Disc In: A Chat with Matt Smith

July 15, 2020
By Evan Lepler  - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive

“A common name with an uncommon game.”

In the first Tuesday Toss I ever wrote, published on April 14, 2015 after the South Division’s debut, I used that phrase to describe Atlanta Hustle’s Matt Smith, who had just recorded 13 goals in the Hustle’s first two games ever. In the nearly five full seasons since, the diminutive Smith has snagged another 228 goals while becoming an anchor for his team on and off the field. He’s also assumed leadership responsibilities, both locally and at the league-level, that have elevated his stature beyond being a dynamic statistical standout. 

Over the course of his AUDL career, which began as an unknown 23-year-old during the inaugural 2012 season with the long-since departed Rhode Island Rampage, Smith has been known not just as a slippery scorer but also a careful distributor of the disc. By the end of the 2019 season, he ranked third on the all-time goals chart with 266, trailing just Indianapolis’ Cameron Brock and Keenan Plew. Furthermore, he’s separated himself through his efficiency, completing 96.5 percent of his throws amongst 1,580 completions. To put that in perspective, of the 84 players in AUDL history with at least 100 goals, only one has a superior completion rate than Smith, and that’s former Pittsburgh deep threat Ethan Beardsley, who touched the disc sparingly during his four seasons with the Thunderbirds, averaging fewer than seven completions per game. Smith, contrastingly, has registered more than 20 touches per game during his 81-game journey, with a lower turnover rate than any of the other top scorers in the history of the league.

A huge factor in Smith’s early success with the Hustle, undoubtedly, was developing quick chemistry with veteran handler Dylan Tunnell, who remains the franchise’s all-time leader in assists despite only appearing in five games since the end of 2016. When Tunnell was named AUDL MVP in ’16, he heaped praise on all of his receivers, but particularly singled out Smith, who was the target of more of his scoring throws than any other teammate. 

“Matt Smith was dominant that whole year,” mentioned Tunnell in our April Disc In conversation, “and most of the reason I was successful was because I had him and other fantastic, athletic receivers to track down my sketchy hucks.”

Smith’s skying skills are certainly another aspect of his abilities, and at 5’7”, he has needed to embrace a different downfield mindset to be able to make plays in the air. This philosophy paid off particularly well in a 2016 playoff game against the undefeated Dallas Roughnecks, in which Smith delivered one of his most memorable soaring scores by getting the better of Matt Jackson, who had been widely regarded as one of the top defenders in the league that season.

“I told myself before the game that if there were any jump ball situations that I needed to be ambitious,” Smith explained in a July 2016 postgame conversation. “I’m short enough that if I don’t jump first I’m never going to get the disc, so when I found myself in that position I jumped a split second earlier than I thought I could get it and just believed. Very glad it worked out since the jump and believe tactic is definitely not 100 percent successful, especially in recent years against more elite and physical AUDL defenders…Props to Jackson for taking it like a champ. When you’ve been around this league long enough you realize that everyone dishes some out and everyone takes theirs now and then too. Just happened to be my day.”

While his team ultimately fell short against the eventual champs four years ago, Smith reminded everyone how he could impact games even against the strongest of opponents. Though he’ll be 32 by the time he next takes the field for an AUDL game—his birthday is in January—his athleticism, willpower, and track record suggest his place as one of the league’s top cutters won’t wane anytime soon. During our recent chat, he elaborated on several of his top AUDL memories, discussed his interesting and different career path, and shared what’s been on his reading list lately. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.

Evan Lepler: Firstly, what's the latest in your life? What has your everyday routine been lately as the pandemic has continued to roar and we've all somewhat accepted that this summer will be unlike any other in recent memory?

Matt Smith: Work originally slowed down when COVID-19 hit in March and early April, but it's picked up a good deal since the AUDL tried to get a 2020 season off the ground and are now looking ahead to 2021. For reference, I run an ultimate consulting company but my biggest contract is with the AUDL where I primarily work in youth programming and player relations. There's lots of initiatives in the works so I've actually had my hands relatively full recently and am looking forward to more in the future.

My wife just started her clinicals as a physical therapist so we're both in a pretty consistent Monday to Friday work week routine. We're still trying to figure out what to do with ourselves on the weekends without ultimate and without the option of traveling around as freely as we would like. We have made it over to her parent's lake house in Alabama a few times, which has been great since it's generally been hard to find time to make it out there; I've gotten to get a little wakeboarding in—see attached photo—which is helping scratch some of the surfing itch. I'm hoping to find more time to escape to the great outdoors in some capacity now that we won't be having ultimate almost every weekend.

