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Living in the Moment
Whether he’s covering the sports world’s biggest events for ESPN or escaping to Ocean City with his family, Marty Smith is grateful for it all.

by Peter Proko

During his career working at ESPN, Marty Smith readily admits he has had several eye-opening moments. Whether having his first one-on-one interview with Tiger Woods, chugging a beer live on TV with his good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. or standing on the University of Alabama sideline when now-Philadelphia Eagle Devonta Smith caught the game-winning touchdown to seal the victory in the 2018 College Football Championship.

Smith has now been with the network for 19 years, a feat that “just blows my mind,” he says. During that time he’s not only interviewed some of the biggest names in the sports and entertainment world, but he’s shown great versatility covering several different sports ranging from college football and basketball to golf and NASCAR. He’s reported live from major events like the Daytona 500, The Kentucky Derby, The Masters Tournament and many more.

“I still don’t know how to rationalize that this is my life,” Smith says.

In July, he will get to experience another special moment when he and his wife Lainie serve as grand marshals in Ocean City’s annual Night in Venice boat parade. One may wonder how a Virginia native who now lives in North Carolina ends up being front and center for one of the Jersey Shore’s biggest nights, but it’s not as far-fetched as you may imagine.

Smith’s wife grew up in Ocean City and in 1995 she was actually named Miss Night in Venice. After meeting in college at Radford University, Smith got to know the Shore town well during visits and fell in love. Nine years ago, the family bought a summer home there and Smith has been enjoying every moment since. Whether he’s working on a book or recording a podcast inside Ocean City Coffee or hitting up a local surf shop for some gear, he has fully embraced his home away from home.

“I work 10-to-10 ½ months nonstop, so when I get here in mid-June ever year, I try very hard to unplug and focus on my family and being intentional with my time with my wife and kids. And the energy in Ocean City affords me that because everyone here is in this relaxed mode where it’s pickleball in the morning, the beach in the afternoon, and cornhole, the grill and cold beers in the evening.”

We spoke to Smith further about his love affair with Ocean City, his time at ESPN and more.


You’ve talked before about how getting cut from your college baseball team was a devastating moment in your life. But how did it propel you to where you are today?

It was a very important moment in my journey, a line of demarcation. In high school I played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball from the spring through the summer. I went to Carson-Newman University first and had a position on the baseball team—it was my entire identity. So when I get to Radford and I get cut, I lost a piece of myself that I didn’t realize was as important as it was.

I sulked over it for several weeks. I don’t care who you are, whether your last high school football game is the last organized team sport opportunity you have or your Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and you play at the highest level for 20 years and go out on your own terms, when it’s over there is a substantial void in your life. I didn’t know how I’d fill it, but then I got invited by a young lady to go to the sports information office at Radford. I walked in there and said, “You don’t have to pay me, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I just want to be a part of something.”

That really was an important step for me in my journey because it [reignited] that passion and it reminded me that sports is what I wanted to do. Writing wound up being that catalyst and vehicle for me to carry that passion. And I fell into TV in 2005 when ESPN called and I’ve now been there for 19 years.


And while in college, you meet a Jersey Girl and now you have this affinity for Ocean City. Tell me about that.

We live in Charlotte full time, but this is my wife’s hometown, she went to Ocean City High School and graduated in 1995. Then she chose Radford, where she and I met. I truly do love it here, it’s a place where I can disconnect and really be immersed in this beautiful energy. To me, it’s reflective in a lot of ways, but it’s also so intentional to make sure I am where my feet are and not running to the next airplane.


You have to be very excited that you and your wife will be the grand marshals for this year’s Night in Venice.

[Laughs] It’s the funniest thing. Lainie was Miss Night in Venice 1995 and so I had heard about [the parade] our entire relationship. Then after we bought our place here, it started to make more sense.

First of all, Night in Venice is one of my favorite days of the year. July 4 is my favorite day of the year, every year. Here in Ocean City, we have a big party at our place, and we do the bike parade and I’m dressed in American flags; we go all out. And I think Night in Venice is right up there.

One of our best buddies lives on the lagoon, and we’ll go over to his place and we get to sit there and watch all the boats come through and have a bunch of drinks, cut up and listen to great music while the kids play in the pool; it’s just this beautiful portrait of what makes our summer experience in this country so great, it’s idyllic really.

But I guess they were really struggling to find a grand marshal and were scraping the bottom of the barrel when they called an old country hillbilly from down in Appalachia. But we agreed to do it and it should just be an amazing time. They are allowing us to have 22 people on the boat, so I am bringing my family, a bunch of buddies and a big cooler of drinks and we should have the best time ever.

I’m so grateful to be honest. There’s this line in Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold goes, “If I had woken up this morning with my head sewn to the carpet, I would have been less surprised than I am right now.” There have been many experiences in the last few years where that has entered my mind, and this is yet another one. We are just humbled, we think it’s the coolest thing and we can’t wait to do it, it’s going to be a blast.


Getting back to ESPN, do you enjoy covering so many different sports rather than be focused on one in particular?

It’s invigorating. Enjoy is not a strong enough term. I’m so full of gratitude. The diversity demands of me that I don’t get complacent. The conviction that it takes to make sure you are prepared is very important.

I feel like the willingness to do the work always manifests itself when the lights turn on. When you are on live television, there is no hiding. My role as a reporter, whether I’m doing the Masters or [College] GameDay, I get a certain finite window through which to share that which I’ve studied or from whom I’ve learned. That is a learned skill and I take great pride in that preparation. I consider it a challenge and one that I appreciate the opportunity to try and meet.


Of all the many moments you’ve had in your career and the countless interviews with big names from all walks of life, do any in particular stand out from the rest?

My word. I don’t mean to be trite, but it’s hard to really distill it down.

When Alabama got into the College Football Playoffs this past season and Nick Saban comes around the corner [heading toward the tunnel] with this huge grin on his face and he says, “Do you believe that bleep?” And I’m the only reporter there and you get to see his genuine, immediate reactionary emotion to those things.

Or Tiger Woods, with me standing there physically on 18 [at the 2019 Masters], ten rows from the top of the green and feverishly writing notes. And thinking to yourself that all of these thousands of people who are lining the fairway are just praying to get a glimpse of the greatest to ever do it because we knew we were not only [watching] the greatest comeback in sports, but we were a small part of it too.

Then there’s seeing my buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the Daytona 500 and dumping beer on my head. Or at his last race in Miami where on live TV he is taking a moment to share his appreciation for me as his friend, as someone who has walked through the darkest days with him after his dad died and after his concussions and he didn’t know what was next. … And then he hits me on the chest and says, “Well, what are we gonna do now?” And I said, “Well right now, we are going to drink one of those cold beers.” And then we hammered back a Budweiser live on SportsCenter.

It’s just really cool, amazing, pinch-me stuff. I try very hard to be kind to people, to pay all of that forward because people believed in me and gave me opportunities when maybe I wasn’t ready. But they saw a passion and now I’m kind of in this season of my life where I’m trying to pay that forward and or pay that back.