Wagner also served as a role model for generations of young men in Youngstown, especially ones raised in a fatherless home.
None of those young men became more famous than Smith, who yesterday signed with the Eagles.
None grieved Wagner's passing more than Smith.
"He was my dad," Smith said. "Whenever I needed him, he was there. After a good game, he'd be the first one on the phone. When I struggled, he'd come see me."
Evangelical preachers have become punch lines, but the legacy of Wagner is anything but. Smith was only lightly recruited out of Chaney High, but he wouldn't sign his letter of intent without Wagner's blessing. Wagner spent weeks vetting Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel and was present at the Smiths' home when Smith put pen to paper.
"When he passed, he became a rallying cry for me," said Smith, now 29 and in his eighth season. "I wanted to be the kind of father he'd want me to be. The kind of person he'd want me to be."
By the time Wagner died, Smith had emerged as a legitimate threat in a wildcat scheme, which remained in vogue. Two months after Wagner's death, Smith signed a 1-year deal to stay with the Jets for $1.759 million.
He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, ranked second in the NFL with a 28.6-yard average, set career highs with 38 rushes and 399 yards and developed into an all-around special-teams rock. He caught only four passes in 2010, but the Bills saw potential.
They signed him to a 4-year, $15 million contract. Over the next two seasons, Smith caught 37 passes for 392 yards and three touchdowns, rushed 34 times for 203 yards and two touchdowns, and returned a kick for a touchdown. He kept his throwing arm ready, too.
Then, in the final preseason game this past summer, Smith cracked ribs on his right side.
"You can't breathe. Lay down," Smith said. "You can't use the bathroom without it hurting."
Smith was active for the Bills' first two games, but then landed on injured reserve, but the Bills, with a new staff and system this season, waived him Friday. After he passed the Eagles' physical (he is completely recovered), they threw him into the second half of the afternoon practice.
The move registered as little more than a tremor around the NFL, but the arrival yesterday of Smith in Chip Kelly's innovative offense could be something seismic.
Smith entered his junior season at Missouri a Heisman Trophy candidate. He started every game as a redshirt freshman, when he ran for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000, the only Division I-A freshman ever to accomplish that. As a sophomore, he missed doing it again by 23 passing yards, but he managed it again as a senior, the only player to have done so by 2005.
Smith, 6-2, 210 pounds, has always been a sideshow in the NFL: not exactly a receiver, not exactly a running back, not exactly a quarterback, always a peripheral talent. He likely will remain so with the Birds.
Smith's 40-yard dash time of 4.46 seconds was outstanding for a quarterback but modest for a receiver. The Jets took him in the fourth round in 2006, used him selectively through 2008 and limitedly early in 2009, when Eric Mangini left and Rex Ryan arrived. Smith injured his thigh. His return to the Jets in 2010 helped raise his star for a lucrative departure to Buffalo in 2011, a city whose ethic, climate and limited economy recalled Youngstown.
"It was like going home," Smith said.
Again, he found no real niche. Again, he never complained.
"I'm so blessed," said Smith, who remains mystified by the workings of NFL front offices. "You never know what people are thinking."
The Eagles are thinking Smith will see more of the same. Quarterback Michael Vick is still hindered with a bad hamstring. Damaris Johnson has been demoted from returner duties. Star receiver DeSean Jackson is an indifferent punt returner, at best. Nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin has been unimpressive returning kickoffs.
Both Jackson and Boykin are too valuable to risk as return men, anyway. Smith can serve as a viable third QB.
"He can go in and play a variety of positions [offensively]," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "He can play inside. He can play outside. He can line up in the backfield. Obviously, he's thrown the ball. He's got a lot of tools in the toolbox."
Actually, Smith has hardly thrown the ball: He is 4-for-9 for 51 yards and a touchdown. However, the touchdown pass makes Smith the only player in league history to have registered touchdowns on a kickoff return, reception, rush, pass and blocked punt. Really, who else would have had the chances?
He expects the Eagles to give him a chance to utilize that versatility, which is why he signed.
"That's one of the main reasons. I can use the skills I do have," Smith said.
He also has seen a plucky bunch in a rebuilding year scratch its way to .500 in a division without a dominant team.
"The guys are grinding for each other," Smith said. "That's what I'm about."
He should have little issue adjusting to Kelly's Machine Gun scheme, since Doug Marrone ran things at a similar pace in Buffalo.
He should have little issue learning Kelly's attack, either. Smith declined an academic scholarship to prep school after high school. He graduated from Missouri in 4 years, which allowed him to pursue his master's degree in economics in his fifth year (he remains nine credits shy).
Rosalynn can help him with any homework issues. She has a Ph.D in biological engineering.
And they have 8-month-old Brea, a sister for 3-year-old Alex - and another chance for Smith to pay tribute to Wagner.
"It's been a strange road to get here," Smith said, "but I don't think I would change anything."
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch