Commentary

Commodores' Smith values everything after complete recovery

Updated: April 16, 2008, 3:58 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- George Smith keeps the pictures on his cell phone.

His father took them four years ago when the Vanderbilt sixth-year senior receiver lay comatose and paralyzed in the intensive care unit of a Pembroke Pines, Fla., hospital.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Smith
George SmithGeorge Smith looks at the sobering pictures on his cell phone when he needs to get back to reality.

Even now, when Smith clicks over to the pictures and surveys all the different tubes hooked up to him from the ventilator that was keeping him alive, he gets a lump in his throat.

Those sobering images are also a reminder of sorts -- as if he really needed a reminder -- that there's a reason he made it back from an affliction that leaves most people disabled, paralyzed or even worse … dead.

Transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder that causes swelling in the spinal cord and leads to the shutdown of bodily functions, took Smith to death's doorstep in the spring of 2004.

His fight, will to survive and insatiable desire to fulfill his dreams have taken him to the role of captain on the Commodores' 2008 football team.

"I don't need too much motivation, but that always gets me back to reality whenever I look at those pictures," said Smith, Vanderbilt's active leader in career receptions (76) and receiving yards (997). "You value every breath, every day. You value every person you meet. You value every challenge you confront. God has a plan and a purpose for me making it back.

"I'm not just talking about football, either. I'm talking about life."

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson couldn't have been happier when the players voted Smith as one of the three team captains earlier this spring. Following the Commodores' spring game, Johnson took Smith aside, flashed a warm smile and said simply, "How you doing, captain?"

Almost instantly, Smith flashed back to four years ago when merely wiggling his toes seemed insurmountable. He spent five weeks in ICU, drifting in and out of consciousness and wondering if he'd ever see his 20th birthday.

Johnson was in that hospital room along with Vanderbilt receivers coach Charlie Fisher soon after Smith was admitted. Only a week earlier, he'd been practicing football with the rest of the Commodores' team as they wrapped up the portion of spring practice right before spring break.

Smith had been experiencing some tingling in his arms and legs and also had some intense neck pain one night. He woke up the next morning, and his hands were numb. The first thought among Vanderbilt's training staff was that he might have a stinger.

But by the time Smith got home for spring break, he was gradually losing more feeling. Within a day or two, his whole left side had gone numb.

His mother, Kathleen Sorrell, had seen enough. She took him to the hospital, which would become Smith's home for the next two months.

"It scared me to death, to see how fast a guy like that could go down," Johnson recalled. "Seven days earlier, he was practicing football at a high level and looked great. Now, he's lying there in ICU and barely hanging on."

[+] EnlargeGeorge Smith
Rex Brown/WireImageGeorge Smith's remarkable recovery allowed him to return to the field in 2005.

One of the last things Smith remembers before sinking into a coma is his mother helping him sip some water from his hospital bed.

"I choked on it, and the next think I know is that I'm waking up two days later in the ICU with tubes in my throat and neck," Smith said. "Let me tell you, I was terrified. You're sitting there, and the only thing you can do is hear and listen and look.

"I remember one guy across the way. I can still see him. He passed away one night. It was around four o'clock, I heard that alarm, and nurses came from everywhere. You talk about scary.

"In a matter of a week, my whole life had changed."

Because transverse myelitis is so rare, it took the doctors at Memorial West Hospital nearly a week to diagnose it as Smith's problem, according to his mother. All the while, she stayed on the phone at Smith's bedside talking to different doctors from all over the country and frantically searching for answers.

She knew time wasn't on their side.

"It was the first case of it they'd ever had there at that hospital," said Sorrell, a ninth-grade algebra teacher. "All he could do was make his eyes move. Believe it or not, there were a few laughable moments that would help. We'd point out letters to help him talk to us. He would get frustrated with me and roll his eyes up in his head, which was his way of laughing.

"Even in a time like that, he kept his sense of humor."

Ultimately, the treatment doctors settled on for Smith was called plasmapheresis, a transfusion-like procedure that essentially cleanses the blood.

Smith still refers to it as the "magic juice."

Told that it was a treatment only rarely used in the United States, Sorrell was willing to try just about anything. The process called for his blood to be filtered every two or three days. After the first treatment, the nurse was preparing the machine for the second treatment when Smith slowly moved one of his fingers.

"The nurse and I both almost lost consciousness," Sorrell said. "Everything was shutting down, his kidneys and everything. We were getting down to the end, but we knew then that there was hope."

Sure enough, two days later, Smith was able to lift his hand.

"And the next thing you know, he was sitting up in bed," Sorrell said.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Smith
Vanderbilt AthleticsGeorge Smith caught 32 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns in 2007.

Smith lost about 35 pounds through the whole ordeal, dropping from 195 to 160. He was pale and weak and had to teach himself through therapy to do the simplest of chores again.

