Benefield: A year later, a young life being rebuilt

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UPPER LAKE - The play was called “Silver Wildcat.” Senior receiver Benat Love ran a hitch route and turned to his quarterback as the ball was delivered to his gloved hands. Then Love took a knee.

The quarterback, perhaps a bit nervous and maybe a little rusty, trotted off the field. His stat line that night? One attempt, one completion for one yard in Upper Lake High’s 20-0 loss to visiting Virginia City.

But we’ll call it a win.

The quarterback for Upper Lake High School in their game against Virginia City on Aug. 30, for that one play, was Kellen Smith. A senior, he was a near-lock to be the starter on his school’s 8-man football team this season. But just more than a year ago, Smith crashed his car on a rural Lake County road and sustained a traumatic brain injury. In the hours and days that followed the wreck, it was unclear if Smith would live.

When Smith was stabilized, the question became what he would lose, what he would regain and what his life would look like going forward. Today, not every question has been answered. But one has — Smith can no longer play football. But on that August night a month ago on his home field, he was given permission to make one last pass.

“It was like I was part of the team,” Smith said. “I was so sad that it was my final snap that I’ll ever do.”

That night might have been bittersweet for Smith, 17, but he considers himself lucky.

“Yeah, I really do,” he said at the Cougars’ practice Tuesday. “I could not be standing here, but I am. So yeah, I’m lucky.”

He’s wearing Upper Lake High mesh shorts and a sleeveless Upper Lake homecoming shirt. On his feet are football cleats from sophomore year. He goes through a series of stretches and carries a football throughout most of the practice. He is light years away from what he was one year ago.

On Aug. 14, a year to the day after that car wreck that nearly took his life, Smith walked on to the campus of Upper Lake High School to start his senior year. He is on track to graduate in the spring.

“He has come so far,” his dad, Upper Lake Middle School Principal Mike Smith, said. “I would always be kind of protective of him. I don’t even notice him anymore. There is no, ‘Watch where you are going.’ He’s got it. There are no worries about if he falls.”

But there are still worries. Smith’s brain is still healing. His balance isn’t perfect. Daily teenage temptations, of which there are plenty, are a whole different ballgame for someone with an injury like Smith’s.

Alcohol can cause seizures for someone with a traumatic brain injury. Anything that further affects his balance could be disastrous. Driving is still out of the question — at least according to his parents.

“We talk about it all the time,” his mom, Shannon Walker-Smith, said of the long list of no-nos for a person still recovering.

Driving remains an issue. Smith insists he’s ready. His parents? They aren’t there yet.

“It scares (my mom),” Smith said. “I trust her. She’s right.”

Smith lives with his mom and sister, Annalise, and his two cats, Leo and Roxy, in Lakeport.

The bickering over driving, over the balance between autonomy and responsibility — all of the usual rites of passage for a teenager — are complicated in Smith’s case by what has been affected by the brain injury and what hasn’t. It’s not always clear what is typical teenage insouciance and what is a remnant of the brain injury.

And a parent’s natural tendency to protect is paramount.

“One of the things we really struggle with at home is he wants to be treated like a 17-year-old kid about to graduate and yet he is not doing all the things for himself that a normal 17-year-old who is about to be on their own would do,” Walker-Smith said.

And it’s hard sometimes for her to navigate what normal is.

“It’s trying to help him with more adult responsibilities and behavior and trying to remember that, you know, there was a setback,” she said. “It’s a dance for me all the time, not trying to do too much, but not trying to do too little.”

“He has a brain injury,” she said. “He needs support.”

Taking big steps

To that end, next fall Smith will attend Mendocino Community College, a short drive west in Ukiah. He plans to get his AA degree and wants to study administration of justice. He will continue to live at home.

For all of their worry, both of Kellen’s parents remain grateful. It was just more than a year ago that their only son was in the hospital with a fractured skull and a brain injury that, in those early days, was a terrifying unknown.

Kellen Smith has relearned to walk and to talk, he has relearned how to use his body. It was just 13 months ago that he communicated through finger snaps and hand squeezes and when he was fed through a tube inserted into his stomach.

His neck still shows the scar where a tracheotomy tube was inserted to help him breathe.

At the football field on Tuesday, he bickered with his dad over the timing of his ride home. He was hungry and he wanted to go. It was an entirely typical scene. Normal — something that has new meaning for the Smiths these days.

I asked Walker-Smith about that tricky balance — having to navigate raising a headstrong 17-year-old who still struggles with some things, and being grateful for having those problems at all, considering where her son was in those early days after the accident.

“In the early parts of his recovery after the accident there was real fear that I would be taking care of him for the rest of his life, feeding him and bathing him. There was no way to know,” she said. “As we have gotten back into daily life and I’m providing 90 percent of care and home interaction, it’s hard not to get caught up in day-to-day challenges and looking for solutions. I am not spending as much time in gratitude. That is my truth.”

The new normal

Smith knows things are hard. Not just for him, but his family. Three times on Tuesday, he spoke of how much he appreciates his mom.

“I love my mom so much. She’s been my rock,” he said.

Evidence of how the injury still affects Smith can be subtle. While stretching Tuesday, it appeared hard for him to maintain balance while stretching his calf muscles on the edge of the track. He takes medication to keep his right arm from shaking. Once able to wing a football downfield, Smith still throws a tight spiral, but it doesn’t sail as far.

And some things are less obvious.

Walker-Smith was struck recently when her son told her he was nervous to participate in a mock trial presentation at school. Up in front of classmates? Described as a jokester, that is something the gregarious Smith would have eaten up before the accident.

“That made me realize that maybe there is a little self-consciousness,” she said. “He has never talked about being nervous about that stuff before.”

Smith said as much. He was nervous. Speaking in front of people was difficult that day. But true to form, he pivoted the conversation with humor.

“My outfit was fresh, though,” he said.

Part of the team

Smith doesn’t display any self-consciousness around his teammates who razz him about being hounded by the press. Smith attends practices when his energy level allows. He stretches with assistant coach Alex Stabiner. He tosses passes to his buddy, Love. He gives the new starting quarterback, sophomore Cody Banks, a hard time.

On game days, Smith is on the Cougars’ sideline.

“They call him their hype man,” Mike Smith, the former head coach of the team, said.

Being around the guys is good for Kellen, but it can sting, too.

“I think it’s hard for him sometimes,” Mike Smith said. “He wants to be doing it.”

So suiting up against Virginia City and tossing that pass to Love was huge, both for No. 5 and for his family who were all sitting in the stands.

“He wanted to throw deep,” Mike Smith said, laughing.

Doctors have told the Smiths that with the kind of injury that Kellen endured, the biggest gains are made in the first year of recovery. After that, progress slows. Oct. 14 marks 14 months from the date of his accident.

“I think we are definitely feeling very blessed, taking a look at the big picture,” Mike Smith said. “Him being back at school full time, not using a walker or cane, his personality being generally positive. He can argue with his mom or myself — that is kind of normal. We feel very blessed at the year mark.”

Lucky young man

When Smith was in the hospital last year, friends and family wore “KellenStrong” shirts, both around campus and when they made the trip to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Center to see him. His football number, No. 5, was everywhere, including affixed to all of his teammates’ helmets. At one point, friends made an emotional video telling Smith how much they missed him.

Today, that video strikes a different chord for Kellen.

“It’s hard to watch the video,” he said. “But I tell myself how lucky I am.”

It’s unclear whether he means lucky to have the love of his friends and family, or lucky to have evidence of how far he’s come.

Or both.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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