CASTLETON – Last August, Dennis Smith assumed a strange role as he watched his son, Sam, captain the Vermont team at the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl. For once, the Middlebury Union High School football coach was headset and playbook free.
“It was hard, I’d coached him for three years of varsity football, always been there through the good times and the bad,” Smith said.
Fast forward to the present and Smith, after piloting the Tigers to back-to-back Division I championships, is neck-deep preparing to lead the Green Mountain State’s senior all-stars into the 62nd edition of the annual clash with New Hampshire at Castleton University. The experience, though, isn’t 100 percent football — it never has been with the Shrine game and it was never going to be for the Smith family.
Rather, it’s a bookend, the closing of a circle that opened more than three years ago when Smith’s daughter Lily received life-changing surgery from the Shriners hospital network that the game helps sustain.
“I always knew in some way I would love to give back for what they’ve done for her and this is the opportunity,” Dennis Smith said. “This is actually easy for me to do something like this. It’s not easy but (coaching is) something that I love to do.”
“There’s no way of paying back the Shriners for what they’ve done for us, but it’s a way that I can help the Shriners for everything they do, not only for her, but for us all,” he said.
An active, soon-to-be junior at Middlebury, 16-year-old Lily Smith is nothing less than a Shriners success story. Scoliosis is no longer an impediment for the straight-A student and three-sport varsity athlete.
“She does everything — last two weekends riding horses in horse shows and she’ll ride again this weekend,” said her dad. “She’s got her field hockey stick, she plays basketball, plays softball.
“There’s not one thing that she does not do.”
However, such a definitive statement felt frighteningly distant when she was diagnosed with the condition, a sideways curvature of the spine, at age 10.
“At the beginning they were talking a lot about the different options for surgeries and stuff,” Lily Smith said. “There’s stapling, which would’ve made me less flexible, and there was fusion, which is just a rod, and I did not want that at all.”
Instead, the Smiths pursued a procedure called vertebral tethering at a Vermont hospital. At the time, in 2011, it was still an emerging, somewhat experimental treatment option: A cord, attached to screws in the misaligned vertebrae, is then tightened to straighten the spine.
That was the aim, anyway.
“But then that backfired and (the spine) just went the other way,” Lily Smith said. “I didn’t want scoliosis, whatever it is. I was just freaking out. I didn’t want people to look at me weird, especially with a back brace.”
As she explained to the two Shrine teams at the pavilion overlooking Spartan Stadium on Tuesday, Beth Smith, the wife of the Vermont coach, made a “desperate call” to the Shriners facility in Philadelphia, home of the renowned spinal specialist Dr. Randal Betz.
Betz evaluated Lily within two weeks and, a month later, performed a second surgery. Out came the tether and the spine went back into alignment, Dennis Smith said. Not perfect, but closer. Use of a brace is still required at night — a more gradual approach than originally sought — and the results have been positive.
“Every time they see her they’re so ecstatic and happy,” he said.
“At each meeting, (Betz) is so overjoyed with her outcome that he gives us all a hug when we leave,” Beth Smith said.
Where would Lily be without the second-chance procedure at Shriners?
“I’d probably be a little more lopsided,” the teenager said. “I might have more back pain, I guess, if I wanted to go tubing or play sports. And I don’t have that now.”
“Whenever I got really discouraged or sad they brought me back up,” she said. “I was thinking right in the time, with my brace and stuff, which I had to wear a couple years ago during the day, I was self-conscious. But they always looked to the future, in the long run, how much better it would be for me.”
Like now: Horseback riding, a summer job, field hockey and school starting again next month. And a pretty special football game on Saturday.
“I might have to work, but I’m trying to get out of that,” she said.