EL: So I know that since college you've done a variety of different things, like running an Organic Farm, getting your Master's in Sports Management, and being heavily involved in organizing ultimate, both locally in Atlanta and for the AUDL... What have I missed among your professional endeavors? Additionally, what were your career aspirations as a kid and how have the different things you've done been fulfilling in their own ways?

MS: I’ve had a bunch of random jobs since high school but I peaked at age 19 when I was a surf instructor for Ty Gurney's Surf School in Waikiki. What an amazing job! My daily schedule was to teach four one-hour lessons, and in the other four hours of my eight-hour workday I basically just hung out on the beach. If there were gaps in the schedule we could go out and surf on our own or just kick it in the sand. I got paid $15/hour, and tips of $20-$50 per client were not uncommon. I was also living at home with my parents so the pay rate was especially amazing at the time; I only had to work a few days per week and the other days I could just go surf with my friends. Finally, I got to meet Kelsey Grammar and surf with one of his daughters, which was pretty cool. When I think about it I should probably stop talking about this before I quit the AUDL and go back to Waikiki.

As a kid I didn't really know what I wanted to do but I definitely enjoyed being active. I desperately wanted to be in the NBA and probably hung on to that dream for longer than was reasonable. Once I realized that wasn't going to happen I just sort of assumed I'd figure it all out in high school and college, which didn't exactly happen. But I did find ultimate in college and I'm still working in that field so I'd say it's all working out. 

I've done a handful of different types of work and feel like I've taken something away from every experience. My time working with adolescents with substance abuse and/or emotional issues at McLean Hospital in Boston really has helped me in my youth work and as a coach later in life. The time I've spent traveling abroad has helped give me a new perspective on diversity and inclusion. Managing a small organic farm and landscaping business definitely taught me how to work hard and to be comfortable having to fulfill multiple roles within a single organization, and to be comfortable failing. None of those jobs were fun all the time, and like every job they had their ups and downs, but I think a lot of life is learning to make the best of whatever situation you're in, and even though it didn't all make sense at the time, I feel grateful to have had the experiences I've had and it's led me to a place I'm comfortable with today.

EL: What’s the story behind how you became the AUDL's Director of Camps and Clinics, and what has that experience been like since taking on the role? What's the craziest or strangest thing that's happened at a camp or clinic you've worked?

MS: After I graduated from Georgia State with my Master's in Sport Administration, I wrote a letter to AUDL management basically just explaining my situation and telling them that I'd love the opportunity to work for an organization that I believed in so much. Pro ultimate was a pipe dream in college that somehow came to fruition so the chance to work directly for the league was very high on my priority list. We started discussions, bounced around some ideas, and eventually landed on a youth position as that matched with some of the work I'd been doing in Atlanta. My job description has changed a little since hopping onboard, and I've had the chance to help out in a few different areas of AUDL operations which has been really satisfying. It's been a great learning experience and I'm excited about contributing to and helping to shape what the vision of professional ultimate looks like in the future.

Some of that definitely includes camps and clinics though, and thankfully nothing too crazy has happened yet! I'd say the craziest stuff is actually some of the plays I see middle and high school-aged kids make. I feel like the highs are high and the lows are low for youth ultimate. I swear though, some of the plays these kids make would look good on an AUDL field. The raw athleticism and not fully developed decision making lead to some truly awe inspiring plays from time-to-time. One of the high schoolers at our last Hustle camp had a 90 yard flick huck and I've seen middle school kids with 50-60 yard range, which is just insane to think about.

For what it’s worth, I also got my surf instructor job by sending a random email to the owner of the surf school basically pleading him, surfer-to-surfer, to take me on before I had to join the corporate rat race and start looking for "real" internships and jobs. I told him I'd sweep floors all day if it meant being on the beach and being employed which would help appease my parents. I always encourage people to send those shot-in-the-dark emails. There's such little downside, and sometimes they stick!

EL: Moving more toward your playing career, you're one of the handful of guys who played in the inaugural AUDL season in 2012 and remains active in the AUDL today. What were the highlights of your experience as a member of the Rhode Island Rampage, and how do you remember that season, where the Rampage went 7-9? At the time, did you think the AUDL would survive the rest of the decade?

MS: I remember it very fondly even if it was rather chaotic. The highlights included:

     -The stadium was actually one of the nicer places I've played because it was well-kept, soft grass, so that was a pleasant surprise.

     -I got more than 10 Ds in a season! One of them was a break in the fourth quarter to go up on the Buffalo Hunters, and I remember that being an early moment where I realized I could contribute at a high level. If you're interested in a two-minute throwback AUDL highlight, click here. You can watch the previous play and also see that super nice field!

