RUTLEDGE – Kirby Smart looked to his left hand, where he was holding several sheets of old white paper. And Georgia’s head coach began reading from a letter his mother had written 27 years ago.
“Let me introduce myself: My name is Sharon Smart. I’m mother of a 16-year-old son who was diagnosed with leukemia last Oct. 11. Our lives have changed radically in the last year.”
As Kirby Smart spoke, about 50 of the young men who call him Coach stood and watched. As did other kids assembled in the gym, some with heads shaved for chemotherapy, others with only one of their legs.
“Some of the changes have been very, very negative,” Smart said, reading on. “But some of the changes have been very, very positive. And one of the most positive changes that has taken place in our lives has been the positive acquaintance we have had with Camp Sunshine, and all the people that work in the camp, and through the camp, all the programs.”
For the next three minutes Smart, who likes to have his day in a regimented schedule, lost himself in time, reading his mother’s letter about Karl Smart’s battle with leukemia, and how Camp Sunshine – where 27 years later Smart had brought his team – had such an impact on their lives.
The story of Kirby Smart’s older brother, who went on to win his battle with leukemia, has been told before. Smart himself told it last year when he brought his team here, continuing a decades-old Georgia football summer tradition.
But some of Smart’s players hadn’t heard it before. And those who did know it had never heard the letter. Sharon Smart, when she heard her son was taking his team to Camp Sunshine on Wednesday, asked Kirby to take it and perhaps pass it along.
“I always knew coach Smart was involved heavily here. But I didn’t know he was that heavily involved here,” senior offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn said. “Just hearing that today, and hearing him read the letter from his mother, it was heartwarming.”
NOT DODGING ‘WHO HE IS’
The easy angle now would be that Smart’s players were overwhelmed and surprised to see this from their hard-bitten coach, who’s prone to screaming at them at practices and games.
But players said they’ve seen this side before.
“One thing that coach Smart doesn’t do is shy away from who he is,” senior tailback Sony Michel said. “He shows us who he is every day. I’m not sure how he is in the media, but as a player, coach, he has that connection with us. That letter is a true correlation of what his family is about.”
Kirby Smart got to know Camp Sunshine well through his brother. (The camp also includes family members of cancer patients.) Smart is on a first name-and-hug basis with “Mo”, the man who runs the camp, and others there.
The highlight of the trip, for all of the Smart family sentimentality, has become the dodgeball game. Bulldogs and campers alike go to each side and hoist balls at each other. Last year Kirby himself participated. This year he sat it out, as his players engaged in some serious shenanigans.
Senior tight end Jeb Blazevich got the idea to use a trash can as a shield, shuffling it around as he threw balls at teammates and then ducked behind it. Soon the trash can was commandeered by the other side, and eventually Riley Ridley and one of Kirby Smart’s sons were using it.
Senior linebacker Reggie Carter also used a media member – this media member – as a human shield.
“You take one for the team,” Carter said. “I took somebody out by hiding behind you. I mean you didn’t get hit though!”
One also couldn’t help but notice that players didn’t tend to leave the game when they were hit.
“Nick (Chubb) got hit two times, and stayed in,” Wynn said, laughing, who said he abided the rules. “I can’t speak for them. I get hit and I move to the side.”
Chubb took the game very seriously, lurking in the background with a ball, jumping out and making a throw and then sprinting away.
Former pro baseball player Jake Skole, now a walk-on football player, was a valuable teammate.
“Jake Skole was out there throwing 90 miles per hour,” Wynn said.
‘THAT’S WHY THAT LETTER IS SO IMPORTANT’
This year they brought around 50-60 players, coming in two busses. In years past they’ve brought a couple dozen players on each trip, only needing a couple vans.
While Smart said it was still voluntary, he enticed players by saying that those who came only needed to run in the morning, and could take the afternoon off to go to Camp Sunshine.
“It was a big priority for me when I got the job to invigorate the process,” Smart said. “We brought more today than we’ve ever brought before, which excites me. I’m hoping to make it bigger and bigger.”
Smart also brought his family on Wednesday’s trip: Mary Beth escorted their children around, and one of them became heavily involved in the dodgeball game. Kirby and Mary Beth are starting a family foundation, in which they plan to give back financially, and Camp Sunshine was one of the obvious choices. Being back there reminded Smart of what his brother went through, and how he beat cancer.
“And that’s why that letter was so important,” Smart said. “Because in 1990 I didn’t know what that letter meant. I know a lot more about it now that I have my own kids.”
In that letter, Sharon Smart wrote that she asked Karl what the camp had meant to him. This is what she wrote, and what Kirby Smart told his players in the gym:
“Well, it’s like they gave me a reason to live, a reason to keep going. It’s so encouraging to be with people who understand what you’re going through. It’s great to be there with someone who’s older than you are, and they’ve licked what you’ve got, and you can look at them and see they did it, so I know I can do it too. So it gives younger children a chance to see the older ones, and give the people the opportunity to come together. More than anything, it gives all of us a chance to do some things we might not ordinary get to do. It’s encouraging to everyone. It’s such a community of love there, either the person is going through cancer themselves, or they know somebody who is, and they’re there because they love children who have cancer.”