When the odds seem to stack against him, it’s the game Curtis Smith loves that keeps him on track.
Smith, a senior lineman and one of the captains for the Portland High School Bulldogs football team, is a case study in resilience. He has experienced homelessness, has a learning disability, lost his father, and his mother’s COVID-19 experience proved challenging.
Through it all, Smith maintains an even-keeled perspective.
“Push through all the hard things in life,” Smith said during an interview following Portland’s 40-0 victory over rival Deering High School last Friday night at Fitzpatrick Stadium. “And when things get tough, keep pushing.”
As an eighth grader, Smith experienced homelessness, having to move in with his grandmother after his family lost their house. His father died last year, and Smith’s mother got “super sick” with COVID-19, he said, before making a full recovery.
And to boot, high school football last year was limited to 7-on-7 touch or flag football because of the pandemic, providing just bits and pieces of the traditional rite of fall. Gone were the linemen like Smith, an integral yet under-appreciated part of any successful football team.
Instead of playing football last fall, he worked out six days a week – and his persistence paid off: Smith was named a team captain for his senior year.
Thankfully, football is being played normally in 2021.
From the movie “The Blind Side” to the countless stories gone untold, from injury comebacks to inspirational tales, football often inspires resiliency like Smith’s.
To find out why, I reached out to John McCarthy, clinical associate professor and director of the Institute for Athletic Coach Education at Boston University. McCarthy previously served as the offensive coordinator for the BU football team and as an academic coach for Play It Smart, a National Football League program.
“In all sports, but particularly football, there’s a set of transferable life skills that can be developed with good coaching,” McCarthy said. “You’ve got to get back up after you get knocked down. … A person can gain a sense of belonging that’s really powerful. Especially when kids come from loss, it can be a life saver.”
The 17-year-old Smith’s immense size – 6 feet 5 inches, 295 pounds – and skill have college football programs interested in recruiting him, according to Portland coach Jason McLeod.
“I love the kid, just that sheer self-will” McLeod said. “(He’s) the consummate teammate and deserves everything he’s getting.”
Smith considers himself a private person. Not everyone knows his background, but he shared his story in hope it will help others.
“(It’s) so people understand what other people are going through,” he said. “Not everyone knows where you’re coming from or the things you deal with.”
It’s easy to see how much Smith embraces being a part of a team – playful jabs, a quick dance move during a halftime stretch, postgame conversations with the opposition – and playing the game he’s learned to love with teammates who are friends for life.
And despite all Smith’s been through, when he steps on the field with his Bulldog teammates, everything else just seems to go away.
“I just let it all free and have fun,” he said.
Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].