Faith, family, friends help Smithwick through times of tragedy, triumph

Posted: Sunday, December 26, 2010

Editor's note: The Clarion this week is taking a look back at some of the people and events in the news during 2010.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Smithwick carries the ball for Soldotna High School during the small schools state championship in October. The R.S. on his jersey -- and every other jersey on the team -- is in remembrance of Smithwick's father.

The father's seat in the grandstands is empty, but the running back still remembers his voice.

Get out there and play with heart and intensity, Robbie. No matter what, don't ever lose that intensity.

As the game progresses, the yards and first downs and broken tackles and touchdowns pile up for No. 25, Soldotna High School's do-it-all athlete.

He runs with more and more power, punishing opponents with a 5-foot-8, 180-pound frame, dodging tackles with crisp cutbacks and quick feet.

The circular, black-and-white "RS" patch sewed to his Soldotna uniform glimmers as the grass stains mount and the sky turns dark.

He is running toward a state championship, the stands packed with supporters, and it's just his second year on the gridiron.

The most talented athlete on the field is playing with the most heart, the most intensity.

Robbie Smithwick is a senior. He is a captain. He is a Star.

And he still remembers his father's voice.

Don't ever lose that intensity, Robbie.

Months later the son sits on a bench seat in a wood booth, his forearms perched next to tray of pizza in a space he once shared with dad.

Pizza Boys is warm but quiet on this gray afternoon.

A customer opens the front door, dragging in December air. A lanky teenager leans over a cutting board, his hands coated in flower, rolling dough and spreading tomato sauce in the adjacent kitchen.

Football season is over now, and the Stars are state champions.

A perfect 11-0 campaign lifted SoHi to its second small-schools state title in three years, capped by a decisive 77-42 win over rival Kenai Central in the finals.

"So happy," Smithwick remembers. "Just a crazy feeling."

He is Alaska's 2010 Gatorade Player of the Year, the state's top football honor, an accolade reserved for someone who is extraordinary not only on the field, but off it.

In leading his squad to the title, Smithwick rushed for 1,291 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging nearly 19 yards a touch, a school record.

He started at outside linebacker and was dominant with his right foot, earning first team all-state status as a kicker.

His presence in the locker room was even more important to the team.

"It was really Robbie who gave our team strength, and not the other way around," coach Galen Brantley Jr. said. "Robbie was there when we needed him."

Away from football, the 17-year-old volunteered at the food bank and Salvation Army, led chapel at Cook Inlet Academy and spent the summer on the work crew at a Bible camp near Port Alsworth.

Now colleges are calling.

That's what happens when imperfect circumstances blossom into the perfect season.

"Whenever something wasn't going our way, we didn't get down," Smithwick explains. "We kept fighting."

They celebrated the life of Robert Andrew Smithwick, Robbie's father, with a service on Aug. 1 at Cook Inlet Academy, less than a week before the 2010 football season.

Friends and family swapped stories and told jokes, shed tears and wondered, "Why so soon?" The community turned out. They prayed aloud, and they prayed in silence.

And an entire football team showed up.

The Stars came out that day to show support for one of their own, a champion move by a champion squad.

"For them to rally around him was very special," Brantley Jr. said. "It put things into perspective. There are a lot more important things than football."

The gesture had a profound impact on Robbie, who returned for the next practice.

"I started crying," he said, remembering when he spoke to his teammates that following practice. "Just the fact that everybody showed up was really cool, just a great support system."

And although the cold Kenai River had taken the 41-year-old fisherman, husband and father of five, it hadn't taken the Smithwicks.

Instead, they bonded together. They had been through this before.

Jenny Smithwick, his mother, never felt alone. She joined family and friends in the grandstands for every game, her father flying from Ohio to watch his grandson.

The mother had joined the SoHi football family just one year prior, for Robbie's first season, but now she felt as though she belonged as much as anyone.

"I didn't know as many people before," she said. "It was just amazing, how friendly and loving everyone was."

