Usually, choreographing senior night activities for a football game entails making sure a parent, guardian or coach is present to walk with each player and that there are enough flowers to give out to each adult.
For the twin brothers Will and David Smith, who are the leaders for 15th-ranked Paint Branch as the Panthers begin postseason play Friday, a bit more planning was involved. Their father, Michael, has had a recurrence of colon cancer. It is all he can do to rest up each week and make it to his sons’ game. Walking across the field twice would be difficult.
So it was decided that Will, a 6-foot-2, 275-pound lineman with the nickname Grizzly and a beard and bushy brown hair to match, and David, the team’s starting quarterback, would walk arm-in-arm with their father for their Oct. 28 senior night game against Blair. Their mother, Nancy walked next to Will.
“Just one of those moments I was really proud of them,” Michael Smith said, wearing a black Paint Branch football T-shirt with the slogan “Faith Family Football” on the back that Coach Mike Nesmith said was chosen with the Smiths in mind.
“Just being on the field, thinking ahead, just wondering what’s lying ahead for them. Plus finishing up this season. To see where the team will ultimately end up, hopefully heading in the direction everybody wants to go in.”
Said Nancy, Michael’s college sweetheart at American University: “That was one of Michael’s great goals, to be there for that. . . . It was an important moment.”
On Friday night, having matched the best regular season in school history, the Panthers (9-1) travel to play at undefeated Catonsville in a Maryland 4A North region semifinal. Michael Smith plans to be there, bundled up as usual, with an extra layer or two than most fans. It was during his first battle with cancer that he developed a sensitivity to cold weather, a side effect from one of his medications.
At some point after they take the field, the boys will likely look up into the stands and find their parents with several relatives and friends.
“I look up to my dad a lot,” said David, who is 6 feet 2 and 240 pounds and in his second season as a starter. “It’s hard sometimes to see him how he is. I know that’s not how I picture my dad. Right now, he looks all skinny and stuff, no muscle. . . . I can see physically how much of a struggle it is for him.”
Michael Smith’s colon cancer was first diagnosed in the summer of 2006. He was having trouble sleeping and went to his family physician, who referred him to a series of specialists for testing before an MRI exam revealed a tumor in his abdomen.
“There is no family history of it, and I was at an age they weren’t yet screening for it. It was a real fluky thing,” Smith said. “The initial diagnosis was I had radiation, chemotherapy and surgery and the doctors were all convinced I should be fine.”
Seemingly in the clear, Smith first went for checkups every three months, then every six months. It was during one of those visits in late 2009 that doctors discovered the tumor had returned in the same spot as soft tissue mass. Two rounds of chemotherapy seemed to do more harm than good.
“There really wasn’t a whole lot more they could offer me in terms of treatment, so I decided to go for the best quality of life that I could get,” Smith said.
Smith continued working as an area manager for a company that provided services to law firms until this past March, when the drive downtown and long day proved too taxing. Worried that pain medication might impair his driving, he now relies on others to provide rides. The tumor creates a blockage that prevents Smith from digesting food. Instead, he takes a nutritional pack intravenously each night. Still, he has lost 80 pounds; he now measures 5-10 and 145 pounds.
Lacking a remedy, Smith set goals. He attended his daughter Rachel’s graduation from college this past spring, then went on the annual family vacation to Kitty Hawk, N.C. Next on the checklist was making it to each of the boys’ football games this fall. He decided to start wearing the boys’ jerseys to games, alternating from week to week between David’s No. 12 and Will’s No. 76.
At their Silver Spring home, David and Will said they are more conscientious about doing their chores and they continue to attend church regularly. The rim on the basketball hoop in the driveway is broken, a casualty of someone dunking, though a home plate remains in the grass.
“When I spend time with my dad, it’s pretty special because I know that it’s hard for him to do a lot of things,” Will said. “Sometimes it’s sad, because I don’t know how much time I have.”
Though both boys were big for their age, neither played football until high school. Identical twins, they were always the same size until David made a concerted effort to lose a bit of weight so he could play quarterback. Both hope to play football in college and both also start for the Paint Branch baseball team, Will at first base and David at third.
What lies ahead is unknown, but Michael Smith is thankful for the time he has.
“I try to be realistic — there still could be a miracle out there floating for me but I also know as the disease progresses, it takes a toll on your body,” Smith said. “I’m doing less. It sounds trite, but I really do try to enjoy every day for what it is. . . . You can either curl up in a ball or make the best of what you can with what you do have. It’s not just about me. It’s about the family.”