Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports editors Ray Brewer and Case Keefer discuss Liberty's momentous win over the top-ranked team in Texas, and give an ode to all the other great games high school football has produced so far.
Paul Smith had made the afternoon walk many times before. He’d leave school at Chaparral High and head east on Viking Road toward Boulder Highway.
Soon he would arrive home from summer workouts with the Cowboys football team, where the linebacker and running back was preparing for his senior season, to care for his nieces and nephews.
But Smith didn’t arrive home from his walk Aug. 1.
The 17-year-old was approached by three strangers demanding he hand over the cellphone and headphones he was using. But Smith would not relinquish his property willingly.
He started fighting back and says he landed a few solid punches — until one of the men pulled a gun and shot Smith in the pelvis from a few feet away.
The men, who haven’t been apprehended according to Metro Police, made off with his belongings as Smith lay wounded on the side of the road. Smith tried to flag down a car at Boulder Highway and Indios Avenue for help, but none stopped. Weary and losing his senses, he stumbled to a gas station and was able to call 911.
About 30 minutes later he was having emergency surgery to save his life at Sunrise Hospital. The bullet traveled through his bladder, colon and bowels.
“I didn’t really feel it. I felt something but didn’t realize I was shot. Then I felt a little burn,” he said. “... I was trying to stay strong for my family, for my football team and for the people around me. “
The day after the surgery, his physical therapist in their first session had a simple request of Smith: Stand without losing your balance. But Smith already had bigger plans: He wanted to suit up for the Cowboys, and not just for any game.
This is the week that stands out every season on the Chaparral schedule. At 7 p.m. Friday it hosts Eldorado in the “Cleat Game” rivalry, which dates to the 1970s and is considered one of Nevada’s most storied games.
Smith, significantly ahead of his rehabilitation schedule, was cleared this week to dress for the game. Coaches will gradually work him back into the playing rotation.
• • •
The elder Paul Smith thought someone was playing a joke on him. He received a phone call saying his son was shot and was headed into life-saving surgery. There were few details; he needed to rush to Sunrise Hospital.
“I’m sitting there waiting for my son to get home and it’s taking too long,” the elder Smith said. “I get this phone call asking if I’m the father of Paul Smith. I asked, ‘Who is this?’ I thought I was getting punked like that TV show and that it was a hardcore joke. .. I just freaked out. I couldn’t believe it was my son.”
The family wasn’t in the mood for games.
The elder Smith’s sister had lost a fight with brain cancer earlier in the week, and the family was preparing for her services. Now, he’d have to get on the phone with inexplicable news of another tragedy.
Their son was never in trouble. He’s well-liked by friends, has a 3.2 grade-point average in honors classes and is so responsible that his family allows him to care for his 5-month-old niece.
“Paul is extremely well-loved on campus. His teachers love him; the other kids love him,” said Xavier Antheaume, Chaparral’s assistant principal. “He is quiet, unassuming and does his own thing. But he always does the right thing.”
When word started to spread to teammates and coaches, they raced to the hospital in support. It was during summer vacation, but there were easily 100 visitors on that initial day.
That’s the beauty of high school sports. Sure, defeating Eldorado on Friday is a top priority. But win or lose, players will always consider each other family. And you take care of your own.
“After I saw all the support, I got a little teary,” the younger Smith said. “Knowing I couldn’t return the support and be out there playing with my team hurt. I wanted to support them.”
• • •
That could have been me.
When I heard of what happened to Smith I couldn’t help thinking back to my high school days. I’m a proud Chaparral graduate and walked those same streets many afternoons on the way home from soccer practice. But I’m not nearly as brave as Smith and would have run in fear.
That was in the 1990s, though, when the neighborhood was considered safer. That’s why I hate writing this story.
Readers are quick to label children in the east part of Las Vegas for their troubles and what’s perceived as an area with high crime. Yes, the Las Vegas population boom has taken affluent families from the middle of town to the outskirts, but that doesn’t mean the children still there are troublemakers.
My family has attended church in that area, less than a mile from where Smith was shot, the past 40 years. The teenagers in that neighborhood are just like the ones when I grew up — they have grand dreams for the future, and take pride in wearing the orange and black on game nights. Like Smith, most are great kids.
• • •
Smith surprised teammates in late August when he walked onto the sidelines during a scrimmage. They hadn’t seen him since those hospital visits, and he had lost nearly 20 pounds from being nourished exclusively via intravenous fluids for a few weeks.
Smith is a team leader; coaches say his mere presence inspired teammates to play harder. During the initial two games of the season, he paced behind the bench yelling words of encouragement and talking to teammates between plays. Smith physically wasn’t on the field. Mentally, he was there for every down.
Chaparral surrendered more than 60 points last week in losing to Basic. Smith was crushed.
“It took everything in me to watch that,” Smith said of the loss. “I wanted to be out there with them. It sucks knowing I had to miss six weeks of football. At the same time I am grateful that I’m still alive to play football.”
But Smith will be back starting this week in the game of all games. At every stage of his rehab, therapists and doctors raved that he was ahead of schedule. Smith has proved he’s a fighter.
“It was just incredible,” the elder Smith said of his son’s recovery. “The next day, he is walking and they didn’t think that would happen for a couple of weeks.”
For Smith, the 8-inch scar on his lower stomach is the reason he continues to fight. There’s a lot of football left.