Benefield: Severely injured 16-year-old Smith has a #KellenStrong support system

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Jacque Eischens plays the moment over in her head even as she tries to forget.

It was nearly 1 a.m. She was at the front door of one of her dearest friends, knocking with increasing urgency, trying to get Shannon Smith to wake up.

“When she opened the door, I just completely froze for a couple of seconds. It completely hit me: What do I say right now?” she said.

When the words came, they sounded something like this: “I said, ‘Shannon, Kellen was in an accident. We need to go to the hospital.’”


When Mike Smith’s phone rang at 1 a.m., he knew something was wrong.

Smith, principal at Upper Lake Middle School who also serves as the football and girls’ basketball coach for the high school, had been up late after attending an Upper Lake Unified School District board meeting. He thinks he dropped off around 12:15 a.m.

“I was just hitting deep sleep and my phone rang and it was Shannon,” he said. “It was right at 1 a.m. and I was like, ‘This isn’t good.’”

Shannon and Mike Smith’s son, Kellen, was grievously injured after losing control of his 2008 Honda Civic. Kellen, 16, was northbound on Lakeshore Boulevard in Clear Lake just before midnight Aug. 14 when he hit a wooden fence. His two passengers, Desmond Mueller, 16, and a 14-year-old girl were uninjured. But Kellen Smith suffered a skull fracture and a traumatic brain injury.


“I didn’t know exactly what happened,” Mueller, a senior wide receiver and free safety for the Cougars, said of the crash. “At first, I definitely didn’t comprehend what was going on.”

Mueller suffered a small cut on his face, but was otherwise OK. But it became immediately clear that Kellen Smith was not.

“His head was sideways,” he said. There was blood and glass and pieces of the car everywhere. The air bags had not deployed, he said.

The CHP report found Kellen Smith had been driving at an unknown rate of speed and while negotiating a left curve in the roadway, made an unsafe turning movement and lost control. They had not been drinking, Mueller said.

“No,” he said. “I’m against that stuff.”

Searching for information that night, Mike Smith asked the same question.

“I called Desmond after I got out of Ukiah, ‘Desmond, what the heck happened?’” he said. “‘Were you guys drinking?’ He said, ‘No, I swear to God we weren’t.’”

Toxicology reports came back clean, Mike Smith said.

But it was illegal for Kellen Smith to be driving after 11 p.m. and with two underage passengers. The chance of a first-year driver getting into an accident skyrocket when passengers and nighttime are factored in, according to a 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study.

When he got his bearings after the crash, Mueller realized that his friend and teammate was in bad shape.

“I held his head straight,” he said. “He was breathing on his own … very loud breathing, like snoring almost.”

They called 911.

Kellen Smith was taken by helicopter to the Kaiser Vacaville Hospital Trauma Center. Within two hours, he was in surgery to remove a piece of his skull in order to reduce brain swelling.

When the surgeon emerged in the early morning hours of Aug. 15 and briefed Shannon and Mike, he was not gentle.

“He was blunt, tough,” Mike Smith remembered. “He did not sugarcoat anything in that moment. He said ‘Kellen has had a very, very serious brain injury and there will be brain damage. We don’t know how much, but it is serious.’”

Mike Smith doesn’t remember what else was said at that moment, but he knows what was running through his mind.

“Are we going to have to make decisions? Is he going to live? We didn’t verbalize it but it’s what we were thinking,” he said.

“We are not super religious people, but when you are in that position, when you are not sure if your child is going to live or die, you pray,” Shannon said.

But despite the desperation of the moment, both Shannon and Mike Smith remember hospital support staff telling them this: Their son is young and in perhaps the best shape of his life. Just hours before the car accident, Smith was working out with the Upper Lake varsity football team where he is backup quarterback.

What made him a high school athlete might be the key to what brings him back.

Shocking start to season

“It was the second day of pads (practice) when it happened,” said Vince Moran, who has taken over full time coaching duties for Smith since the accident.

The community around Upper Lake and Lakeport is small and tight. So in the hours after the accident that night, texts were flying but details were scant. Moran, whose son Ray starts at quarterback ahead of Kellen, heard about the accident almost immediately but facts were hard to come by.

At first it was “nobody was hurt.” Then it was “somebody got flown out.” Then Moran found out who it was and the seriousness of the injuries.

“Later on, I heard it was Kellen and I was like ‘Oh my God, poor Mike,’” he said.