     -The playoff game in Philly was a great experience even if we lost and I played rather poorly. It was the first time I got to play in front of a crowd greater than 500 people and got a taste for what the AUDL could be.

     -Emerson Kilgore, the Rhode Island Rampage owner, bought us all delicious steaks whenever we'd pass through the NY area!

Overall it was a great season even if we weren't as serious or focused as I would have liked. I remember we won some games but had a tough time with the Constitution and the Spinners; we had some talented players but we didn't have the organization or discipline to really excel. I personally had a lot of fun though and think we did pretty well given where the team was at in terms of development, availability, and organization. 

I had no idea whether the AUDL would last or not since, like many 22-year olds, I wasn't really thinking past a year or two in front of me. Glad it's still around though!

EL: Considering that only two players in the history of the league have scored more goals than you, I'm curious what's wilder to you, that you're top three on the all-time list, or that you're still 238 goals behind Cam Brock?

MS: Ha, that's a tough one. A lot of times it's still hard for me to really accept that I've made it to the top three all-time in goals! It's no small feat and is far more of an achievement than I ever thought I would get to in ultimate so it's certainly kind of wild to me.

At the same time, Cameron Brock's goal count is just insane: 238 goals is a VERY good AUDL ultimate career, good for 9th all-time, and that's the difference between us?! Cameron is a great guy who is insanely hard working and talented at catching goals—I used to think that his goal count was high because he had played so many games, but I think he's averaging over 4.0 goals/game! I've kept an eye on the various goal scorers to come and go...some people get hot or are unstoppable for a year or two, but that kind of sustained excellence is unheard of, and it's something I respect a good deal. I know how hard I've worked and how lucky I've been to get to 266, so 504 is just bonkers.

So I guess after talking it out some...Cameron Brock's goal count is definitely wilder.

EL: I know we've discussed it before, but can you quickly share your ultimate origin story? What sports did you play growing up, when did you discover ultimate, and when did your passion for chasing plastic really blossom?

MS: I grew up playing soccer in South America, but when I moved to Hawaii [around seven years old] I quickly transitioned to basketball and volleyball during my middle and high school years. I was always very active even if it wasn't necessarily doing organized sports, and I was an avid surfer my last few years in the islands. For what it’s worth, I’m a big proponent of kids diversifying their sports experience instead of specializing early—in 95 percent of cases. I think being active in a variety of settings prepared me well for when I found ultimate...

Which was my freshman year at Colby College. I was either going to get cut or I would have been the last guy on the bench for the basketball team, and I just wasn't willing to put in all the work necessary for that kind of payoff. I had a hallmate who was influential in me showing up to ultimate practices, and it didn't take long before I was hooked. I would say my senior year in college was a turning point; I was elected as one of the captains and we led the open team to a D-III Nattie's birth. Leading a team of that nature—no coach, no "strat comm,” not much logistical help outside of captains—took a lot of work and I realized it was the first type of work I'd enjoyed in a long time as I wasn't super interested in my school work. So I knew I'd be involved with ultimate for a while then.

My early success on the Hustle is what led me to really think ultimate could be more than just a game I played recreationally. I could see that the professional scene had really developed and that they might need more sports business professionals and not just good ultimate players.

EL: This is random, but in my notes about the Hustle I've got a nugget that says your favorite teams in all sports are the Hawks, Hustle, and AlleyCats. That may have been something you mentioned to someone in an interview four or five years ago, but I'm curious if that's still your top three? And why the AlleyCats? This was even before Charlie Eisenhood mistakenly thought you were Cameron Brock at Championship Weekend! What is it about Indy that has given you an affinity for that team?

MS: I’m not sure I'd say top three in all of sports, but they're definitely my second favorite team in the AUDL after the Hustle. I just felt like they were in a similar spot as the Hustle for a few years in the sense that they had some very solid players, were incredibly highlight friendly, but they had a hard time breaking through in their division—until last year! It's really item number two that won me over, for a .500 team they put out some crazy highlights and I always appreciated that. They've been around since the start so I think that's cool and I also respect the hell out of [Keenan] Plew, Brock, and [Rick] Gross for their goal scoring abilities. Statistically, Rick Gross is probably the most successful POC player in league history. It was a pleasure to match up against them last year as the only interdivisional game the Hustle have ever taken part in. It's also hard for me to ever root for teams I play against consistently so my second favorite team was never going to be a division rival, and Indy just seemed like a good team to get behind.

Charlie mistaking Cameron and I was one of the strangest incidents I've been a part of but it definitely confirmed to me that the Hustle and Alleycats are cosmically intertwined somehow.

