|12-22-2002, 10:01 AM||#1|
From tragedy comes triumph(sci)
From tragedy comes triumph
By Jeff Sutton/News-Sentinel Staff Writer
In a matter of moments, Lodi's Dave Smith recently rolled back 25 years at Edison Stadium in Stockton.
The patchy turf reflected the highs and lows of Smith's life. On a mid-autumn afternoon, he slowly approached the scene for the first time since a life-altering play a quarter-century ago.
The 15-yard line ... the 20 ... the 30 ... the 47.
He slowly rolled over the grass just past midfield, this time with gray-streaked hair, jeans and a black-collared shirt in place of the gold and purple uniform and brown hair of 25 years ago.
At the point where he played his final down of football as an athletic, muscular running back, Smith let out a sigh.
Trailing Franklin 12-6, Tokay lined up for a last-second Hail Mary pass, a prayer that was intercepted by a Yellowjacket defensive back who attempted a return up the sideline as the clock ran out.
Sprinting nearly 30 yards, Smith, who boasted 4.6-second, 40-yard speed, directed his muscle and fire at the Franklin player.
Following a vicious collision, in which Smith delivered the blow headfirst, he lay motionless on the 47-yard line, leaving coaches and teammates praying No. 34 suffered only minor injuries.
"There's a hitter and a hittee in football," said Jack Layland, who was Smith's running back coach for three years. "And it's almost always the hittee that loses. But this time Dave lost."
Tokay High School's Dave Smith cuts through the Lincoln High School defense during his sophomore year. The following season he switched his jersey number to 34. (Courtesy photo)
At the field again, Smith said revisiting his now-distant athletic life wasn't a big deal, saying, "I'd rather be happy than sad. I just miss playing football."
Strong words for a man in his position -- confined to a wheelchair with only partial feeling in his body.
Smith credits athletics with teaching him mental toughness and patience. He said he had to adopt a strong front at age 16 after the collision at Edison. After all, so much was at stake:
His family depended on it.
His team's final three games and entire season hung on it.
An entire community, still in disbelief and short on inspirational fuel, needed it.
But, most of all, Smith's quality of life teetered on his ability to face the adversity of losing all feeling below his chest.
Layland and fellow coach Larry Bishop rushed to Smith's side on the field not knowing what to think.
In denial, Layland said he kept telling himself it was only a stinger, in which an area of the body goes numb after hard contact before feeling eventually returns.
Only this time, when Layland squeezed Smith's leg, the response rendered the coach speechless.
"He told me he couldn't breathe, let alone feel anything," Layland said. "I expected Dave to bounce up and say he was OK. He didn't."
Smith's head coach, the late Paul Press, realized the severity of the injury right away.
"Paul made sure Dave wasn't moved and that the gurney was slid underneath him," Bishop said.
It wouldn't be known until the early hours of Saturday morning that Smith suffered partial breakage to the fifth, sixth and seventh vertebras in the middle of his neck. Press and the team made the bus trip back to Lodi while Layland rode in the ambulance with Smith to St. Joseph's Hospital.
Sirens blazing overhead, Layland continued to hope for the best, knowing deep down it was a serious injury.
After the short drive to the hospital, the doctors rushed Smith into a room and went to work removing his face mask and helmet, as well as cutting off his jersey and shoulder pads.
"The doctor came and told me there was a 90 percent chance of paralysis," Layland said.
Fighting to convince himself that if anyone could beat the odds it was Smith, Layland dreaded what he had to do next.
Smith's mother, Kris Cromwell, had missed the game.
"When I heard the phone ring right before 10 p.m., my intuition told me that something had happened to Dave," Cromwell said, adding not being at the game was a rarity for her. "I rushed to the hospital not knowing exactly what was wrong, but knowing that it was serious."
The news she received upon arriving at St. Joseph's was even worse.
"The doctors told me that Dave might die that night," Cromwell said.
It was the worst night of her life, she said.