Shannon and Mike Smith, no longer married, are described as pillars of the community.

Shannon Smith works as director of Sonoma State’s Upward Bound programs in Lake County. Kellen’s friends regularly spend the night at her house.

Mike Smith is the middle school principal, football and girls’ basketball coach at the high school, and for a time, was the athletic director on campus.

“They both mean a lot to everybody,” Mueller said. “Mike is a great coach. Ever since I met Shannon, she is like my second mom.”

“They have done so much for the kids in the community,” Eischens said. “They have great relationships with kids in this community — kids and their parents.”

Because of that, the community has rallied for all of the Smiths.

They are #KellenStrong

In the six weeks since Kellen’s accident, and through moving to three different Bay Area medical facilities, people have sent videos to the Smiths of prayer circles staged before school on the football field, messages of well-wishes, pictures of kids and their parents wearing “#5 Kellenstrong” shirts and football players next to banners that line the field.

The football team’s players now have stickers with Kellen’s No. 5 affixed to their helmets.

Because four hours of driving separate Kellen Smith from many of his friends, both Shannon and Mike show the videos and pictures to their son as often as possible. They set up Facetime calls with pals.

“That is their language,” Shannon Smith said. “He can’t talk back but they can talk to him. Oftentimes, he is really locked in and paying attention. Some times more than others. There are other times he’ll reach for the phone. One time he Facetimed with his sister and he put his hand up and waved.”

And in those first weeks, Mike and Shannon were a constant presence at Kellen’s bedside.

“Both of our jobs have been unbelievably supportive, just allowing us to focus on him,” Mike Smith said.

Sandy Coatney, principal at Upper Lake, described the staffs at the middle and high schools as tight.

“We are not all here 24/7 but sometimes it feels like it. When one of the team is missing we can really feel that he’s gone,” he said.

Eischens, Shannon Smith’s longtime friend who had to deliver the news of the accident that night, didn’t know what to do in the days, now weeks, since the crash to show her support. So she started making shirts.

They say “#Kellenstrong” on the front and the back has the No. 5. She has spent hours in her garage, filling requests. They have not slowed. Kids around campus wear them. Upper Lake cheerleaders have worn them. People have donated nearly $750 to the Smiths through Eischens and her T-shirts.

Eischens knows the shirts aren’t perfect, that on some, the printing isn’t straight. That’s not the point.

“I have a little disclaimer,” she said. “These were made with love.”

Long days and a long road

The Smiths say they can feel it.

Their days are now spent at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Center, Kellen’s third medical facility since the accident.

There, he is working on regaining his speech and re-learning his body. He hasn’t spoken since the accident and he has a tracheostomy tube inserted into his throat. He is fed through a tube that is connected to his stomach through his side.

His right side has been mobile almost from the start, but muscle and control on his left side have been slower to return. He doesn’t have the motor skills to hold a pen or use a white board. He communicates mostly by finger snaps and hand squeezes.

And his eyes.

“For his grandpa? His eyes, boom, got real big,” Mike Smith said. “His first eye tracking was with two or three friends by his side.”

After his first physical therapy session in Santa Clara two weeks ago, the therapist asked Kellen to point to his mom. He pointed at Shannon.

Also positive, the emergence of normal teenage irritation. Kellen sometimes pretends he’s asleep when he is supposed to be working on speech therapy. On Thursday he ripped the feeding tube from his stomach.

“Kellen has a big personality and is a jokester and a witty class clown type,” Shannon Smith said. “We are not seeing that yet.”

“We are seeing the darker side, a little sullen, frustrated,” she said. “He’s making some facial expressions now that you can tell he’s irritated. He’ll purposefully stop making eye contact or stop responding to commands because he’s had enough.”

But the small acts of rebellion also mean he’s a 16-year-old asserting himself, taking small pieces of control. And to Mike Smith’s way of thinking, showing his will.

Smith knows a traumatic brain injury can do more than affect the body. It can affect things we can’t see.

“When he does appear to be healthy and maybe walking and able to communicate and all those things, that is what the outside looks like, but he’s going to have healing and issues in his brain that only he is going to feel, and that is going to be scary and hard and difficult,” he said.

Mike Smith also thinks about the arc of parenting and of coaching, about the frustrations that he sometimes felt as a parent of a teenager. This is changing him, too.

