SAN FRANCISCO — Rod Smith is a man of faith. Recent events have reinforced his beliefs.
The Arizona Wildcats’ co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach is the son of a coach. Gary Smith coached high school football in Franklin, West Virginia, for decades. Gary coached Rod, a quarterback who would go on to play for and work under UA coach Rich Rodriguez.
Gary Smith recently visited his son in Tucson. Upon returning home, Gary, 65, hurt himself while reaching for something in his van. An arm rest jammed into his side. Several hours later, Gary still felt ill. He went to the emergency room. Doctors found internal bleeding, as well as a mass in Gary’s abdomen.
The mass turned out to be cancerous and had to be removed. Doctors wouldn’t have discovered it if Gary hadn’t accidentally injured himself.
Gary was flown by helicopter to the University of Virginia’s University Hospital to have surgery. Rod, meanwhile, took the first flight to Charlottesville. The Wildcats had just begun to practice for Wednesday’s Foster Farms Bowl. Rodriguez told Smith not to worry about that. The staff could handle it.
“Rod, say no more,” Rodriguez told Smith. “Go. Get your butt back there and take care of your family. We’ll take care of it here. Take as much time as you need.”
“I’ve known his dad as long as I’ve known Rod,” Rodriguez said this week. “It’s not a hard decision. It’s family.”
The Dec. 7 surgery to remove the mass from Gary Smith’s abdomen lasted about nine hours. The mass weighed 30 pounds — so heavy it required two hands to carry.
The surgery was risky but necessary. The surgical team, led by Dr. Tracey Krupski, had to remove one of Gary’s kidneys and part of his colon. There was concern — ultimately unfounded — that the cancer had spread.
“There was a lot of uncertainty,” Rod Smith said. “They were concerned about taking it out because it was so big. There was a fear he would bleed out on the table.”
Gary managed to pull through. After the surgery, Dr. Krupski addressed Smith and his family. “I can honestly say,” she told them, “that Christmas has presented our first miracle this year.”
Gary is staying with his daughter, Michelle, while he recovers.
“He’s doing much better now,” said Rod, whose mother, Debbie, passed away in 2014. “Someone needs to be around there to help him. He can’t lift anything heavier than a milk jug.”
Rod Smith returned to the team the weekend of Dec. 16-17. His father — who came out of retirement to help coach Michelle’s son Tyce’s high school team — watches every UA game. Rod said Gary is the Wildcats’ “biggest fan.”
When Arizona kicks off against Purdue on Wednesday night, Rod will be thinking about the father he almost lost. Gary is still recovering. Follow-up exams are still needed. But he’s alive, and he’ll be watching.
“Without a doubt in my mind, God’s hand was all over this,” Rod Smith said. “He showed us the problem. Took care of the problem. Now He’s healing the problem.”
Cats’ community service
The Wildcats spent part of Christmas Day helping others.
The team helped prepare and serve meals to hundreds of homeless and elderly people late Monday morning at Glide Memorial Church.
Wearing Foster Farms hats and aprons, which they slipped over their black UA sweat suits, the Wildcats made sandwiches (peanut butter or ham), fixed multicourse holiday plates and bused tables. They were happy to do it.
“It’s really an uplifting experience,” said freshman quarterback Rhett Rodriguez, who wiped down tables after appreciative diners had finished their meals. “The gift of giving is really often more meaningful than receiving anything. Being able to give on Christmas … it’s just a good day for everybody.”
UA coach Rich Rodriguez helped organize the troops. He instructed players to open bags of bread so the slices could be spread across plastic-covered tables and made into sandwiches. He exhorted them to keep pace behind the lunch counter so he and daughter Raquel always would have a tray ready for the next person in line.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Rodriguez said. “They were excited about coming over here. I can see the way they’re working. It’s genuine. They’re not over here because we’re telling them; they’re over here because they want to help out. To put a smile on somebody’s else face and to give them a nice meal is pretty special.”
Glide was expected to serve over 4,500 meals Monday, more than double its daily average, said Eden Chan, the church’s special-events manager. Purdue players served meals at another San Francisco church, St. Anthony’s. The city has a homeless population of about 7,000.
About 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, senior defensive tackle Marcus Griffin tweeted that he had four extra tickets to the Foster Farms Bowl and offered them to “a family who would like to attend to the game.”
“No charge or anything,” Griffin tweeted. “Just want to spread a little joy.”
“Why not make somebody’s holiday?” he said the next morning. “Maybe somebody that couldn’t afford to go. Spread a little holiday cheer.”
About a half hour later, Griffin learned that giving the tickets away could be construed as an NCAA violation if they ended up with a prospective student-athlete. So he apologetically rescinded the offer, tweeting that he would give them to a teammate “to avoid any harm on my end.”
- The Wildcats practiced in shorts for a little over an hour Monday afternoon. After three busy days, Rodriguez hopes to keep the team off its feet as much as possible leading into the game.
- No one appeared on Arizona’s bowl-game injury report, meaning everyone who wasn’t already out for the season is expected to be available.