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A.J. Smith: Completing the Circle
Written by Chris Earley
Life is filled with twists and turns. In some cases, life can turn full circle. This is the case for Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith and his family.
Smith first moved to San Diego in 1986 with his wife Susan, daughter Andrea and son Kyle, after securing a position as a part-time scout for the Chargers. He spent much of his time studying film and evaluating players. A year later, he was hired full-time as the director of pro personnel.
During his early years with the team, well before the current state-of-the art Chargers Park was built in Murphy Canyon, the Chargers’ offices were located inside Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium). While the setup was not as ideal as it is today, it certainly had its fringe-benefits for Smith.
“I remember being at the stadium, being in my office, and during my lunch break going down to watch a Padres game, grabbing a hot dog and a Coke,” said Smith. “I used to enjoy that, sliding into a seat, getting a feel for the game, getting some fresh air, then turning around and going back upstairs.”
Smith also recalls working with legendary names during that time, including Head Coach Don Coryell and Ron Nay, who was Director of Player Personnel.
“I was back there in the beginning when Mr. (Alex) Spanos came in,” he said. “At that time, Ron Nay gave a lot of young guys like me an opportunity.”
Sue and A.J., along with their two very young children, spent as much time as they could near the ocean. They often frequented La Jolla Shores and Torrey Pines beaches.
A job offer from the Buffalo Bills sent the Smiths to New York, a far cry from San Diego’s beaches and mild climate. During his tenure there, Smith worked closely with Hall of Fame Head Coach Marv Levy as the team’s assistant director of college scouting. He also saw the team through four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
“I always kid people who ask me about moving from San Diego to Buffalo, and then from Buffalo to San Diego”, said Smith. “I tell them that I went from snow shovels to palm trees and beaches.”
Like déjà vu all over again, 2001 found the Smiths on their way back to San Diego, with A.J. returning to the San Diego Chargers, this time as Assistant General Manager under John Butler.
“When I found out that we were coming back to San Diego, I couldn’t believe it,” Sue said. “The NFL is a family. You’re all related somehow and your paths cross back and forth all the time.”
Two of the many people Sue and A.J. crossed paths with after their return to San Diego included Norv Turner and Charlie Joiner. A.J. and the Buffalo Bills had faced Turner in Super Bowls XVII and XXVIII. He served as Chargers Offensive Coordinator in 2001, and then returned as Head Coach in 2007. Joiner, who had also coached in Buffalo, rejoined the Chargers as wide receivers coach in 2008. Sue has fond memories of watching Joiner play for the Bolts.
“I always remind Charlie Joiner that I was sitting in the stands when he caught a ball that broke the NFL reception-yardage record, and they stopped the game,” she said.
When they returned to San Diego and began searching for a place to live, the Smiths were shocked by the prices. But they finally found a home in Del Mar, a place they had fallen in love with their first time in town.
The Smiths have always been, and continue to be a sports-minded family. In addition to A.J.’s accomplishments, Sue is an avid golfer, having picked up the sport while in Buffalo. Although she is modest about her skill level, she’s won several club championships during her time in both San Diego and Buffalo. She golfs several times a week, and enjoys hitting the links at Torrey Pines, just minutes from home.
“A.J. still hasn’t swung a golf club,” she said with a laugh. “And I keep telling him that he needs to take this up because it occupies your mind. But unless it’s painted like a football, I don’t think he’ll be looking at it.”
When she’s not golfing or meeting with family and friends, Sue enjoys training the family dog, a little black poodle named Maddie.
Andrea began as a volleyball player at Cortland State in New York, and then went onto jobs with the AVP Pro Volleyball Tour as a marketing coordinator, and as community relations coordinator of the LA Sparks in the WNBA. After working as a coordinator of suites at Staples Center, also in Los Angeles, she was hired and now works for the San Diego Padres as manager of Petco Park Suites.
Kyle, who was exposed to the NFL at a very early age, chased a pro career. He graduated from Youngstown State, where he had an outstanding career as a punt returner and wide receiver. He was named the team’s most valuable player and was also invited to play in the 2006 Hula Bowl All-Star Game. Kyle later had free-agent opportunities with the Minnesota Vikings in 2006 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007. He also played with the Berlin Thunder in 2007, part of NFL Europa, and was on the practice squad for the Arena League’s Arizona Rattlers in 2008. His pro career ended in 2010 after a stint on the practice squad with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He went on to intern at the Washington Redskins, which turned into a full-time job as an area scout. He now lives in Atlanta, scouring much of the surrounding area for NFL prospects.
Kyle decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and he’s learning that scouts make many sacrifices while out on the road.
“It’s awesome when I come back home,” said Kyle. “As a scout, when you’re on the road, you’re kind of on your own, it’s like you’re a lone wolf. So getting back with the family is always good.”
Being such a sports-minded family, the Smiths are also very competitive, even with one another. Sue recalls that on their honeymoon, she and A.J. took careful score while playing miniature golf together. But it’s all healthy, friendly competition, particularly with Kyle and Andrea, who are very close in age, and share many mutual friends.
The Smiths try and get together as much as possible these days, with Kyle making his way home for holidays and vacations. And with Andrea in town, Sue and A.J. have more time with her, often dog-sitting while she is working.
“It’s hard, because the four of us don’t get to see each other together all that often,” said Andrea. “When we do get Kyle, it’s a great time.”