EL: For the last several years, you've been coached by Miranda (Roth) Knowles, who's easily considered one of the great ultimate players of her era... How has her leadership impacted the way you look at the game or changed the way you approach certain situations on the field or in team huddles?

MS: I can't think of specific situations that I think about differently now but I've learned to rely on my teammates a little more under her leadership. In the early Hustle years, I didn't feel as bought into the program: I was successful on the field, and I was committed to that, but I resisted being as involved in the organization as I potentially could have been. Her taking over the program really brought a new level of enthusiasm and professionalism to the group and got me to start looking at the Hustle as more of a professional organization. Her becoming the Head Coach also pushed me to accept a role in leadership, which I think has been productive for me both on and off the field.

My actual on field game hasn't changed too much actually. We run a different system than we did under Coach [Greg] Swanson so my numbers look very different but I'm still a similar player. I think Miranda and I had a similar, results-driven philosophy about ultimate and so we haven't clashed much at all as far as on field play. I think her running very organized, well attended practices has made me a better player, though it's difficult to pinpoint specific skills that have improved.

EL: If we remove all current and former members of the Hustle from eligibility, who have been your favorite AUDL players to watch through the years, and why? Perhaps players you've gone up against or maybe just guys you've appreciated viewing from afar?

MS: I hadn't gotten to watch him as much as I would have liked--AUDL.TV has helped a lot with this—but I've always kept track of Cameron Brock's numbers and am constantly impressed with his production. Travis Carpenter on the Alleycats has also been someone fun to keep up with who's been in it from the start and has progressed a good deal.

I actually really enjoyed watching the Cannons when they were a little rowdier. Jeremy Langdon is a criminally underrated player and watching him match up and troll some of the bigger names in the game always cracked me up.

These days I'd say the two guys I enjoy watching the most are Rowan [McDonnell] and Carson Wilder. Rowan is a friend but he's also really fun to watch play on both sides of the disc. Carson is just plain good and I think is still a bit underrated. he won me over with that little no-look assist he threw a while back. I'm glad he's out of the division now, so I don't have to root for him at the Hustle's expense.

Since working with the AUDL I've actually become a bigger fan of the league since I know more people now, and I was really looking forward to watching more disc this season. I guess it'll have to wait until next year though.

EL: What was your initial reaction when you first heard the news about AUDL Divisional Realignment? Perhaps the most underrated unintentional effect of the Texas teams going West was that we lost the multiple Atlanta-Austin matchups annually, which seemed to always be among the craziest games we saw every season... You have a favorite moment from that Hustle/Sol series?

MS: I was super excited about the realignment. As an NBA fan, one of my pet peeves about the AUDL is that it's closer to an NFL schedule and you only get to play a limited number of teams. I was very excited to mix it up a little and I also thought the Atlantic division was going to be super competitive. I saw us-Pitt-Philly on similar footing, with DC/Raleigh a little ahead and Tampa Bay a little behind. But that being said, the gap was not very wide anywhere in the division and anyone could have won any game! DC is a great team, but after going 1-10 or something like that against Dallas I was ready to take my chances with someone else.

I will miss the Austin-Atlanta battles though. It's hard for me to think of just one favorite moment, but personally I will always remember getting the scorpion kick and a layout Callahan in about two minutes of gameplay in Austin last year. The Austin crowd was the best in the division for a long time so it's been a lot of fun getting to play there over the years, and I've had some really positive interactions with their fans, media teams, and players. I'm wishing them the best of luck in the West Division.

EL: Lastly, I asked this to Cam Brock mainly because he's an English teacher, but I'm gonna ask you as well: what are your three favorite books you've ever read? Realizing this may be a challenging question--I've enjoyed reading many books but not sure what I'd say are my all-time favorites--feel free to amend the question to: what's something interesting and/or enjoyable that you've read relatively recently?

MS: Yeah, "all-time" favorite is just too hard to think of, especially because now there's an element of nostalgia involved when thinking back on childhood books. As far as books I enjoyed growing up, I'd say some of the more influential titles are: Autobiography of Malcolm X, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Catch-22, and Dune.

As far as stuff I've read recently, I'll give you seven since this is an ultimate interview:

Non-Fiction: 
Guns, Germs, & Steel
Surely, You're Joking Mr.Feynman?
In Cold Blood
Barbarian Days

Fiction:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
City of Thieves 
A Fire Upon the Deep

To be honest it feels super hard to narrow down with so many good books out there! Sometimes it feels hopeless since I'll never get to even a fraction of the good books that exist.