By Rob LeDonne
It’s Monday night, and Dave Smith has just returned from an on-location assignment. “I was with our consumer reporter Bob Hansen, who we call Consumer Bob, and shot a story about surf shops in Clairemont,” explained Smith, a Del Mar Heights resident who has been working as a news and sports photojournalist for NBC 7 San Diego since 1975. “I’ve been reporting on a little bit of everything.”
Smith isn’t kidding. With NBC, he has had a front-row seat to some of the biggest news and sports stories in San Diego for over three decades, rubbing shoulders with sport luminaries and cultivating a renowned career.
“It’s funny because when I start attending UCSD, I had intended to study law,” he said. However, while taking a required course, a young professor named Dr. Herb Schiller piqued Smith’s interest in the communications field. “He was a fabulous teacher. Not long after that, I discovered internships. I applied for one at NBC and got hired, which is rare because San Diego is such a big market.”
Oddly enough, Smith was hired to do camerawork, something he had never really done.
“They gave me a trial run to see how I fared, and it turns out I have a natural affinity for it.”
Starting out, Smith originally reported on hard news, something he never really took to.
“For my first 10 years, I had bullets whizzing by me during SWAT action, and inmates break loose and chase me. I was interviewing people at the worst time in their lives.”
One of Smith’s hardest assignments was the tragic crash of PSA Flight 182, which fell to the ground after colliding with a Cessna airplane in North Park, “which was hard, because there were people I knew on the plane.”
Another notable assignment ended with Smith getting roughed up by then-U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin during the infamous Tuna Wars.
“Ronald Reagan had just appointed him and I don’t think he was expecting to see me; he charged and hit me over the head with his briefcase.”
The melee became an international incident, in which Smith received calls about it from around the world. Gavin later apologized.
After the array of hardcore news stories, Smith transitioned into sports journalism where he’s attended and shot footage at virtually every notable sporting event in San Diego — from Chargers and Padres games to everything in between — getting to know each and every player and vicariously enjoying every championship and celebration. One of Smith’s most exciting moments occurred on assignment in Pittsburgh at Three River Stadium, when the Chargers were squaring off with the Steelers for a spot to go to Super Bowl ‘95.
“The Steelers were the favorite, but it came down to the last play and the Chargers wound up winning,” remembers Smith. “The crowd was shocked; for a few seconds there was no noise, just deafening silence. The incredible part was that I had the privilege of coming back to San Diego on the Charger plane with the team celebrating, and then going to a rally at the stadium straight from the airport where 50,000 fans had gathered to congratulate the team. It was incredibly emotional; when I talk about it now I still get goosebumps.”
In addition, Smith remembers being a part of one of the very first local television live satellite reports, when he trekked to Perth, Australia for America’s Cup in 1987.
“That was just the beginning of satellite broadcasting so it was just unheard of; we were the only TV station doing live reports,” said Smith. “We were there for a month, and it was hard work thanks to the time changes. I didn’t sleep that much, but it was truly extraordinary to be a part of.”
Throughout all of his experiences, Smith says he most cherishes the friendships he’s made.
“The San Diego sports community is very small, so it’s like we’re a family. I became good friends with people like (legendary Padres player) Tony Gwynn, I was there for his whole baseball career, including when he got inducted into the Hall of Fame. We’ve shared some really cool personal moments; it’s a lot of fun to be with his family and folks close to him. To this day we talk a lot, so it’s been a great sort-of bonus friendship.”
Like any good journalist, Smith is anticipating a new slate of stories to work on tomorrow, but today he remembers his humble beginnings fondly.
“I was living with my parents for close to a year before I got hired and my father (Robert Smith of Carmel Valley) wasn’t sure it was going to happen,” Smith recalls. “When I finally was brought on board, my dad came to me and said, ‘I was completely wrong and you were right. I’m proud of you... you persevered.’”