The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

October 3, 2013

No. 88 in your program, but No. 1 in their hearts

Football team rallies around stricken teammate


TARBORO — Carson Smith, a 16-year-old varsity football player for Hobgood Academy, was called into the living room of his Oak City home on Sept. 6. His whole family was gathered in the room to deliver the news: The results of your biopsy are in, and you have Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

It was the morning after Smith’s third football game of the season, and he realized in that moment the game would be his last of the season.

“I was scared, but I was more upset I couldn’t finish the season. I felt like it would be hard for them without me out there,” Smith said. “I was having my best season I’ve ever had, the three games I played before that.”

On Tuesday, Smith sat on the couch in the living room of his home, wearing his No. 88 jersey and watching football highlights on TV, longing to be on the field.  

“I love football. I love my team. Every game I go to, I just sit in the sideline and wish I could play,” Smith said.

Smith’s No. 88 jersey is still in play on the Hobgood Academy field. During games, the team members proudly wear purple and orange jerseys — the purple added to the school’s traditional orange to signify awareness of Hodgkin’s lymphoma  — with “C. Smith” printed on the back.

“I can’t tell you how many times I heard ‘88’ [at Friday night’s game],” said assistant coach Michael Johnson. “It’s kind of a rallying call now.”

No. 88 on the team, Smith is No. 1 in the hearts of every teammate. Thoughts of the defensive lineman motivate his teammates during every play. Thus the catchphrase printed on the purple T-shirts worn by the football team, “Every snap for Carson.” Every time the center hikes the ball to the quarterback, Smith is there.

“We want him to know that even though he’s not physically out there, he’s in the hearts of all the kids. He is in our thoughts on every play that we run,” said head coach Brandon Lanier, Hobgood.

While Smith will miss playing the rest of the season, his prognosis is good. He has up to six months of chemotherapy treatments remaining, but says his doctors are confident the treatments will cure his Stage 3 (out of 4) Hodgkin’s lymphoma. From outward appearance, the broad-shouldered, 6-foot, 2-inch-tall football player is your average high school athlete.

Other than the swollen lymph node in his neck, Smith had “no symptoms, none at all” prior to his diagnosis, said his mother, Jill McDonald.

“I just think it’s like a bump in the road,” he said. “I feel like I’ll come out of it a lot stronger as a person. I’m not going to take anything for granted anymore.”

Smith said when he recovers from his illness, he would have a greater appreciation for things like going to school, and, of course, playing football. He has been playing football since the age of 8 and has known some of his fellow players as long.

Smith went into this year’s season with a goal.

“Before I was diagnosed, it was to win a state championship,” Smith said. “They (his teammates) could still win it.”

The team is a member of the Tarheel Independent Conference. Smith played defensive end and left guard and his absence from the 16-member team is being felt.

John Colby Sykes, who plays right guard and left tackle, said Smith not being on the field has been an “adjustment.”

“We played the same position, different sides of the ball,” Sykes said. “I’m used to him being right beside me. We just depend on each other.”

Smith’s best friend, Christopher Braddy, quarterback and defensive end, said it’s just “definitely not right” not having Smith at football practice and at game time.

“Carson, he was a big part of the team and he was a definite leader out there,” Braddy said. “During game times, he kept everybody fired up. Carson would push you to go as hard as you could possibly go.”

Even though he’s not on the field, Smith still manages to inspire his teammates, with his positive outlook.

“I know I’m going to beat it,” Smith said, of his cancer diagnosis.

The teenager said he has a “great support system” in his friends, school, team and family – mother, Jill; father, Scott Smith; sister, Taylor Smith; and brother, David Smith.

“It’s made me feel like I’m not alone fighting it,” Smith said. “It keeps me positive, because I’m positive for them, too.”

Other teams in the conference have even joined in the support of Smith. Northeast Academy had helmets made for the Hobgood Academy team with the No. 88 and a purple ribbon on them.

“I didn’t know that many people would get involved in it. It was a really humbling experience for me,” Smith said.

The chemotherapy treatments keep Smith more tired than usual, and in the house a lot, when he is used to being outdoors playing football, baseball and basketball and going hunting and fishing with his friends.

For now, Smith is taking things one day at a time, and yearning for the day when things go back to “normal” and he can put on his No. 88 jersey and return to the field.

A Gridiron benefit concert for Smith will be held Saturday at the Hobgood Academy Athletic Complex. Gates open at 6 p.m. The concert will feature beach music by Mike Rose and a performance by Eyes of Emiline with the Conoho Creek Band from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Concessions will be available for dinner and refreshments. Admission is $10 per person with children ages 6 and under admitted free. Tickets will be available at the gate. For advanced ticket information, call Clay Whitley at 508-3160 or Kelly Craft at 826-4116.