His nomination for the 37th News Journal All-Star Basketball Classic arrived in the mail several weeks ago with an asterisk.
Number of games played: 6 *injured for 9.
Had he chosen to, Mansfield Christian’s Ryan Smith could have wallowed in a pool of asterisks. Instead, his star-crossed high school career — marred by three major injuries, two reconstructive knee surgeries and a total of 24 months of rehabilitation — ultimately reads like an exclamation point.
When he runs — yes, runs — across the court Thursday night at Lexington High School during all-star introductions, there can be no better testament to Smith’s courage, determination and perseverance in the face of depressing odds.
“I didn’t want to be someone who ended their career because of an injury,” Smith said. “No way was I going to give up.”
Waiting on the other end of the floor to greet him and all of the players during Thursday’s pre-game ceremonies will be two children — Connor Hoover, 11, and Jalaina Feagin, 8. They will be front and center, chosen to represent the Rehab Center and the wonderful, therapeutic work performed at the facility, aided annually by proceeds by the Classic.
If any of the all-stars can relate to Connor and Jalaina, and the challenges they face in life, it’s Smith.
“I’m always leery about nominating kids for the all-star game; you want to make sure they deserve it,” Mansfield Christian coach John Kurtz said. “But the amount of work he put in … the last three weeks of the season he was going to therapy two or three days a week and going right from an hour-and-a-half sessions to practice with us. You’re not going to find many kids willing to do that.”
In Smith’s mind, he didn’t have a choice. He wanted to finish his career with the Flames as close as he could to the form he displayed as a freshman and sophomore, when he averaged 15 points before having both seasons cut short by injury.
As a healthy ninth-grader, there seemed little doubt he would threaten the career scoring record of 1,400-plus points set by 2011 Classic MVP Tyler Lilly.
“I’d been given the talent to play; I’d been given the athletic ability; and I couldn’t stand sitting on the sidelines watching my friends the whole time,” Smith said. “It was harder mentally than physically deciding if I wanted to go back, but I just loved being with the guys on the team. So I wanted to get back to finish my senior year.”
Smith’s freshman year got off to a promising start as a member of Mansfield Christian’s Final Four soccer team. The trials began in January 2012, when he took a knee to the back diving for a loose basketball, fracturing two bones in his lower back.
Although surgery wasn’t required, Smith spent 10 weeks in a brace, moving cautiously. He made a complete recovery in time for his sophomore soccer season and recorded six goals on a team that advanced to the regional finals. But almost a year to the day of his first injury, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
His sophomore basketball season was over and months of rehab followed at Summit Therapy. His hard work paid off and he was back on the pitch eight months later. Then the unthinkable happened: Smith tore the same ACL in the district soccer finals and this time the damage was more extensive.
Smith had ruptured the surgically-repaired ACL, along with the lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and the meniscus. He watched from the sidelines as his soccer team lost 2-1 to Cincinnati Summit Country Day in the state title game.
Twelve more months of rehab followed, completely wiping out Smith’s junior basketball season and his senior soccer season, reducing him to No. 1 cheerleader in the fall for the school’s first state championship.
“It was definitely hard to go out there, but I knew it meant more to the team how I was conducting myself on the sidelines, than to go around pouting,” Smith said. “It was more important to cheer them on then being selfish and thinking about myself.”
A full year after surgery, Smith was back on the court for the start of the 2014-15 basketball season. His right knee felt as strong as ever and he scored 19 points in the home opener. But his luck didn’t hold. He tweaked his knee in the third game and for the rest of the season he was in and out of the lineup.
An MRI showed the ACL was intact, but it had been stretched and the damaged meniscus contributed to frequent swelling and pain.
“Thoughts and prayers for simply a safe season became the new normal,” said Cy Smith, Ryan’s dad and superintendent at Mansfield Christian.
Smith lived up to his vow to end his high school career on the court instead of the sidelines. He played in the last handful of games, scoring nine points in the sectional tournament loss to Sandusky St. Mary.
At that point, what was the risk? Only several more months of rehab.
“My doctors said there was over a 50 percent chance of tearing it again if I tried to play at the end of the season,” Smith said. “Now that I look back on it, it might have been a little crazy. But since it didn’t happen, I’m so, so thankful that I was able to finish strong.”
At the time the News Journal selected the 24 all-stars to play in the Classic, Smith was averaging 4.7 points. He ended up playing in only 10 of 23 games. But so many people went to bat for him — including coaches and players from other schools who remember how good Smith was at full-strength — that finding a spot for him in the Classic was a no-brainer.
Smith’s family has been long-time friends with the family of Isaac White, a South teammate from Ashland. Smith’s dad and White’s mom, Julie, graduated from Mansfield Christian together. White’s dad, Matt, coached his son, Vipperman and Smith on the North Central Elite travel squad for years.
“He was one tough nut and an asset just because he’s so smart,” Matt White said. “He probably got injured because he likes to attack the rim. He was never too flashy, but he did nothing to not warrant being on the floor. He could defend the best player and do things offensively. I think he might have broken every scoring record at Mansfield Christian.”
Isaac White, named to the Division I All-Ohio team, felt so strongly about his childhood friend, he told his dad he would give up his spot as an all-star to accommodate Smith.
“Ryan’s story humbled me a little bit, and it reminds you not to take anything lightly,” Isaac White said. “To not have any injuries, I’m blessed. He’s a fine example of someone who has persevered. Unfortunate things have happened to him over and over, but I think it’s made him an even better person than he already was.”
It’s no coincidence that Smith, who has been nominated for the Rotary Club’s McGowan Courage Award, plans to major in pre-physical therapy at Cedarville University and then pursue graduate school at Ohio State.
“I never ever thought about physical therapy as a profession, but as I spent more and more time in therapy I developed more and more respect and appreciation for what those men and ladies do,” Smith said. “I find a lot of good mentors who worked with me at Summit Therapy and I want to be able to do that, whether it’s with athletes or the elderly.
“I want to give back to where I kind of came from.”
If You Go
• What: 37Th News Journal All-Star Basketball Classic
• When: Thursday, April 2
• Where: Lexington High School
• Tip-off : 7:30 p.m.
• Beneficiary: The Rehab Center Children Fund
• Coaches: Troy Keene, Plymouth (North); Tom Cooper, Mount Gilead (South)
• Lid-lifter : The Richland County Bears will face the Ashland County Dragons in a Special Olympics showdown at 6 p.m.
• Tickets: $10, covers the cost of both games of the doubleheader. All proceeds go to the Rehab Center. Tickets are available at the News Journal, the Rehab Center, Lexington High School and at the door.