Benefield: A year later, a young life being rebuilt
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.