"It wasn't real to me and I didn't believe what was happening at the time. It's a feeling that I can't describe, but I can still feel it to this day."
Such dreaded news followed her and Smith to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which specializes in spinal injuries.
"The doctors told me that Dave wouldn't be much more than a vegetable," Cromwell said. "I told myself the most important thing was that I still had him, no matter what condition he was in."
Smith had been semi-coherent and she knew that he was going to pull through, Cromwell said.
"I never accepted what the doctors told me," she said. "I found out later that the doctors need to tell you the worst-case scenario, but I never believed that Dave would fall into that category."
(Those suffering similar injuries before World War II typically died from respiratory or urinary tract damage, infections or severe bed sores, said Dr. Mike Berlly, a physician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Those who suffer similar injuries today have a better chance of regaining more use of their limbs than in the 1970s because of better paramedic training and the continued development of regional spinal cord centers, he said.)
So at a hospital 80 miles from his home, Smith, one of seven players nationwide to suffer such an injury in 1977, continued the fight of his life.
"I wasn't concerned with my ability to walk again," Smith said. "I concentrated on getting stronger and dealing with my new life. Walking wasn't important to me. Learning how to go to the bathroom, getting out of bed and my ability to continue to have sex in addition to learning to be happy with my new life were my main concerns."
Smith has since regained most of his sensory feeling but has failed to regain motor movements. He has reached all of his goals, he said.
"I've accepted my new life and learned to be happy with my situation," Smith said. "Being miserable and mad at the world wouldn't have done me any good."
Cromwell rented an apartment in San Jose and brought Smith home-cooked food.
"Dave never liked the hospital food," Cromwell said. "He didn't care what I brought him to eat, just as long as he didn't have to eat the hospital food. So he'd eat the home-cooked food and I'd eat his hospital food."
With Smith being turned over every two hours -- a process that required room attendants to put pads and blankets over him, then a rigid cover before strapping the layers together, counting to three and flipping the bed over -- the hospital stay was rough.
From Lodi, caravans of teammates and citizens made their way to the San Jose hospital to offer support.
This newspaper clipping, which ran in the Nov. 23, 1977, issue of the Tracy Press, shows Dave Smith with some football players from Tracy High School at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. (Courtesy photo)
Cromwell said 2,500 people came to visit during the six-month stay.
"They're the reason Dave pulled through," Cromwell said. "The outpouring of generosity and concern for Dave amazes me to this day."
Thanksgiving in the hospital ward that year is the most memorable one she has ever had, she said.
"We lined pool tables with tablecloths and had Thanksgiving with all the other families and injured kids," Cromwell said. "I can't ever remember having a better Thanksgiving because we were all united by the same type of tragedy."
All for one, one for all
Smith was confined to a striker frame with tongs, a halo-like apparatus that screws into both sides of the head, keeping pressure off the neck to aid in bringing the swelling down. Still, he managed to dictate a letter to his teammates during his first week at the San Jose paralysis ward.
He had one wish.
"The gist of it was if the team did anything for Dave, beating Lodi would be it," said Layland, adding the scene inside the Grape Bowl locker room was highly emotional.
As Layland slowly read the words of inspiration, tears rolled down the players' cheeks.
Upon concluding the letter, a pumped-up Layland tore the locker room door off as the team ran out charged with energy and emotion with "Pride of Tokay -- 34 -- David Smith" patches on their sleeves.
A plane flew over the stadium with an electronic sign summing up an entire community's rally cry, "All for one, one for all ... Number 34."
Two short hours later Tokay recorded its first-ever victory over their cross-town rivals, 21-14, after six consecutive losses to Lodi.
"We weren't a better team than Lodi," Layland said. "We won that game on emotion and for Dave and for no other reason."
Tokay went on to defeat state-ranked Stagg the following week and won its final game to finish 5-5, the best record in the history of the school at the time.
A song for Dave
Soon after the collision at Edison, the community began rallying to start the David Alden Smith Benefit Fund.
