By Chelsea Groomer | SPECIAL to KBEC Sports
After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year, Lanita Smith feared she would never see her son play football in-person again.
Three Life Waxahachie football coaches erased that fear this past season — just in time for Elijah Smith, a Life Waxahachie Middle School student-athlete, to take the field for the team’s final game and leave his family with quite the lasting memory.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t believe it,” said Lanita, 40, as she teared up and recalled the efforts of the three coaches and school administrators.
Lanita’s mobility has continued to deteriorate since July while the autoimmune disease continues to drastically affect her day-to-day life. She described her condition as a “thorn in her side.” Lanita explained her mobility has been reduced to relying on a walker and taking strides like a “95-year old woman.”
Lanita was also quick to praise Elijah, her eldest, for his dedication to the game, noting she cried after learning the disease would keep her from attending his games for Life Waxahachie Middle School. Her limited mobility made it difficult to climb stairs or watch games from the bleachers.
To help keep his wife engaged and her spirits lifted, Jonathan Smith began broadcasting their son’s games onto the family’s home TV via Facebook Live. Lanita noted that’s where she drew inspiration and set a goal in physical therapy to see Elijah play in-person before his season ended.
“He [Elijah] had worked so hard,” Lanita explained. “Every day, he was getting up, getting in shape, and he was focused on football. I cried because I wasn’t able to make it to the games.”
After months of hard work, Lanita’s progress improved. But, only days before her son’s last game of the season, she hit a plateau that held the dream of watching her son from the bleachers out of reach.
“It felt like I was going backward,” Lanita recalled. “Then, out of the blue, my husband gets a call with news from the coaches.”
One of those coaches was junior high football coach Joshua Stinedurf, who coordinated efforts with junior high athletic coordinator Justin Bruns and Life Waxahachie athletic coordinator Michael Welch. The three worked out and agreed to a plan to ensure Lanita would see her son play football — in person.
“I talked to coach Burns about the idea of allowing his [Elijah’s] mom to come to the game,” Stinedurf recalled. “It seemed like the thing to do and the entire coaching staff agreed.”
After coordinating special arrival transportation and seating accommodations in the endzone for the Smith family, Burns extended the invitation to Jonathan.
“After he told me what was going on, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t believe it,” said Jonathan as his voice cracked. “I rarely cry about anything, but I actually shed a few tears.
“It goes to show that you have coaches who just do a job and get to the next level, and then you have coaches that care about their players, their lives, and their family. That’s extremely rare.”
Upon the family’s arrival, Welch and middle school principal Freddie Stanmore greeted the Smiths and escorted them to the field in a golf cart.
“The part that made my day was when my son came to hug his mom on the field before he got ready to play,” Jonathan said. “That will be embedded in my son’s mind for the rest of his life. Those are the memories you look for.”
And, as if the moment couldn’t get better, Lanita proudly recalled Elijah scoring his first touchdown, a goal he had been working towards all season.
“I was able to be there to see it,” Lanita exclaimed. “I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh! He did it!'”
Jonathan interjected with a laugh, “I jumped up and had to remember that I can’t run onto the field! And to see this huge smile on my wife’s face is something I won’t forget. My son has been so close to catching a touchdown every game and the game he scores is the game his mom was able to be at for the first time — all of that is surreal!”
Though Lanita says that her multiple sclerosis has held her back in some ways, it hasn’t stopped her from pursuing life with resiliency and gratitude.
“I’m so thankful I could be there and that the coaches would even make these accommodations for me and my family” she expressed. “This autoimmune disease has been tough on all of us, but I’m so very grateful for Life School.”
“If I could tell the coaches anything,” Lanita smiled, “I would say thank you for wanting to make sure Elijah’s mom was there for his last game.”
Chelsea Groomer is Life School’s Communication Specialist