WATSON – The next time Live Oak’s Brian Smith makes a trip to the doctor for testing of the colon cancer that first struck nearly two years ago, it will also coincide with a significant day for the school’s fourth-year defensive coordinator.
The Eagles will host District 4-5A opponent Belaire later that same evening.
And make no mistake about Smith, whose last examination on Jan. 1 came back negative, plans to take a week’s worth of preparation into the press box, where he’ll implement that night’s game plan.
“I’ve gone every six months,” said Smith, a 22-year volunteer coaching veteran, who runs his own electrical business in Denham Springs. “I’ve done the CAT scans and bloodwork. Hopefully in another year I’ll do another colonoscopy and I’ll still be clean.”
Since his initial diagnosis and subsequent surgery to remove two feet of his colon and 53 lymph nodes (11 of which had cancer), Smith’s visits have decreased from four times to twice a year, a sign of the soon-to-be 50-year-old’s progression from the harrowing disease.
Smith is mindful of the port he still wears, the lengthy scar from his sternum to his pelvis and the side effect of six months of chemotherapy treatments – neuropathy in his fingers and toes.
“It’s like they’re sleeping all the time,” Smith said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to face plant walking down steps.”
Said Live Oak head coach Brett Beard: “Everything’s good with his recovery. It’s not over by any means. It’s been a wild ride, but he’s good now.”
“A double whammy”
For Smith, that ride includes a chaotic 2 ½ -month stretch in his life was completely turned upside down.
First came the Great Flood of 2016 that pushed three feet of water into the bottom floor of Smith’s two-story home in Denham Springs, an area with no previous flood history.
Then came the diagnosis Nov. 1, after feeling some discomfort during the cleanup of his own home, Smith said he had near Stage IV colon cancer.
“It was a double whammy,” Smith said. “I was very surprised with diagnosis. I didn’t have a family history.”
Friendship grows stronger
Smith had plenty of support, both in the recovery efforts of his home, and with his health.
That began with Beard, who first gained respect for Smith as an opposing defensive coordinator when Beard coached at Bowling Green and Smith at Central Private.
“He gave us fits defensively,” Beard said.
Beard’s admiration grew so much that by the time he became the head coach at Woodlawn, he was able to hire Smith, a Baton Rouge native, away from Broadmoor and develop more than just a coaching alliance.
They became friends, and after two years at Woodlawn, moved to Live Oak, where they’ve been for the past three seasons and their relationship reached new heights – much like Live Oak’s program.
“We’re best friends; a big brother situation,” said Beard, who is 12 years younger than Smith. “We’re really family.”
Never was that more evident than in Smith’s time of need.
Smith, his wife Jennifer (a teacher at Southside Elementary) and dog were rescued from their home by boat, taken overnight to the Wal-Mart parking lot in Denham Springs and ultimately to a shelter in Satsuma.
Beard negotiated the challenges associated with travel in the parish at that time, eventually reaching Satsuma in his truck, picking up Smith and wife and brought them back to his home, which was unscathed.
“Initially we were going to go upstairs and stay,” Smith of his own home. “Then the boat came and said it was mandatory to get out. We jumped out the window of the second story and into the boat.”
Clean-up efforts take back seat
Beard provided a haven to live for Smith and his wife, who had to sort out the damage of their own home, which had basic flood insurance that didn’t cover contents.
Every so often Beard brought Smith, whose vehicles were lost during the flood, to his home where he also ran his business to pick up essentials.
“We’ve become really close,” Smith said of Beard. “He’s a really good man.”
Beard said there were needs of his own football players, who suffered flood damage, but those who didn’t were out in the Watson community assisting others less fortunate.
That included Smith, who estimated 30 players from Live Oak’s football team helped with the removal of sheetrock before he able to hire a contractor.
It was during this time when Smith, who had worked diligently cleaning mud from his home, was unable to go to the bathroom and began experiencing some discomfort.