Sunday, Nov. 27, 1977, was Dave Smith Day in Lodi.
His teammates manned the phone lines.
The school passed around collection baskets at assemblies.
There was a 72-hour pinball marathon.
Dances, dinners, races, car washes, concerts and radio events were held.
McDonald's hosted a "Sundae Day," with all proceeds going to the fund.
The cities of Tracy and Stockton also joined in with benefits.
Cal Skate hosted a benefit concert.
Meeting for the first time at the benefit, Nerina and Bruce Adolf have been married for 23 years.
"We were always glad that we met at the benefit," Nerina Adolf said. "We were just sad that it took a tragedy to bring us together."
Ironically, the couple currently lives kitty-corner from Smith.
And, in one of the most heartfelt efforts, former Tokay student Tarianne Gotelli wrote "David's Song."
The original David Smith song album, entitled "David's Song," which was written and recorded by Tarianne Gotteli-Cotton. (Courtesy photo)
Well, I didn't even know who you were
Besides a number and a name
But now you enter my thoughts every day
Because your life will never be the same ... .
"It was my way of helping out," said Gotelli, now Gotteli-Cotton. "It was a drop in the bucket compared to what others did."
The fund raised a total of $85,000.
Getting by with a little help
After half a year in the hospital, Smith was ready to return to Lodi, where his mother's house was equipped with a new sink and shower in addition to a wheelchair ramp, all paid for by the fund.
"It was great when I finally left," said Smith, adding he graduated later that year with the class of 1979. "I hated the hospital by then and I wanted to get back to my friends and finish my classes on time so I could graduate with my class."
He continued to live with his mother for six years before eventually purchasing his first home across the street and opening a business with the aid of the fund.
Before the accident, Smith had been saving to buy his dream ride, a 1936 GMC truck.
"I really wanted that truck," Smith said.
With the help of the money, Smith eventually replaced his dream truck with a wheelchair accessible van.
"I'm forever in debt to all the people in Lodi and the surrounding areas that raised the money," Smith said.
Layland left coaching after the following season. He could no longer ask players to put themselves at physical risk, to do the things needed to be successful on the football field.
"Football is more than a contact sport, it's a collision sport," Layland said. "And coaches have to teach players to be aggressive on the field. After Dave was hurt, I just couldn't do it anymore."
Layland said Smith was the first person in the 300-pound bench press club in school history, despite being only 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds.
Smith had it all as a teenager, he said.
"He was charismatic, athletic, smart and most of all, a great person," Layland said. "He had everything going for him."
When Press was in the final stages of cancer, Smith was there, Layland said.
"Dave has always been a selfless person," Layland said. "Dave has always been the person to do anything for someone else. To see someone like him still thinking of others is special."
In fact, there is little ordinary about Smith.
He still loves to watch football games and attends all of Tokay's home games at the Grape Bowl.
Smith continues to live his life to the fullest by confronting obstacles directly, saying he is happy and satisfied despite having the ability to walk stripped from him 25 years ago.
He owned a pet store.
He's competed in 12 wheelchair marathons, including winning the 1982 World Championship at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
He is currently restoring a carriage and plans on reopening his horse and carriage business in the near future.
But, to those who know him, Smith's ability to adapt to his new life comes as no surprise.
"Dave was going to be successful in whatever he decided to do whether he had the accident or not," Bishop said. "His demeanor has always been positive. He's a survivor."
Triumph over adversity
Revisiting the Edison field, Smith turned toward a couple of Edison students playing catch and kicking field goals during lunchtime.
He motioned for them to toss one his direction.
Catching is not an easy task with only three fingers reacting while the seven others lay dormant.
Bishop said not only was the younger Smith an accomplished runner, he also could catch the ball on the move out of the backfield.
The first pass slipped through his hands as did another. Finally, the third attempt brought a gleaming smile from Smith as he cradled the ball in his lap.
Then he raised it high above his head in celebration.
"I just love football," he said.
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