“It’s definitely going to change for the better,” he said of his relationship with Kellen. “We have butted heads. It’s changing me and that unconditional piece. None of that old stuff matters.”

Becoming Kellen again

On Thursday, Kellen used his right hand to throw a small football to his dad about 15 times in a row.

On Friday, he stood for 10 seconds. It was a milestone.

“He doesn’t have the balance to maintain that without our help, but it was under his power,” Mike Smith said. “Those were positive signs.”

Shannon Smith hopes the things that made her son who he is will help see him through.

“I think his love for football, his love for life, will motivate him to work and get back to where he was,” she said.

Doctors have put a cap on his tracheostomy tube to push air through his vocal cords and to prepare him for removing the tube. Therapists are working on strengthening his neck muscles so they can be sure that he is able to hold his head erect to keep his airway open.

Therapists are also working to get Kellen, the kid friends describe as a goofball and class clown, to whisper.

When Kellen used to give lifelong friend and Upper Lake junior Alex Santana a ride to school, it was never boring, she said. If her day was going poorly, something changed after Kellen picked her up.

“He’ll pick me up for school and I’ll just feel so much better,” she said. “Lil Uzi Vert or Drake, he really doesn’t have a favorite. He dances to any song that comes on. He’ll like shake his head and sing to me and be a goofball.”

Which was why it was so incomprehensible to see him lying in a hospital bed, not talking, not laughing, said friend and teammate Mark Dutcher, an Upper Lake junior.

“Unreal,” he said. “You are sitting there looking at a kid that was so strong and so independent and he just looked like he was sleeping. He had color back in his face. He looked like he could have woke up and walked out.”

A football community

When the Cougars played Virginia City on the road for the first game of the season, it was 11 days after the accident. Upper Lake lost 50-6. But the Virginia City home crowd took a collection for the Smiths and presented it to Moran at the game.

“I’ve never met those people,” Mike Smith said. “They just helped out. It was amazing.”

The next week, the Cougars traveled to South Fork. It was Mike Smith’s night to be in a hotel, but instead he decided to drive north.

“We were doing the pregame and he came walking across the field,” Dutcher remembered. “I saw him and I saw Kellen’s white jersey in his pocket and I thought, ‘This is where he needs to be.’”

Emotions were mixed, Mike Smith said.

“I got a bunch of hugs,” he said. “It wasn’t jumping up and down, it was kind of like that sorrow for Kellen and happy to see me.”

The team has had to balance those emotions all season long.

“You can’t change things that have happened,” Dutcher, a lineman on the team, said. “You have to keep fighting and keep moving forward. If anyone is going to fight and get through it and move forward, it’s Kellen.”

The Cougars have struggled on the field. They were 0-4 heading into Saturday’s game against Rincon Valley Christian.

“We are definitely playing for Kellen,” Dutcher said.

Looking forward to progress

Mike Smith is back to working about two days a week. Clearly, things are different now.

One of the things on his revised agenda for the year is drivers’ education. Like almost every other school district in California, Lake County schools don’t offer it.

Kellen Smith took private lessons, but Mike Smith has this on his mind: More is better. More hours, more kids, more learning — about safety and consequences.

“I grew up with drivers’ ed,” he said.

Nowadays, parents who can afford it pay for private driving lessons. Others? It’s unclear where and how some kids learn the rules. Smith now wonders if drivers’ education can be brought back to Lake County schools in any form. Perhaps classroom curriculum only, perhaps a rules of the road class as early as middle school.

“Safety was a concern and an issue and part of this, and a part of a lot of lives of youths in Upper Lake, and I have a role in that,” he said. “What can I do in that regard?”

“I don’t know, I am just trying to think of something I can do,” he said.

Unlocking Kellen’s future

Only in recent days have Shannon and Mike Smith worked out a schedule where one parent can be with Kellen in Santa Clara and the other can be at home in Lake County, at work and with their daughter, Annalise, who is a freshman at Upper Lake High.

Both know they have a long journey in front of them with no exact timeline. Progress will come in an imperfect schedule.

“They always go back to ‘He’s young, he’s strong, but it’s going to take time,’” Mike Smith said. “We have no idea. Whether it’s good news or bad news, it’s going to take time.”

So Kellen, just weeks removed from passing league and summer workouts with his team, is now focused on speech therapy and occupational therapy and on building a new kind of strength, albeit with his same old resolve.

“He’s in there,” Mike Smith said. “You just have to unlock him with therapy.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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