Robbie lost three young cousins in 2005, when a plane in which they were riding splashed into the icy waters near Port Alsworth.

Some survived, but others -- Samantha, 9, Jesse, 7, and Katy Jo, 5 -- never surfaced.

The family persevered, and they would do it again.

"No matter what's happened, we haven't been broken down and torn apart from each other," Robbie says. "We've drawn closer and closer to each other."

Jenny believes it's a testament to her son's strength, his pride, his faith.

"It's not to say he isn't hurting, he's definitely hurting," she said. "But he's amazingly mature for his age, and I think that's him choosing that God is here."

And with three younger brothers, Robbie is the oldest man in the house now, a role he has embraced.

Since the father is no longer there, the elder son leads by example. He wants his siblings to know they can count on him -- and that he cares.

"Saying 'I love you' can be a hard thing even when you love somebody," Robbie said, remembering a moment when he and one of his brothers embraced following their father's death. "We hugged each other and squeezed and I told him I loved him and he told me he loved me, which was cool. It was something that hadn't happened before."

The Smithwicks have come too far to ever lose their faith.

"Robbie believes, and I believe, that Rob is with the Lord and that we're going to be with him again someday," Jenny said. "The pain that we are suffering now is our loss, but there is no pain for Rob. He's there."

Robbie shares his faith with those who matter most.

It was Valentine's Day, Robbie's birthday, when he found the courage to ask her out.

Kaili Sholin had caught his eye on the soccer field, a year earlier, when she kicked the ball into the goal from midfield during a scrimmage between SoHi and Cook Inlet.

"I was like, 'That was the most incredible shot,'" Robbie remembers.

Now they are companions, best friends, believers in the Lord, two SoHi seniors who have lost loved ones but have each other.

Sholin's mother succumbed to cancer more than a year ago on a late-August day.

A standout athlete on the pitch, she will play soccer next season at The Master's University in Santa Clarita, Calif. Robbie hopes to play football on the same campus, or perhaps at nearby Azusa Pacific University.

They have supported each other through terrible losses.

"It's a way that we have grown really close together," Robbie says. "No other girl will ever be that same way with me."

No other team will be like the 2010 Stars.

Back on the gridiron, the running back trots off the field one final time.

The scoreboard is tipped well in the Stars' favor, they will be state champions, and it's time to celebrate.

Brantley Jr. looks for his star performer, the perfect season complete, and tells him what everybody already knows.

"Your dad would be proud."

Looking back, to the wins and camaraderie and the team coming together, the coach said he'd never been a part of a season so special in 15 years of coaching.

And it all started with the running back.

"It was really a pleasure to be a part of coaching Robbie, it really was," Brantley Jr. said. "The accolades, the championship and everything else aside, he did everything. He's a hero."

Even during the worst of times, Brantley Jr. knew Robbie would come to practice to be with the team.

He remembered one day when the athlete came into the coach's office, after being awake nearly all night, to ask for a scouting report on the upcoming opponent.

Robbie wanted to be fully prepared for the game, despite the circumstances.

"I thought, 'Wow, with all the stuff going on with his life, he was still comfortable coming in to deal with the mental aspect of the sport,'" Brantley Jr. said. "The strength of Robbie as an individual is phenomenal, to be able to handle the situation in the manner he did."

The season that began with tragedy would end in triumph, 11 games dedicated to a father and son.

Robbie still remembers the voice, hears the advice.

Get out there and play with heart and intensity, Robbie. No matter what, don't ever lose that intensity.

The moment of silence and national anthem before the first game is a memory now, and he'll always cherish seeing his mother and family in the grandstands, seeing his teammates lined up on the sideline and sharing their locker room.

The "RS" patch shines on Robbie's jersey, and on those of all his teammates.

It's stitched not too far from the running back's heart.

"If you have a good team that plays with heart and intensity, it's hard to get by that," Robbie says. "That's one thing my dad always told me, and I got to share that with the guys."

Wesley Remmer can be reached at

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