George Smith: Tragedy to Triumph

Birmingham, Ala.—Four years ago, George Smith never figured he would be representing the Vanderbilt Commodores at SEC Media Days. He didn't think he'd ever be a co-captain of the football team. Four years ago, the chances of Smith living a normal life from a physical standpoint seemed grim as he lay in a hospital bed in Pembroke Pines.

After all, only a third of all people diagnosed with transverse myelitis even learn to walk normally again.

After a redshirt season at Vanderbilt in 2003, Smith was going through spring drills hoping to earn a spot in the rotation for the 2004 season when one night he started noticing the subacute symptoms of transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder caused by inflammation on the spine.

"It started one night," Smith explains. "I felt a terrible pain in my neck. I don't know what it's like to be stabbed, but I felt like a knife was in my neck. I took some Tylenol, and before I knew it I was complaining so much that I just passed out. I woke up the next day and I was on my way to class doing my usually routine, grabbed a glass of orange juice, and I got all the way to class and I realized that I didn't know if the cup was cold or warm. I had that tingly feeling like when your foot falls asleep. I felt that all the way through practice, went to the trainers and they thought it might have been a stinger. The numbness never went away."

Smith went home to Pembroke Pines, Fla., for spring break shortly after, and the symptoms only got worse.

"I went home and that numbness spread throughout the left side of my body," Smith says. "That's when I knew that something was completely wrong. My mom took me to the hospital and within the matter of a couple of days things started shutting down. I wasn't able to use my bowel movements, breathing was starting to become tougher and before I knew it I woke up in ICU with everything gone."

For those who do recover, the effects can last for several weeks. For Smith, he was in the hospital for about six weeks before he started making his recovery. Still, playing football again was half a world away.

"I was in ICU for a month and a half, lost 30 pounds, and for a while I was really preparing for the next step in life," Smith says. "But I have great teammates, a family that I love a lot and they were behind me throughout the whole situation. My coaches visited me, they kept me thinking positive and helped me getting out of that bed. It was a tough task. I had to teach myself how to talk and walk and breath again and get all of my motor functions back."

Smith never lost hope of playing football and was granted another redshirt season by the NCAA. After a full year and a half of rehabilitation, he made his way onto the field for the 2005 season.

"At first it was, ‘Can I walk again?' Then, ‘Can I lift my arms over my head? And run like I used to run?' I actually remember the first play," Smith says with a smile. "I got hit really hard and I was happy about it. It brought me back to reality. I just thanked God to be able to be hit again."

He caught his first collegiate touchdown pass in the fourth game of the season in a win over Richmond, but suffered another setback. Just hours after his first touchdown, Smith was shot in the arm at a party. However, he missed just two games.

"Day in and day out I don't take anything for granted," he notes. "When I'm having bad days, I have pictures in my phone of when I was laying in bed to remind me that I've been through the worst. Even after that I've been through some more stuff. I've been shot and all of that. It definitely made me a stronger person and made me feel like I could battle through anything."

The Commodores have been knocking at the door of their first bowl game since 1982, but it hasn't quite happened yet as they've won five, four and five games the last three seasons. It's been a case of perseverance, but that's one characteristic Smith has acquired.

"I think people have lower expectations for us this year, and that's fine," Smith explains. "I think we're still willing to go out there and prove to everybody that we can still compete week in and week out with the best.

"We work hard," he adds. "(A bowl game) is our ultimate goal just like it is for every other team. We're going to do whatever it takes to fix those mistakes so we don't make those mistakes twice. We can do what we haven't done in a long time, and that's to play in a bowl game."

To be where he is now, in Birmingham to represent his team and his school, Smith says, "It's just an honor. I feel very blessed. I definitely don't take any day for granted. I don't take any play for granted and my whole outlook on life has completely changed. When something like that happens to you, you just know when you have bad days that, ‘Hey, I've been through worse.' I think that's made me a stronger person and a player."


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