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A summer camp trip special to Kirby Smart’s heart

RUTLEDGE — Kirby Smart hugged and spoke with a lady he knew, then took her phone and posed for a selfie. He saw Mo Thrash, the man who ran the camp, who Smart said “meant a ton to my family.”

“This is a great event. It means a lot to me personally. It means a lot to my family,” Smart said.

As change has come to the Georgia football program, some may have wondered what would come of the team’s annual summer visit to Camp Sunshine, the camp for kids with cancer. The answer was nothing would change with this trip. Especially with Smart in charge.

Karl Smart, who is 18 months older than his brother Kirby, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was a teenager. As he fought to beat cancer, which he eventually did, he came to this very camp, and it became dear to the heart of Georgia’s future head coach.

“It’s a terrible, terrible disease,” Kirby Smart said. “But for this week-long event, it means a lot to these kids to be able to come out here and just get away from kids, and release a little bit. And to be honest with you it means a lot to our players to come, release, get away from it, and see what giving back means.

Kirby Smart preparing to pose for a selfie on Thursday. (SETH EMERSON/AJC)

“Because we’ve got a lot of kids on our team that are entitled and feel like they’re owed something. And you come here and you realize you’re owed nothing. Nothing at all in life.”

That period when Karl was dealing with leukemia was a difficult one for the Smart family. Sonny Smart, a high school football coach, stayed home with Kirby and his sister while their mother, a schoolteacher, spent time with Karl in Egleston as he received cancer treatments.

Kirby Smart remembered that it “split us up during the tough times.” But he also remembered fondly how his older brother was “hellbent” on winning the cancer fight.

“He just came over to me and told me, ‘I’m gonna come back from this, and I’m gonna out-run you after that. I’m gonna beat you.’ For about 15 years he never could do that, but now he can,” Kirby Smart said.

Karl Smart, who now lives in San Francisco with his family, runs in triathlons.

“So he lived up to what he said,” Kirby said.

Georgia’s delegation, which included its coach and about 20 players, including star tailback Nick Chubb, spent a couple hours at the camp, receiving a tour from Thrash, and then hanging out with campers, signing autographs, shooting hoops and playing dodgeball.

Chubb was obviously the most popular with campers – some who are considered cured of cancer, some recently diagnosed. Chubb spent a good deal of time playing dodgeball, teaming up and escorting a camper in a wheelchair.

Sophomore defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter was also very involved, both in dodgeball and basketball. Ledbetter smiled and kidded around with campers, leaning down to one in a wheelchair to talk for a few minutes.

Another group of players is due to pay a visit to the camp next week.

Nick Chubb, when not playing dodgeball, spent a lot of time posing for pictures and signing autographs for campers. (SETH EMERSON/AJC)

“When I come out here and see smiles on their faces, it just makes me feel that I’ve done my job so far,” senior safety Quincy Mauger said.

Mauger got into it seriously during dodgeball – but not for long. He was eliminated very early.

“Very early,” said Mauger, who was then asked to break down what went wrong. “I was really focused on trying to get the ball out of the middle. But I clearly saw that these guys were on another speed. I’m thinking really 4.2s out there. So when I went to try to dodge a ball I realized that this guy has a curveball on me, and it kind of curved right at me. They make it look easy.”

Smart participated in the dodgeball game too, crow-hopping a few times to fake throws, then actually throwing the ball across the way at Chubb, who laughed and ducked away.

But Smart ducked out himself after a couple minutes.

“Nothing good can come out of that dodgeball game except me getting hit and tearing my rotator cuff up,” Smart said. “I did like dodgeball, that was my game back in the day, but those kids got a little too strong of an arm for me.”

Here’s another video of Smart’s brief dodgeball foray:

NextWATCH: Nick Chubb plays dodgeball at Camp Sunshine
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