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Disease took athletic career, not spirit

He aches to play again, five years along. Strip this down to its core, go deep to the mattress with it, and it is as simple and as complicated and as plain bare wood as that.

Corbin Smith was an athlete with prospects, and then he wasn’t. And therein hangs a tale.

It begins at DeKalb High School in the spring of 2008, when all the world was opening up for him the way it seems to for every high school kid in the last weeks of his senior year. Boise State wanted him for football. A bunch of Big Ten schools were after him for baseball. Life was good.

And then …

Well. Let him tell it.

“I started losing weight,” he begins, simply. “We didn’t know what was going on. And it just started this snowball of a nightmare, so to speak.”

What was going on was Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder characterized by a wide range of symptoms, but mostly chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. It afflicts somewhere around 700,000 Americans, mostly between the ages of 15 and 35. And there is no cure.

Smith would not know for two years that that’s what he had, by which time his life had become one slammed door after another. The football and baseball offers dried up. He tried different medications, one of which caused him to gain 70 pounds in 2 1/2 months. Three months after he went off it, those 70 pounds were gone.

“It was awful,” Smith says.

And the worst of it, of course, was that the Crohn’s stole his athletic identity. Smith wound up at Manchester College, where, after he was finally diagnosed, he tried out for football his junior year. But he was only two months removed from his last hospital stay, and he made it through only three weeks of practice before having to quit.

“I was trying to figure out how am I gonna get back on the field, but unfortunately I wasn’t really ready to be playing college football yet,” he says.

And now he’s out in the world, a middle-school teacher at East Noble, and yet everything he lost still pains him like a phantom limb. With his Crohn’s under control, and in “outstanding shape,” he has lately been kicking around the idea of taking another crack at college football. He still, after all, has four years of eligibility left.

“I hated that I had all these goals that I had pursued and was so close to achieving, and then this happened,” Smith says. “So for me this is about … just seeing where this goes right now.”

And if that’s all there were to this – one man pursuing one unfulfilled dream – maybe that would be enough. But this isn’t just about personal striving; it’s about that rare intersection where personal striving and the common good come together.

And so Corbin Smith is turning his own ambition into something beyond himself. On Saturday, at the Classic City Center in Waterloo, he’s hosting on a 7-on-7 flag football tournament to raise money for Crohn’s research. Already, the event, part of a campaign Smith is calling “Comeback for Crohn’s,” has generated close to $1,200 for Crohn’s research through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.

“My goal is simple: I want to show people that you can live a normal life with this disease,” says Smith, who’s encountered several students with Crohn’s. “Obviously, that’s a major reason that I’m doing this. I understand it’s a bigger problem, that more people have it, and I can tell you firsthand the medication is expensive. A lot of these kids, there’s no way they’re gonna be able to afford that.”

And so, personal ambition be hanged. The phantom limb still pains Corbin Smith as much as it ever did, but now it pains him for reasons that go beyond just himself.

“This is not about me,” he says. “This is about helping victims who are battling a vicious intestinal illness that many people are unaware of.”

As simple and as complicated and as plain bare wood as that.

If You Go

What: Comeback for Crohn’s 7-on-7 Flag Football Tournament
Where: Classic City Center, Waterloo
When: Saturday
Information: www.facebook/ComebackForCrohns
Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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