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Lessons learned live on

After injury, a diver steps up to fill the shoes of the coach who inspired him

Eric Roberts (center) took over as Wittenberg’s diving coach before his mentor, Jim Smith, died. Wittenberg University photos

Eric Roberts can eloquently describe every feeling he went through from December through late February – the pain of traumatic injury, relief of recovery, the tightened connection with his team, the pain of losing a friend and all the discovery that came with it.

Roberts and Wittenberg University diving coach Jim Smith were focused on a climactic goal when his senior season started last fall: advance beyond the conference championship for the first time and set at least one record. Smith was a tough coach with a no-excuses attitude on the outside, but his caring interior was all teddy-bear quality stuffing. He routinely pushed his divers by telling them, “Can’t never could do nothin’” – his way of saying you can’t do anything you don’t at least try to achieve.

Smith never worried about Roberts’ drive, though. As Wittenberg’s Most Valuable Diver as a sophomore and junior, the diver and his coach grew close. 

Smith seemed to trust his two-year captain on a deep level. That trust was important: As early as Roberts’ freshman year, Smith needed breaks from coaching to lie down in his office because of cancer treatments. The prostate cancer was detected shortly after he started at Wittenberg in 2004, but it had metastasized. Smith never talked about his health unless he was cracking jokes. Even as he started missing more practices and meets as Roberts’ career progressed, his star diver never thought anything would come of it.

Jim Smith (left) inspired diver Eric Roberts, who was a two-year captain before his season-ending injury

The pair had much to be proud of as the season started: Roberts swept the 1-meter and 3-meter events in seven of the season’s first eight meets. Then he set the 3-meter, six-dive pool record at Ohio Wesleyan, earning his B-cut to the Division III championship. It was the last meet Smith would ever watch in person.

Roberts had every reason to expect those successes to continue when he stepped on the 3-meter board Dec. 6 at the Transylvania University Invitational. But something went wrong when he started his dive. He hadn’t jumped far enough away. Roberts stayed in his ball protectively as he came around for his second somersault and struck his face on the diving board.

Roberts describes the experience as “hitting a cheese grater at 50 miles per hour.” He fractured his skull and compressed his sinuses. He broke the orbital bone around his eyes. He woke up in a hospital bed hours later, chained to the rail because his mind had remained locked in that dive, continually trying to snap his body into a pike position.

His career was over, but Roberts needed diving.

And Wittenberg, as it turns out, needed him.

Roberts emerged from the hospital two weeks later, and by then, Smith was too weak to coach. Roberts, meanwhile, was motivated to get back around the pool, despite extensive surgery. It helped him hold onto his identity as a diver. The more time Roberts spent with the team, the more the answer became clear: He should be their diving coach.

And that’s how Roberts found himself in his mentor’s chair, repeating the same things Smith would say in practice and pushing his divers with that same tough love. Sure, he knew the dives they had been working on and could coach those. But it was Smith’s mentality for busting through life – the one that drove him to shove aside cancer and prioritize practices and meets, sometimes in a wheelchair, nurse at his side – that most noticeably emerged in Roberts.

Smith died Feb. 3, shortly before the season ended. And while the news of his death devastated Roberts, he knows a piece of Smith will live on with him. It won’t be as Wittenberg’s coach: After he graduates this spring with a sociology major and minors in urban and environmental studies, Roberts wants to pursue the Peace Corps and graduate school. Ultimately he’d like to be an urban planner. Maybe he’ll even go into politics.

Those are areas where a can’t-never-could-do-nothin’ attitude will serve him well. And because of this crazy, emotional, devastating and victorious winter, he’ll always know whom to thank.