Football mom embodies volunteerism with community service
By KORI TUITT
Oct. 16, 2017
WILMINGTON, Mass. (AP) — It all began with her passion for cheerleading.
Back when Deb Smith lived in Medford, she was the cheer coach at Arlington Catholic High School. Her eldest daughter, Christina, wanted to get involved in cheerleading herself, she joined Medford Pop Warner in 1995. When Smith decided to volunteer as a cheer coach, she did not envision dedicated two decades of her life to Pop Warner.
In 1996, she coached the Medford Pop Warner A Team, which won a national championship. Two years later, the family moved to Wilmington and Smith's daughter Christina, who was entering the eighth grade at the time, ended up joining Wilmington Pop Warner to continue cheering.
Right away, Smith got involved, coaching on a volunteer basis.
"Since 1999 the Wilmington A team has gone to nationals every single year with the exception of two. They have never not placed," Smith said. "For years I was just a coach in the program."
Just a couple years after becoming a board member, Smith took on the reigns of the local organization around 2008.
Not only was this a passion for her, it was a family affair.
"I have five kids. I have never not had a child in the program," said Smith, who serves as Pop Warner president.
Her oldest daughter, Christina, is now 32. Her 23-year-old son, Killian, played Wilmington Pop Warner football for years before playing on the Wilmington High School team and later at UMass Dartmouth.
Her 18-year-old son, Graham, currently plays as a quarterback for the high school. Her 16-year-old son, Bailey, is currently a linebacker at the high school. And her youngest daughter, 13-year-old Tiffany, is in her final year of Wilmington Pop Warner cheerleading. Smith, who is now 53, considered stepping down from her position last year, continued on to see her daughter through her final year in the program. Last March, Smith was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, which has spread to the liver.
Young Wilmington Pop Warner football players practice at the Wilmington Town Hall Field. Deb Smith has been a fixture on the sidelines for years, inspiring
Young Wilmington Pop Warner football players practice at the Wilmington Town Hall Field. Deb Smith has been a fixture on the sidelines for years, inspiring generations of youngsters.
Despite her diagnosis and undergoing treatment, Smith continued to be there for the kids.
"Her level of commitment is above and beyond what you would expect from anyone in her situation. She really does care about the program and the well being of the kids," said Fire Lt. Bill Cavanaugh, who is the vice president of Wilmington Pop Warner. "To watch her, even through being sick and going through her treatments, and watch her choose to come out and do that is admirable."
You'll still catch Smith at every Sunday game.
Smith said she had quite the competitive spirit, but it was her diagnosis that made her reflect on her role.
"It took my future and my diagnosis to turn around and look at things a little differently," she said. "What do I want them to remember from this? What do I want them to learn from this?"
Aside from learning the technical skills requires for cheerleading and football, Smith said over the years, these kids have learned the importance of teamwork, good sportsmanship, dedication and how to be a good person.
Smith said she can probably count on two hands the number of Wilmington Pop Warner graduates who she is not in touch with. Many have returned to volunteer, become coaches themselves or just visit.
"I probably have made a lot of mistakes, but when I sit back and look, I definitely did something right, because they're all coming back," Smith said. "The most rewarding part is seeing the successful adults that have come out of our program and that still come back and visit. It's like family down here."
Back when Smith joined Wilmington Pop Warner, she said there were more than 300 kids involved, but numbers began to drop after parents grew concerned with concussions in football. Right now, there are about 70 football players and 65 cheerleaders.
As a safety precaution, about eight years ago, Wilmington Pop Warner decided to replace every helmet and also get each helmet certified annually by Stadium Systems in Connecticut.
Smith's efforts to keep the program going and encourage involvement were just a couple of the reasons she was honored earlier this year with the Pop Warner Lifetime Achievement Award. Of course, she was humbled and shocked by the recognition.
"There are way more people in the Eastern Mass. Pop Warner Conference who deserve that more than me, I feel," she said. "There are just so many people who care about the kids."
Cavanaugh said her award did not come as a surprise to many who know her.
"She has a very faithful following of past and present cheerleaders and football players. She does have a very good connection with the kids," he said. "No one has ever questioned her commitment to the program."
Smith credits years of support from board members for the success of the program. She said her husband, Kevin, is also super involved -- so much so, that an athlete once mistook him for the president. Smith said he has been there for her every step of the way and hasn't missed a single doctor's appointment since her diagnosis.
"I wouldn't be able to do it without them because I can't be there, I can't do all of it," Smith said. "It's been a great group of people for a long time and now it's going to change. Some more great people are going to come in."
Information from: The (Lowell, Mass.) Sun, http://www.lowellsun.com