“A lot of it has to do with getting people back to doing what they love. And that means back to playing football”
Meet Richard Smith, a former Sunderland youth player turned Harvard medical student who is training to be a surgeon with the ultimate goal of helping injured athletes get their careers back on track.
How did you get started in the game?
I was playing for Durham City boys and was scouted as my brother was at Sunderland. When I first started playing football I was centre midfield, then at ten I started playing for Sunderland at centre back. I was on YTS aged 16-18 but was not offered a professional contract at 18.
Did you want to play on?
I could have gone on trial to other clubs, to non-league or they could have sent other information to other clubs but I told them not to bother. I decided that if I wasn’t going to play professionally at Sunderland I would think about focusing on education.
How did the move to study at Harvard come about?
One of the reasons America came up was Kevin Ball. Bally, was my youth team coach and he played professionally with John Kerr at Portsmouth. John became Harvard soccer coach and he asked Bally to send over anyone who didn’t quite make it professionally but would be good academically. I was 18 but hadn’t done my A-levels so I went back to a sixth form centre in Durham.
Did that mean giving up on the game?
The nice thing about American universities is you get a degree but also the way the draft system works you can play professional sport afterwards. They have academy systems but a lot of the professional players in basketball, NFL, soccer and hockey are recruited from a university through the draft system. I contacted coaches at American universities and applied. The new Harvard coach – who I ended up connecting with, going to visit and being interviewed by – said they would be happy to have me, so that’s how I ended up at Harvard.
How did it all work?
I didn’t have to declare my major so tried different courses and had a few different experiences. When I took Biology and medicine-related courses I became more interested in that; so that’s what I ended up majoring in. In England I would have had to pick a degree before I went to University. That was an attraction of the US system.
Did your interest in education affect your chances as a footballer?
Even before we had the decision day about whether we would get a professional contract I had to take an afternoon off training to interview at the sixth form centre. I spoke to Bally and Ged McNamee, the head of the Academy, about it. They were both pretty shocked. I do wonder if it had any influence on things…
Perhaps in terms of your own focus?
I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh on football academies, which do a great job to provide you with training and resources, but there is a lot of optimism and encouragement around them. However, if you look at the statistics around how many people make it and how long they make it for, it is vanishingly small. I thought, ‘I love football and it will always be a big part of who I am but would I be happy going to play for Hartlepool or Darlington for a few seasons, then Gateshead, Blyth and Durham?’ What would I do in my mid-30s, having played a few years professionally but with no other formal education?
Did you think about coaching?
To be honest, coaching and working in an academy were things I wasn’t really interested in. I always had in the back of my mind, if things don’t work out I could go to university – and I don’t think that detracted from my enthusiasm or energy to play professional football. In reality it is pretty unlikely that you’ll make it and make it big. I think it’s more sensible to have a back-up plan in case things don’t work out, which they didn’t.
Did you completely pause education while you were at Sunderland?
We did BTEC qualifications but that would have limited me to doing various sports science courses at university. I don’t think the BTEC would have worked for Harvard.
I knew it was really good academically and their football team is in Division 1, the highest level of football in the college system. They offer loads of opportunities: different types of course, opportunities for research – it’s a remarkable institution. I interviewed and I enjoyed connecting with the lads and coach. Plus, Boston has many similarities to home. Once you have a chance to go, Harvard is a really difficult place to turn down.
What did your parents say when you told them?
They were incredibly supportive. I travelled with my mum when I went for the interview. I think she always had an element of sadness that I have left home and I’m not just a few train rides away. But she’s happy – it’s such a big opportunity educationally.
Would you have got into Harvard without your football?
It would probably have been unlikely. I did well in my A-levels but you have to do the American SATs. All of the American educational system prepares you for these exams so if you haven’t been through that you tend to not do as well. My scores were pretty competitive but probably not enough to get into Harvard without the football. Athletes get a special exception so they can get in with a lower academic score.
Is it hard to juggle college sport and the academic side?
Some universities, like big American football schools in Texas or Ohio, are very focused on athletes and have specific resources, including tutoring. At Harvard you’re not given special treatment. You are here, you are a student, most Harvard students are doing things that require lots of time outside class. We weren’t given any special exceptions for deadlines or extra study help. We were expected to get on with things. The academic requirements are challenging. It was tough being an athlete, training every day, but we were members of a team with classmates who would help each other out.
Are you famous on campus like sports jocks in movies?
If you’re a quarterback at Ohio state or Texas you’re probably going to go to the NFL so you are going to be a big celebrity on campus. At Harvard, even though a decent number go on to play professionally, only some people know you. The soccer lads are pretty normal guys really.
This is your second time around at Harvard…
Yeah, I got a bachelor degree then did a PhD at Oxford. Now I’m halfway through my MD degree to become a doctor.
What’s the ultimate goal?
I’m thinking about orthopaedic surgery, having spent my time at Oxford in an orthopaedic lab. That will take a further five years training. Being an athlete you experience and witness a lot of musculoskeletal injuries. I sustained various injuries when I was playing football and I was always able to get the medical help to get back playing. Honestly, a lot of it has to do with getting people back to doing what they love. That means back to playing football, playing with grandchildren in their garden, running a marathon. I’d love to work with athletes – I have a special empathy there.
Isn’t university pricey in the States?
It’s very expensive – about $90,000 a year (£60-70,000) for four years. I’ve had some financial aid, some inheritance from three grandparents and my dad helped. I’m now pretty much out of savings so it’s loans. Luckily doctors in America get paid very well.
Were you surprised the PFA could help you?
I was very pleasantly surprised with the amount they were able to help me. I knew there were education grants available to cover books and stationary, but I was in need of some more substantial financial support. The PFA gave me an incredibly generous amount, having not played professionally and maybe not having contributed financially.
How important are the PFA to players who don’t make it as professionals?
Hugely important. I see some of my friends who have played professional football then try to pick up the pieces when things don’t work out - it’s really difficult. Having the PFA there for people when they are looking to transition away from the game is incredibly important.
Ex-Sunderland captain Kevin ball coached Richard in the academy and recalls a talented, intelligent young player
“I always say if Richard stayed in football, I look at someone like Chris Smalling and think he would have been like him,” says Kevin.
“Richard stands 6ft7 and people say to me they bet he was a brute. But, like Smalling, he was actually very slim and quite athletic. But he was also good on the ball. He was articulate in nature but also articulate as a footballer.
“I can’t take credit for what he’s gone on to do. That’s testimony to his family and also to our late former head of education, Brian Buddle who made sure Richard was able to push himself academically as well as in his football.
“Nobody really knows at 17/18 what will happen to young players. Richard had to make a decision and he made the right one – even if I still look at Smalling and wonder…”