Samantha Smith reflects on ESPN feature highlighting relationship, Project 44

ZACH HORRALL | DIGITAL EDITOR | zhorrall@butler.edu

After months of preparation and hours upon hours of interviews, ESPN aired a “SC Featured” segment on SportsCenter on March 25 about former Butler basketball player Andrew Smith, his wife Samantha and Project 44.

“It’s definitely been draining emotionally a lot of times because of having to relive and bring up a lot of hard memories, but knowing that ultimately it was going to produce such an incredible piece,” Samantha said.

The feature was narrated by Tom Rinaldi and started by highlighting Andrew’s time at Butler.  It runs through the back-to-back Final Fours that Andrew participated in.

Brad Stevens, former Butler head coach now with the NBA’s Boston Celtics, spoke in the feature about what made Andrew stand out.

“We knew that this was a guy that didn’t move like most 6-foot-11 guys,” Stevens said. “He was far more mobile, but at the same time he had an incredible work ethic and a total humility.”

Quickly, the feature dives into the heartbreak of Andrew’s death and how that impacted Samantha.

It also explains Project 44, the motive behind filming the feature. Project 44 and how it has already saved a life, that of Deegan Scott, was a main focus of the feature. Scott received bone marrow from former Butler basketball player Chase Stigall.

“We couldn’t be more thankful or blessed by the publicity,” Samantha said. “As a nonprofit, these organizations would kill for the publicity we got. We’re incredibly grateful and just feel like it’s going to help us grow and continue to grow.”

The feature came to be largely in part due to Krissi Edgington, who used to work for Butler’s marketing and communications office and now is the vice president and co-founder of Project 44. She was the main person that pitched the story to ESPN. She started pitching the story last fall.

After Edgington convinced the network to look into it, Samantha said it was back and forth for a while before she got the official word they were doing the feature. After that, Samantha said she opened her home to ESPN and dedicated a lot of time to making sure the feature would be done the right way.

“I was with them for eight and a half hours,” she said. “It was an all-day thing. They want to make sure they do it well, and I appreciate that. They come in and they take apart your furniture. I have a huge sectional couch that they ended up taking apart so they could set the stage.”

Samantha said ESPN’s next goal is to create a larger feature. She said it could possibly turn into a 30- or even 60-minute feature because they have so much content. The production team filmed interviews that were not seen in the original feature, including ones with Barry Collier, director of athletics, and Emerson Kampen, who was a teammate of Andrew’s.

Samantha hopes the extended feature will focus more on the bone marrow registry, what Project 44 is trying to do, and how it is trying to grow.

“[The Project 44] goal is to change the process of donating bone marrow,” she said. “We want to change the norm so that when you turn 18 you join the registry.”

The feature was produced by Lauren Stowell. In a press release, she said the Smiths stand out because of how Samantha responded to what happened and what she is trying to create out of it.

“During Andrew’s treatment, he and Samantha learned more about the bone marrow transplant process, and that spurred them to want to champion that cause,” she said. “Even while he was alive and fighting, he was holding bone marrow drives at Butler.

“But what is most remarkable part of this story for me – through all of that grief and tragedy that Samantha went through, she was able to find something positive in that moment, and she held a bone marrow drive at her husband’s funeral.”

Through the process of filming the feature and looking back at past memories, Samantha went through a lot of emotions, some she hadn’t gone through in a while.

For the feature, ESPN requested momentos and letters she had of Andrew. Samantha said going through boxes of their stuff brought laughter and tears.

“That certainly was hard for me, digging through things I hadn’t looked at in years: old videos and letters and things like that,” she said. “Yes, there were certainly parts I was used to and had those typical talking points, but it definitely got to another level having to get photos and videos.”

Samantha found many things in one of the boxes in her basement that brought back memories as far back as high school. One set of things she found in particular stood out: 12 letters that Andrew wrote her for Christmas one year. He was already playing for Butler, and he was not around much for Christmas. So, he wrote her 12 letters that accompanied 12 gifts to replicate the 12 days of Christmas.

“Those were wonderful,” she said. “And some of the videos I forgot I had, so I was howling laughing but then simultaneously crying. There were definitely some really special things I had that were really good to see.”

Since it published, the video has gotten more than a million views online, and 3,500 people have joined the bone marrow registry since the feature aired.

In all, Samantha said she is grateful for the exposure, especially with Project 44 in mind. She knows that this feature can help the exposure of the non-profit organization, and she also knows Andrew’s legacy will live on because of this.

“It is so bittersweet, because I am so proud of him and I’m proud that he’s so honored and beloved and supported, but obviously it’s hard because I wish his jersey wasn’t in that case and I wish there wasn’t all of this,” she said. “While I’m so thankful for everything, I also wish this never happened.”

Follow Zach Horrall on Twitter: @ZHorrallBU

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