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Missing at sea, former Gamecock was confident he'd be OK

by Brad Muller

What was supposed to be a relaxing day on the water, turned into quite an adventure recently for former South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley (2006-2008). Smelley was vacationing on the Florida coast near Grayton Beach last Thursday and went out on his kayak to go fishing when he was carried several miles out to sea and was missing for more than 12 hours.

“I got in the water around 7:30 a.m., and it looked really calm,” Smelley said. “There was a strong north wind that was being blocked by the land, so right off shore, it was really windy. Within about 30 minutes of being in the water, I made my first attempt to come back in, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. The wind was really strong. I was paddling with everything I could, but I was still going backwards. Then I got washed way out.

“I was probably about 400 yards off the beach when I first tried to come back in, and then I think I got pushed out around seven or eight miles.”

Despite the situation, after spending part of his life dodging 300-pound defensive lineman, Smelley kept his wits about him.

“I wasn’t really that scared,” Smelley said. “I’ve done this a lot, and I’m very comfortable with the water. I never totally lost sight of land. There was always a little bit that I could see. As the day dragged on, I saw helicopters out there looking for me.

“The scariest time was about an hour and a half before dark, and a helicopter came right over me. I threw my hands up and screamed ‘yes, they found me!’ But it kept going because it didn’t see me. At that point, I thought that they’re not going to see me, so I’m going to have to really try to get in myself.”

“I figured I needed some nourishment, so I was about to clean the fish when they found me. It was a nasty fish, so I was pretty happy to throw that fish back in when they found me.”
Chris Smelley  . 

Smelley didn’t have his cell phone on him because he didn’t want to lose it in the water. In fact, he didn’t have a life jacket either because he hadn’t planned on being out very far.

“I didn’t have anything with me!” Smelly said. “I’ll definitely do it smarter next time!”

As the sunlight began to fade, the wind finally died down a bit. Smelley focused on one point of land and just started paddling hard.

“I didn’t care if it took me seven hours, I was going to paddle until I got there,” Smelley said. “After 45 minutes of that, I felt like I was making a little progress, but I figured it was going to be a long night. Then I heard a helicopter right behind me, and they spotted me.

“It was great because I had actually just paused and started dragging my fishing line behind me and had caught a two-foot fish. I figured I needed some nourishment, so I was about to clean the fish when they found me. It was a nasty fish, so I was pretty happy to throw that fish back in when they found me.”

The Coast Guard lowered a line for a diver to check in on Smelley, and shortly after that, a boat with some local family friends who were looking for him were able to get there and put him on board.

“I got in the boat with them and was able to call my wife (Josie),” Smelley said. “She was upset. There was a lot of emotion she dealt with all day. The hardest part was that I wasn’t really in fear for my life, but I knew that she was thinking the worst. She spent the whole day assuming it was going to turn out bad. I think her trauma was much more difficult than mine.”

The couple has four children, with daughters Coleman (10) and McKenzie (3) and sons Canon (8) and Franklin (7) and Smelley was glad to be back with family, unharmed.

Smelley and his family live in Sylacauga, Alabama, where he is a high school football coach.

“I graduated with a finance degree and never really thought of getting into coaching at the time,” said Smelley, who has coached at three different schools. “A year out of school, I was in a medical sales job, and I heard from my former high school principal that they were looking for coaches and teachers, so I got into it and quickly fell in love with it. I’ve been doing it for about 14 years now.

“The thing I get asked the most is what it was like playing for Coach (Steve) Spurrier. A lot of my offensive terminology is the same things I learned from playing for him. I coach the quarterbacks too. I try to be as positive as I can with them.”

There are quite a few things Smelley learned from his former coach.

“I have been wearing a visor the last couple of years, and I’ve been known to toss it a time or two,” Smelley said with a laugh.