Defining moments occur in life when individuals are faced with choices that can change the trajectory of previously charted paths. For Griffin Smith, this moment came on July 17, 2020 – the summer before his senior year at Noblesville (Indiana) High School – during a family gathering.
“Me and my brother were playing a game called spike ball,” Smith said. “We were just playing around, and I went to hit the ball, got up, and then my back just kind of started to hurt. I went to sit down and thought I just pulled something. Right then and there the pain increased throughout my whole body and I knew something bad was happening.”
An ambulance was on its way and by the time Smith was loaded into the back he could no longer move his legs, feet or toes.
In order to view this defining moment in its totality, it is important to understand the trajectory of Smith’s life before July 17, 2020. A lifelong athlete, Smith grew up playing baseball and later fell in love with lacrosse when he was introduced to the sport in seventh grade.
“One of my buddies’ parents said I should pick up lacrosse and so I went, tried it out, and I instantly just fell in love with it,” Smith said.
While lacrosse is not an Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) sanctioned sport for boys or girls, more than 50 high schools participate in the Indiana High School Lacrosse Association (IHSLA), giving student-athletes the opportunity to compete for their school.
Smith found he enjoyed playing a sport foreign to many Hoosiers who grew up playing basketball, football and baseball.
“It was honestly really cool because it was a sport I could play that I would know the majority about and I wouldn’t have to come home from a game and have my dad telling me what I did wrong or what I did right because he had no idea,” Smith said.
As Smith developed his skills as a lacrosse player he began to specialize as a goalkeeper, really by accident. He was volunteered by a teammate to play the position before the third and final game during a long, hot summer day. Mark Milam, Noblesville head coach, remembers Smith possessing all of the attributes that are needed to be a boys lacrosse goalkeeper.
“To be a successful goalie in lacrosse, you’re honestly the quarterback of the defense – meaning you see the field because you’re defending the goal. You need to be the most communicative person there is on the field,” Milam said.
Not only did Smith or Big Bear – as Milam refers to him – possess the skills necessary to be successful in his position, it was his mentality that let Milam know Smith was going to be the core of his defense.
“The biggest thing is that he is one of the toughest kids you’ll ever meet – always up for a challenge. If you ask him to do something, he’ll figure out a way to get it done,” Milam said.
Fast forward to July 17, 2020 when Smith was transported to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. By the time he reached the hospital he had lost all feeling from his belly button down to his toes. Smith and his family were in shock and confused about what was happening because this occurred at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did Smith have to wait until Monday to see a doctor, but he could only have one parent with him at a time.
Once medical professionals started to evaluate Smith and the events leading up to his paralysis, two potential diagnoses were provided – conversion disorder or a spinal stroke.
Conversion disorder is a mental condition involving the nervous system which can cause paralysis but is triggered by stress. This was not a stressful time for Griffin.
“We weren’t convinced it was [conversion disorder] because it was summertime. I’m going into my senior year relaxed and enjoying life,” Smith said.
Once an MRI was ordered, the reality of a spinal stroke was confirmed.
“They went to my mom and basically said that I’ll probably never regain function, never walk again and I just won’t be the same kid again,” Smith said.
Here it is – the defining moment.
“I was just lying in bed, really ignoring them at that point. I really didn’t care what they had to say,” Smith said.
Milam was not surprised at all by Smith’s reaction to the devastating prognosis.
“Honestly, it was, tell him he can’t do it and he’s going to do it. Tell him he has a 10% chance of walking and he’s going to be that 10%,” Smith said.
Smith’s approach to recovery was grounded in optimism and hard work.
“What I like to tell people is statistics don’t really make you who you are,” Smith said. “You can create your own statistics and what you can do with yourself, what your body is really capable of, and what you’re capable of, because I feel like everybody is different. And if you really want it you can get it.”
Smith has been true to his word and continues to ignore the prognosis of permanent paralysis. In four to five months, Smith was using a cane and only using his wheelchair when traveling long distances.
“I’m up on my feet. I use a cane just to make sure I don’t fall over,” Smith said. “And it’s always getting better. I work out a lot, so I make sure that I keep gaining function and muscle.”
By the spring of 2021 Smith was standing and cheering on the Noblesville lacrosse team from the sidelines and serving as the team manager – sometimes even inserting himself into the huddle to get on his former teammates for not giving it their all. During the last game of what should have been his senior season, as time was winding down and the victory was secured, Milam called a time-out.
“We threw Griff a helmet and a jersey. He left his cane on the sideline and using his goalie stick walked himself out onto the field,” Milam said. “Win or lose, there is a tradition in lacrosse that you go get your goalie when the clock goes zeros. The entire team ran out there as if they won the state championship and got their goalie one last time.”
This defining moment in Griffin Smith’s life has forever changed his life trajectory. Because Smith faced adversity and responded with optimism and determination, his future is filled with limitless possibilities and life lessons very few can teach.
Naturally, coaching is what Smith plans to do next. This year Smith will be a part of the Noblesville boys lacrosse coaching staff.
“We’ve had two practices so far and it has been great. I’m really, really thankful that Mark wanted to bring me onto the staff and I’m super excited to really get to coach a great team.”
Milam agrees that limits do not exist for Smith and coaching will be no different than re-learning how to walk.
“The sky’s the limit for this kid if he can do everything that the doctors told him he wasn’t going to be able to accomplish.” Milam said. “I can’t imagine he’s going to set the bar low for himself. And I would honestly expect for him to be coaching for the foreseeable future. Yeah, I don’t, and I couldn’t imagine putting limits on what he can accomplish.”
Defining moments might be better titled “defining reactions” as it isn’t really the moment, like a spinal stroke, that defines a person, but the way in which a person reacts – like ignoring the doctor who says you likely won’t ever walk again and finding strength in unwavering optimism.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.