On a Wednesday morning in early April, the gym at Nags Head Elementary School buzzes with the noise and energy of a couple dozen third-graders. They hoist basketballs toward rims, toss soft-sided frisbees, and play ping-pong.
A coach’s whistle blows, the kids listen to a few words of instruction, and a class-wide game of tag begins. Kids drop to the floor when eliminated until the last player remains. Everyone then runs a couple of laps around the basketball court and lines up just before the bell for an orderly dismissal to their next class.
The ringleader of this organized chaos is a tightly-coiled 5-foot-6, about-to-turn 53-year-old man with short-cropped hair, two-day stubble and a twinkle in his eyes. He directs, cajoles, teaches, needles, but most of all, commands, the youngsters. He is clearly having a blast.
“I love my job,” Steve Smalley says with a smile a few minutes later, seated in a small office off the gym floor. “I don’t have to worry about testing and scores. I’ve got it easy compared to everybody in the classroom. I can work out with the kids when I want. I can play with the kids when I want.”
Don’t think for a second that Smalley is executing a dodge. He is an educator, a competitive one at that, who is committed to kids and elementary school phys ed. He followed in the footsteps of his father, accompanied his wife back to her home, and planted his flag on the Outer Banks, leaving an indelible mark on the area and dozens of its residents.
Smalley is a fixture in the youth athletic circuit. He is coaching director of the Outer Banks Storm, the hugely successful youth soccer program for boys and girls. He founded and operates the Coastal Soccer School, which has tutored hundreds of kids in spring and summer sessions. He is an assistant soccer coach at First Flight Middle School. He ran a youth wrestling program through Dare County Parks and Recreation for 11 years. Once a month, he travels to Charlottesville, Va., where he has run a driver improvement class for the past 25 years. The trips keep him close to his alma mater, the University of Virginia, and the town where he lived and worked for 17 years before relocating to the Outer Banks.
“I’ve worn a lot of different hats over the course of 30 years,” he says. “I kind of like the variation.”
The constants in Smalley’s life are athletics – soccer, specifically, which he calls his first love. He is well qualified to teach and coach. A native of Wall Township, N.J., he played for his father, Robert Smalley, a respected teacher and coach, on some of the state’s premier high school teams. He played at Virginia under head coach Bruce Arena, who won multiple national championships, and then-assistants Bob Bradley and Dave Sarachan, all of whom became U.S. national team coaches. He was a high school and college teammate of George Gelnovatch, the Cavaliers’ current head coach.
“I think I have some insight,” Smalley says. “When you play for people like that, you have an idea how U.S. soccer should be run and how the game should be played.”
Smalley dove into the local soccer and athletic scene when he and his wife, Sherry, moved to the Outer Banks in 2002. Sherry Smalley, an Outer Banks native and kindergarten teacher, wanted to be near her family. Steve coached soccer, first for their oldest daughter, Chandler, then helped organize and coach a travel team for their son, Graham, much as his father did for him growing up.
What Smalley envisioned as a one- or two-year venture turned into a 13-year project that continues to grow. The Storm has five travel teams for boys and three for girls, in addition to an academy for under-12 players that emphasizes fun and skill development. One measure of the program’s success is that the First Flight High boys’ soccer team has played for the Class 2A state championship four of the past five years, winning one. Smalley thinks the First Flight girls are poised for a similar run in the coming years.
“I think Steve could be a (college) Division I head coach,” says Victor Pugh, a local builder who was active in the soccer and athletic scenes. “I thought I knew a lot about soccer until Steve got here. Then, I kind of realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.”
Pugh’s and Smalley’s sons grew up playing soccer together, and the two men coached their sons’ travel team. Pugh describes Smalley as passionate, committed and inclusive, and said that some of his fondest memories are of their travel team days.
“He’s got a knack for connecting with kids,” Pugh says. “He makes kids who might not be gifted, athletically, he makes them feel good about themselves. He makes everybody feel like they can contribute.”
Much as he enjoys winning, Smalley most cherishes the relationships and lessons that kids take with them. He derives great satisfaction, he says, from watching a middle school volleyball or tennis match when he sees kids execute things that he taught them in elementary school, or when former students tell him that his influence keeps them active and fit. He doesn’t have to look far for a role model. His father, Robert, still barefoot skis at age 73 and is the picture of health.
“If I can do what he does at his age,” Smalley says, “I’ll be a happy man.”