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John N. Smallwood Jr., award-winning Philadelphia sports columnist who attended Arundel High and U. of Maryland, dies

John N. Smallwood Jr. became a sports columnist in 1995.
John N. Smallwood Jr. became a sports columnist in 1995.

As a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer, John N. Smallwood Jr. shared his opinions about certain subjects and stood by them without budging. His positions inevitably drew differing viewpoints from readers, who were not shy about criticizing him.

But rather than avoid the scrutiny, Mr. Smallwood welcomed it.

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“He loved the banter that went on between him and the people who read his columns,” said his sister, Gina Simpson. “He loved the fact that they would disagree and that they would have arguments about things because it meant that they were so passionate about the sports — just as passionate as he was. So he loved that.”

Mr. Smallwood, an Arundel High School and University of Maryland graduate who earned numerous honors as a sports columnist at the Daily News and Inquirer, died Sunday at ChristianaCare Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware, of complications associated with cancer. He was 55.

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The death of Mr. Smallwood elicited a flood of reaction from colleagues, peers and sports personalities he covered since arriving in Philadelphia in 1994.

Pat McLoone, the managing editor of sports for the Inquirer, said Mr. Smallwood made admirers of the people on the subjects he covered and the people who digested his work in print and on television.

“It just struck me the outpouring from just people that read his columns,” Mr. McLoone said. “They said they felt that he was always fair and evenhanded, and people enjoyed watching him on the long run that we had on Daily News Live on Comcast SportsNet. So just seeing that face made a lot of people feel like they knew John.”

Mr. Smallwood was the youngest of three children born to John Smallwood Sr., a career soldier, and the former Jacqueline Fleet, a military analyst at Fort Meade. The family lived on various military bases in the United States and overseas before settling in Odenton in the early 1970s.

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Mr. Smallwood joined the Gambrills-Odenton Recreation Council, developing passions for soccer and then baseball. He also tried his hand at skateboarding, which was not as successful.

“He went on a street that had a very high hill, and I think Johnny left half of his skin on that street,” his sister, Pamela Candelaria, recalled from her home in Glen Burnie. “I can remember him telling my son Ian, ‘Ian, you don’t want to go skateboarding.”

Added Ms. Simpson also of Glen Burnie: “And then he got into a lot of trouble because he was told not to skateboard.”

After graduating from Arundel in 1983, Mr. Smallwood enrolled at Maryland on a full academic scholarship. In College Park, he met David Steele at The Black Explosion, an independent-run African American publication.

“We just clicked from there,” said Mr. Steele, an author and a longtime sports columnist, including for The Sun. “We were both in sports, and he was actually great at it, and I knew he was going to leave that paper to go on and do great things.”

After graduating from Maryland in 1987 with a bachelor’s in journalism and working for The Sun, The Roanoke Times, and the Post Bulletin in Rochester, New York, Mr. Smallwood joined the Daily News’ staff in 1994 after being hired away from the Post Bulletin by Mr. McLoone. He said he called a former colleague to inquire about someone else, but was referred instead to Mr. Smallwood.

After covering college athletics with an emphasis on Villanova University, Mr. Smallwood was promoted to columnist in 1995. Mr. McLoone acknowledged that Mr. Smallwood’s youth was a temporary hurdle.

“Day in and day out, it was the kind of work he was turning in,” Mr. McLoone said. “But he also had a really wide range of interests and a command of many sports. We thought that would be useful to us to help us have another voice in our commentary. … We kind of took a little bit of a leap of faith, but he rewarded us for that very much.”

Mr. Smallwood documented some of sports’ monumental events. He covered the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the Philadelphia 76ers’ run to the 2001 NBA Finals, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ victory at Super Bowl LII in February 2018.

In 2003, Mr. Smallwood married the former Yvette Williams. Two years later, they welcomed daughter Ryan into the world.

In a column published by The Inquirer on Jan. 30, 2009, Mr. Smallwood chronicled his battle with Hodgkin’s disease, a type of lymphoma.

Mr. Smallwood said his first inkling that something was wrong occurred at the age of 20 when he passed out while running at Maryland’s Cole Field House. He soon discovered a tumor under his right armpit, had it removed, and then was informed of his diagnosis.

Mr. Smallwood wrote that he underwent a series of painful medical procedures, including hammering spikelike objects between the toes of his left foot, having his spleen removed, and subjecting himself to 12 radiation therapy treatments over six weeks.

Mr. Smallwood said he wrote the column because he empathized with former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who died in July of that year after beginning radiation treatments to attack a cancerous tumor near his spine. Mr. Johnson, who turned 68 in May, had told head coach Andy Reid that he wanted to continue to work.

Mr. Smallwood called the cancer diagnosis at the age of 20 “terrifying.”

“But I made the decision that if I was going to die from cancer, it wasn’t going to kill me before my time,” he wrote. “So I wanted to — no, I needed to — live my life as if the ‘Big C’ was just a case of the hiccups or a cold. I went to school because to not do so meant I had already lost half the battle. I wanted to live my life, not live my death.”

Inquirer columnist Marcus Hayes, who had known Mr. Smallwood since they covered a state basketball tournament in upstate New York in 1990, said his colleague and friend embraced everything that life threw at him.

“For the rest of his life, every day was lived as if he had received a gift, and it was the sort of attitude and outlook that I think we all can learn from,” he said. “He was delighted to have found a wonderful wife in Yvette, delighted to have been able to conceive a wonderful, gifted daughter in Ryan, and delighted to have gotten a chance to do his dream job for 30 years and ascend to the pinnacle of his dream job. He was an award-winning columnist at a big-city paper, and he covered everything from the Olympics to Super Bowls to NBA Finals to Stanley Cups. He was very happy to have been John Smallwood.”

Mr. Hayes recalled that Mr. Smallwood hated to see athletes, coaches and team officials fail, and was reluctant to overly criticize them. But if he did, Mr. Smallwood made himself available to those he evaluated, according to Milton Kent, a former Sun sports reporter and a Morgan State University journalism professor.

“John was never the kind of guy who would let the beat writers clean up his mess,” said Mr. Kent, who knew Mr. Smallwood for 30 years. “For example, if he criticized Allen Iverson or Larry Brown for something, John was the kind of guy who would go into the locker room the day the column ran or the next day and wait for Iverson or Brown or whoever had an issue with something that he wrote to be there to take the slings and arrows. A lot of columnists will make these grand pronouncements from Mount Olympus and let the beat writers go in and take the heat for it. That wasn’t John, and I admired the heck out of that.”

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Besides sports and food, Mr. Smallwood’s other passion was traveling, especially to Alaska and Maui, Hawaii. His ashes will be spread in Maui. A memorial service is being planned.

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In addition to his sisters, Mr. Smallwood is survived by his wife and daughter, Ryan, of Smyrna, Delaware; his parents, of Odenton; two nephews; and one niece.

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