A trip the emergency room, a subsequent doctor’s visit and CAT scan revealed colon cancer, which required and a 10-day stay in the hospital.
“It was almost a Stage 4, the highest you can get,” Smith said. “That was a challenge.”
Realization cuts deep
Live Oak was nearing the end of its regular season, entering Week 8, when Smith sat solemnly on a table in the coaches’ office when Beard asked about the results of his trip to the doctor.
“He was ghost white,” Beard recalled of Smith’s appearance. “I asked him if he was alright. He said no, it’s cancer. It’s colon cancer and it’s pretty aggressive.”
Beard called a meeting with his staff to apprise everyone of Smith’s condition.
“I’m trying to hold this thing together in a position of leadership,” Beard said. “My best friend and DC has colon cancer. It was tough.”
Smith handled his defensive coordinator duties in Week 9 against Scotlandville, which turned out to be his last before his Nov. 1 surgery. He also helped throughout the weekend in advance of an upcoming game with Central, a game that Beard took over calling the team’s defense.
Smith had surgery and returned to his own home at Beard’s behest to recover.
“A lot of people helped make that happen,” Beard said. “It was a serious operation and he needed his privacy.”
When Live Oak hosted Central a week later in the opening round of the Class 5A state playoffs, a game the Eagles dropped a week after defeating the Wildcats, they had a surprise visitor.
After his release from the hospital, Smith went home to shower and was in attendance, where he watched from his truck.
“I should have never gone,” he said. “It was stupid.”
Gaining strength through example
A month after surgery, Smith began chemotherapy for a total of four days every other week, a process that took a toll on his body.
Because of the chemo’s affects, Smith couldn’t eat anything cold and essentially was on a liquid diet for four to five months, losing between 30 to 40 pounds.
“It was like knives,” Smith said. “You tried (to eat) and it would just come back up.”
The treatments also sapped Smith’s energy level and sacked him in bed, often leaving him feeling despondent and sluggish.
While the thought of returning to Live Oak and coaching again appeared remote, Smith started to show signs of his old character – the fight and grit – that had endeared him to his peers and players.
When he showed up around the locker room, usually in a wheelchair, those trips proved therapeutic for Smith, who observed players pushing through their own threshold in the weight room and on the field during conditioning.
He loved being around the players and the thrill competition.
“They were helping me,” he said. “You see them running and throwing up and you’re fighting and fighting. I was doing basically what they did. I was fighting. It’s just a fight, a grind every day. Football’s the same way. It’s a life lesson. They’re bouncing around and you get excited again. That’s what I live for.”
On good days, Smith helped with the team when possible. Beard made a golf cart available, providing Smith a place to rest when needed as well as refuge from the sun.
Adapt and overcome
With chemo treatments completed in June, Smith progressed to the point of resuming his normal coaching regiment and the results proved rewarding.
“He stayed the course, kept his faith,” Beard said. “It’s been amazing to see what he’s done and the way that he’s fought.”
Live Oak dug itself out from under a five-game losing streak to author its greatest finish with the school’s first state quarterfinal appearance.
The No. 22 seeded Eagles reeled off three straight wins to close the 2017 season, upsetting No. 11 Sulphur (23-10) and No. 6 East Ascension (34-26) before coming up just short in a 17-14 loss to No. 3 Acadiana, which completed a halfback pass for the game-winning score.
“They were a very special group,” Smith said. “That’s why I do it, for the kids. Acadiana knew they were in trouble.”
Smith, who has two older children, couldn’t have been prouder in defeat.
There were similar qualities about last year’s Live Oak team – the tenacity and resiliency – that mirrored the traits Smith displayed from the time his home flooded to the day he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“As a football coach you adapt, overcome and you fight,” Smith said. “The bottom line’s is it’s a grind. You’re just fighting for your life instead of on a field for pleasure. It’s a different fight but a similar principle.
“That’s all I know to do,” Smith added. “You live more day to day. I’m not a planner. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. I want to see all the people I love every day, tell them you love them and that’s it.”