eddie attended his first game, when he sat and was amazed by the talents of Charlie Justice. For over seven decades, Carolina football games have been the occasions that bring the Smith family together for tailgates and Tar Heels.

"Going to football and basketball games is how Chris grew up," says his wife, Ann. "We wanted our kids to be able to do the same. When we think of Carolina athletics, we think of family time spent together."

Jo Allison, who had an impressive singing voice, once sang the national anthem before a Carolina home football game. Then she returned to her regular seat, where the couple's oldest three granddaughters, Gracie, Sudie, and Anna Kate, were waiting. Anna Kate gave her the highest possible praise from a child: "Grammer, you were loud."

Reflecting back on his family's lifetime of Tar Heel memories, Eddie says, "It gives me cold chills just to think about it."

So he knew he wanted to be able to make a gift that would tangibly impact the institution that he feels has given so much to his family. But, as he also says, "I can be pretty frugal," which is a matter of perspective when you consider how generous the family has been to the entire University and numerous other organizations.

It was Chris who had served on the Rams Club's finance committee and knew the financial challenges facing the athletic department. It was Chris who encouraged the idea of making a larger gift.

And as Eddie, who named the Eddie Smith Field House in honor of his father in a previous capital project, considered the naming implications associated with the largest gift in Carolina athletics history, he had just one criteria: "I wasn't going to let it be named after me."

Which left a very obvious way to pay tribute to his family's Kenan love affair: it was Chris. The father and son had dozens of conversations about the gift, but they never once discussed naming the Kenan Stadium field. They were too busy talking about how to have the maximum impact on the program and University, on how they could best position Brown's program to succeed on a national level.

So Chris Smith didn't know the topic when the Rams Club convened a recent Zoom call with Eddie, Chris and Ann, and the couple's two children, Blake and Maggie. It was Eric Montross, a close friend of Chris who has worked closely with the family in recent years, who broke the news—"The field will be named for you, Chris."

In shock, both Blake and Maggie spontaneously grabbed their father's arm.

"It was very emotional," Eddie says. "Having ALS, Chris has been busy putting up a courageous battle against his disease, so he had no idea about the field and didn't see it coming at all. It's the right way to pay tribute to the fact that he has been very involved in convincing me to make a gift of that magnitude."

"Since he got sick, Chris has often said that he didn't feel like he was done yet," Ann says. "He felt like he wasn't finished with the things he wanted to do, or that he hadn't done enough. I think the naming of the field has helped him understand that he has accomplished a tremendous amount, even things he wasn't aware of. It's more than just helping raise funds for the University he loves. It's the relationships he has formed and those bonds that will always be."

Like the rest of us, the Smith family hopes they'll be able to gather again at Kenan Stadium this fall. And whenever that time comes, they know it will be emotional all over again when they first see the signage recognizing Chris Smith Field at Kenan Stadium on the press box, Pope Box, the home tunnel, and on the façade of the Blue Zone. The barbecue at the tailgate party might even taste a little better.

"And one thing is for sure," Eddie says. "The one person who I know will be there that day, and who will be grinning down at us the most, will be my sweet wife."