"I remember trying to stand up again for the first time. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do. It was all hard, though, even chewing," said Smith, still wincing four years later.

But playing football again?

"It was the furthest thing from any of our minds," Sorrell said. "I was just glad he was up and walking."

For the longest time, Smith couldn't even bring himself to look into the mirror, let alone picture himself going against SEC cornerbacks. He was a shadow of the same guy who'd whipped through spring practice two months earlier.

"The body I'd spent my life building was gone," he said. "Everything was gone, but I was alive. I had another chance, and I was going to make the most of it."

According to statistics compiled by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, two-thirds of the people affected by transverse myelitis are left with significant deficits, and a third of those must depend on others for basic functions of daily living.

Smith, though, was the exception. He was back in school that summer and, remarkably, played football again during the 2005 season, his first game action with the Commodores. He arrived in 2003 as a freshman, but redshirted. He was later awarded a sixth season by the NCAA, which is why he still has eligibility remaining for the 2008 season.

"To see how George has handled it all has been the neatest thing," said Fisher, who's been Smith's position coach the entire time. "He never let it get to a point where he said, 'Coach, I don't know if I can overcome this.' He's always upbeat. He's an infectious kid and loves to work. He's what coaching is all about in the big scheme of things when you see what he's overcome and how this whole experience has changed his life and how he's affecting other people through this experience."

Vanderbilt senior safety Reshard Langford, one of Smith's fellow captains along with junior center Bradley Vierling, can only imagine what all Smith has endured. They roomed together two years ago, and Langford says Smith's off-campus digs are still his favorite getaway.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Smith
Vanderbilt Athletics/Neil BrakeGeorge Smith's struggle to overcome adversity has helped unite and inspire the Commodores.

"I look at George as a symbol of what our team needs to become and can be," Langford said. "We'll have our own adversity to overcome. The only way you're going to do that is to be strong-minded and strong-willed. George has shown us the way."

He's been an inspiration, not only to his teammates, but to others who are fighting a more comprehensive battle off the field.

As Smith's story has spread, people who've been affected by transverse myelitis have reached out to him -- and Smith has done his best to reach back. He's visited with other patients at Vanderbilt Medical Center. He's talked on the phone with people as far away as California, and he's even formed bonds with fans from rival schools in the SEC.

Jim Jeffries is a lifelong Florida fan living in Hernando, Fla., but few people pull any harder for Smith and the Commodores than Jeffries. He was also stricken with transverse myelitis seven years ago, and now, at 68, is paralyzed in his left leg and walks with a brace.

Upon hearing about Smith's full recovery, Jeffries contacted Smith through Fisher and attended the Florida-Vanderbilt game in Gainesville last season.

"I had a Florida ball cap and a Vanderbilt shirt on," Jeffries joked. "A lot of people said, 'What's wrong? Can't you make up your mind?'"

Jeffries had his picture taken with Smith and Fisher after the game and says words can't begin to describe what Smith's courage and wherewithal have meant to him.

"He's a miracle, and I told him that," Jeffries said. "He inspires me, just to think about what he's come back from, because I know from experience. I'm so proud of him and happy for him. That's what prompted me to get in touch with him, to tell him how happy I was for him.

"I have that picture of us in my den, and I look at it every day."

Smith, who's now back up to 202 pounds, hasn't had any relapses or other problems stemming from his bout with transverse myelitis.

But as fate would have it, he had to weather another harrowing ordeal during his first season back in 2005. He was shot in the right arm during an incident at an on-campus dormitory following Vanderbilt's 37-13 win over Richmond on Sept. 24.

Earlier that day, Smith caught his first career touchdown pass for the Commodores. But later that night, he was trying to break up a fight and usher some unruly people who weren't Vanderbilt students out of the dormitory.

He was able to get them on the elevator when one of them shot him with a pistol just as the elevator doors were closing. Fragments of the bullet are still scattered in his arm, but no serious damage was done to the main veins or arteries.

Undaunted, Smith was back after missing just two games and ended the season as a starter. He's never looked back and heads into this season with 25 career starts. He's coming off his best season, in which he caught 32 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns. With Earl Bennett headed to the NFL, Smith will be one of the focal points of Vanderbilt's passing game.

And in many ways, he'll be the heart of the entire team.

"George's teammates recognize that here's a guy who could have given up football twice," Johnson said. "I think it means a lot to our team that George wanted to stay, that he wanted to stick around for another spring practice.

"He's an example for us all. You keep going, no matter how bad your day has been or how frustrating that loss was. If you don't try, it's not going to happen."

The same goes for believing. And Smith never quit believing, even during his darkest hours.

"You prepare for the worst, but you never give up hope," Smith said. "All I needed was a sign, and I got it when I wiggled that thumb for the first time.

"It was on then."

And has been ever since.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.

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