TAMPA, Fla. – The Detroit Lions will retire the number 93 for the 2009 football season in memory of player Corey Smith, one of three men lost when their fishing boat capsized off the Florida Gulf Coast three weeks ago.
Lions player development director Galen Duncan told several hundred mourners in Smith's hometown church Saturday that Smith's number would be retired for a year in honor of a player of extraordinary heart and competitive drive.
"I want to tell you something about Corey Smith playing with pain," Duncan said of Smith, who played with such abandon that high school teammates called him the Tasmanian Devil.
"I'd tell the coaches, `You've got to watch Corey because he's not going to tell you he's hurt,"' said Duncan, whom Smith befriended in his three seasons in Detroit. "If you could see the way this man worked."
The Coast Guard rescued one man, Nick Schuyler, who was clinging to the 21-foot boat's overturned hull, on March 2, two days after it overturned in stormy seas.
The bodies of Smith, Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, and former University of South Florida player William Bleakley have not been found.
Many of Smith's teammates from the Lions and from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers where he played his first four NFL seasons attended the memorial service. So did former teammates and coaches from North Carolina State and from Richmond's John Marshall High School.
His high school coach, Kevin Burden, tearfully conceded that he was never impartial about the quiet giant who was the team's undisputed leader.
"You're not supposed to have a favorite player when you are a coach, but he was the one who got under your skin. He was a great football player but he was an even better man," Burden said in a faltering voice.
"Tonight, when I say my prayers, I will ask God to assign me a guardian angel and he'll be wearing number 93," Burden concluded, leaving many in the crowd sobbing or wiping their eyes.
Smith signed with Tampa Bay as an undrafted rookie in 2002 and backed up Pro Bowl defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice on a Buccaneers team that won a Super Bowl.
An earlier injury sidelined Smith for the Super Bowl, but he was there with his team. His diamond-crusted Super Bowl ring was the only bling Smith wore, friends said.
And for the rest of his career, he drove himself year-round to show the world he deserved it, said linebacker Ryan Nece, a teammate of Smith's in Tampa and Detroit.
"He was never complacent. He was always striving to prove himself," Nece said. And at 250 pounds, Smith was "an undersized defensive lineman, and some people may argue that there's no way that they can play in the NFL. But he constantly worked on his craft, constantly tried to improve."
To Lions rookie defensive end Landon Cohen, Smith was a mentor during last year's agonizing 0-16 season — the worst in NFL history.
"We spent a lot of time together, and that's the way Corey was: he didn't say much, but he led by example," Cohen said. "He was a blue-collar working guy."