UPDATE: Smith upgraded to fair condition; doctor identified

I’m thankful this morning. Thankful that a young man I’ve come to know and appreciate will be around to attend college, enjoy all the ups and downs of adulthood and relive his gridiron glory days. Thankful to live in a region where we are blessed with such good, qualified, caring coaches and medical personnel.

Thankful, but cautious, because I have been around long enough to recognize that Adam Smith’s story easily could have a somber ending if it happened to a different kid, on a different field, under a different school’s watch.

Smith, an outstanding two-way football player from Leavitt Area High School, is hospitalized in serious condition at Maine Medical Center in Portland. He suffered a shattered spleen Saturday afternoon after being struck in the abdomen by an opponent wearing a cast on his arm.

The specifics are available in an adjacent story, but suffice it to say Smith suffered trauma that is more common in a fatal automobile crash. One of Smith’s coaches said that the young man nearly died in the ambulance on the rapid ride from Greely High School in Cumberland Center.

It was a sense of urgency we haven’t seen around here, thankfully, since my colleague Bob McPhee suffered his life-altering brain injury at Rumford High School in the 1970s. In 27 autumns of covering this stuff, I have never been forced to write the words “near-fatal” or “life-threatening” in a high school football story.

And I cringe at the double-edged sword of reporting this news, because it will fuel a trendy, talking-point fire. There is an entire movement out there dedicated to scouring the interwebs for stories like this one from across the country in a frenzied attempt to demonize the great game of football.

Spleen injuries are part of that crusade. Evan Murray, a quarterback from New Jersey, tragically didn’t survive such a laceration after taking a hit last month. But most of the emphasis is on the long-term danger from concussions. No less authorities than President Barack Obama and NBA star LeBron James have publicly stated that they aren’t certain if they would want their children to play football.

Silly, in the respect that young people have died playing baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, lacrosse and while skiing, as well. It also ignores the statistical reality that high school football players are safer on the field than on the bus ride getting there. Many teenage rites of passage are infinitely more dangerous than a game played in body armor.

Our lack of critical thinking being what it is these days, however, the rhetoric has been effective. Participation in youth football is down at all levels nationwide, and fear is at least part of the reason. Even in Maine high school football, where the number of varsity teams has gone through the roof, most make do with substantially fewer players than they suited up two decades ago.

That said, Smith survived only because he was in the path of a perfect storm of competent care. An assistant coach recognized the gravity of the situation. There was a doctor in the house. An ambulance was on site. Even the game being at Greely instead of Leavitt was perhaps a stroke of good fortune, with the nearest hospital trauma unit a few miles closer.

I still attend high school sporting events at which a coach is serving in a double capacity as trainer. I go to football games where an ambulance is “on call” but not sitting immediately behind the end zone from start to finish.

Neither of those situations is acceptable, and cost should be no object. If your community cannot afford both those amenities at its home athletic events, you cannot afford an athletic program. No exceptions. It has been asked a million times, but bears repeating: What price are you willing to put on a human life?

Athletes are bigger, faster and stronger. Coaching has grown more thankless and difficult. There is no way that one man or woman can be put in the position of assessing serious injuries. There must be independent arbiters and a readily apparent chain of command in place to do so.

Leavitt, with its staff of 20 assistants that is perennially the butt of my good-natured jokes, and Greely, with an environment that has long affirmed the value of its students, had such a system ready for Adam Smith. To those schools and to God be the glory.

Will I be able to pen the same words, the day after, if your school is put in the same situation someday? I pray that it’s so.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72 or like his fan page at www.facebook.com/kalleoakes.sj.

Also read: Adam Smith of Leavitt recovering after life-threatening injury | Smith fights physical challenges to hit Leavitt opponents on nose

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