They said he’d never walk. Never do much of anything, really.
Nick Smith has spent his entire young life bucking those odds and then some. Terrifying odds. So what Smith has been able to do athletically for Hamburg High School is nothing short of a miracle.
Smith plays soccer for the Hawks during the fall and participates in field events in the spring. He also plays soccer on winter and spring clubs in the area. He is a defensive midfielder. He is deaf.
“Participates” is underselling it. The 5-foot-8, 150-pound 17-year-old junior – diagnosed with the rare condition Mondini dysplasia at six months old, a malformation of the inner ear canals controlling balance – is Hamburg’s leading javelin thrower, while also taking part in discus. His javelin tosses – including a career-best 140-1 against Schuylkill Valley on May 9 – were good enough for to qualify him for the Berks County meet at Governor Mifflin.
So this all goes beyond simply a feel-good story about overcoming astronomical odds just to participate. Smith is accomplishing, contributing, leading.
A good bit of that can likely be traced to the family’s insistence on treating their disabled son like any other family member, to foster as “normal” a dynamic as possible.
“We treat him as though there’s nothing wrong with him,” Tracy Smith, Nick’s mother, said. “I think we are actually harder on him than we are with my older son (Robbie) and our daughter (Amanda). Because I know that he can do it. I take extreme pride in him.
“It’s not nice to say, but some people think because you’re deaf, you’re dumb (stupid, not mute). I know he can do it. It’s a struggle for him but he gets it done.”
It’s a damning, utterly devastating prognosis, being told your young child won’t walk, won’t talk, won’t have any shot at leading a normal, healthy childhood. Tracy Smith first noticed something wasn’t right in early 2000, a few months after Nick was born.
“At about six months old, I noticed he wasn’t cooing or making noises,” Tracy said, “like my older son did.”
The diagnosis was Mondini dysplasia, in both ears.
“Nick is missing the three semi-circular canals (balance) and his cochlea (hearing) is just one big circle in his head,” Tracy said. “One big cavity, so to speak. We were told he’d never walk, never talk, never climb, never do anything.”
The odds were first beaten at 22 months, when young Nick began to show signs that he, indeed, would be able to walk. It was a while, however, before he could walk without tumbling over.
“He was extremely wobbly,” Nick’s mother said. “At nighttime, Nick would just fall over. … It was a gradual process. … At 3½ was the first time he could walk without literally falling over.”
Nick progressed to the point where, at five years old, he played sports for the first time. T-ball. His inspiration, his role model? Right at home.
“My brother Robbie,” Nick said, through his mother. “I keep (doing this) so that my brother watches me. I want to be like him.”
Robbie Smith, now a freshman in college, threw javelin for the Hawks and qualified for counties during his time there. Last season, Robbie was Hamburg’s top javelin thrower and Nick was No. 2.
“Would Nick be where he’s at if he didn’t have an older brother? I’m not quite sure,”’ Tracy said. “I’d think no. Robbie played baseball, so Nick played baseball. Robbie threw javelin, so Nick threw javelin. Watching Robbie was a complete influence on him.”
T-ball was the introduction to the world his brother was already inhabiting.
“Nick loved baseball, he loved the Phillies,” Tracy said. “No football or hockey allowed, and he’s not supposed to hit the soccer ball with his head. He’s pretty good about that.”
The soccer bug also hit around the same time. “No idea why, no idea where that came from,” Tracy said, bemused. “Robbie never played.”
Nick had been outfitted with cochlear implants twice, which provided a very rudimentary level of hearing, but by 2009 both had failed. His right inner ear was so bad that it was simply sealed off.
The family was forced to hire an interpreter and learn sign language that year. It became his primary method of communication, though texting provides another tool – away from the playing field, at least. A third implant has since been put in his left ear, but has not provided much in the way of audio assistance.
The prospect of playing soccer presented a challenge. It was not easy. Still isn’t. How could Nick communicate with his teammates on the pitch?
“It’s been hard,” Tracy admitted. “His teammates will use gestures. There are two kids on the soccer team who know enough sign to get him along, to get him to places. It is a struggle.”
Fortunately, Hamburg School District has aided the situation. It stepped to the plate and provided Nick, free of charge, interpreters hired through Berks Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services. Those interpreters, Kim McIntyre and Jess Dehaut, have free roam on the sidelines to let Nick know where he should be positioned on the field, as needed.
“It’s hard to understand people and what they’re trying to say while I’m playing,” Nick said, through his mother. “I watch the interpreter.”
Nick’s interpreters relay messages from Hamburg head coach Chris Zalasky.
None of this would have been possible without support from the Hamburg community at large and the coaches at the high school level, including Zalasky, track head coach Phil Kistler and throwing coaches Steve Rhoads and Kathy Dimera.
“His coaches have just been phenomenal,” Tracy said. “Not one person, kids or parents, have ever made fun of him. The support has been great.”
Nick – who scored a goal against Pottsville for his spring club from about 18 yards out on April 30 – remains blissfully unaware of how unique, how inspiring, his accomplishments have been.
“Because I’m no different,” he said.