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Smith Overcomes Odds, Thrives as Lander Ball Boy

Lander University graduates Jennifer and Frank Smith enjoy a quiet moment on the campus of their alma mater with their son, Will.

Will Smith, a fourth-grader at Westwood Elementary in Abbeville and ball boy for the Lander University men's basketball team, hasn't let a difficult start in life slow him down.

He became ball boy last August, after participating in his second "Shoot for the Stars" basketball camp of the summer, where he won the "Hustle Award" two times.

It was a year in which he also played basketball, baseball and tennis, offensive guard and defensive end for his football team, and won recognition as a Duke TIP scholar.

It was the kind of year that no one could have foreseen when he was born 10 years ago.

Will was born 12 weeks early, after a harrowing natural delivery in which his left arm was fractured. There was a hole in his heart, as his PDA valve had yet to close, and he suffered from a brain bleed. He did not cry, and could not breathe on his own.

He weighed 3 pounds, 7 ounces at birth, and would later weigh in at 2 pounds, 11 ounces.

"We were given little to no hope at the time, due to the difficult delivery and prematurity," said his mother, 1995 Lander graduate Jennifer Justice Smith.

"Will was placed on a ventilator, and the doctors and chaplain came and talked to us before anyone was allowed to go see him. It was very scary!"

Will's father, Frank, a 1992 Lander graduate who serves as youth director at Abbeville Presbyterian Church, was allowed to see his son that evening, but his wife was barred from visiting until two days later.

"When I saw him, he was on the ventilator," she said. "He had his fractured left arm splinted, had an IV in his head and another line in his umbilical cord. Under the bright lights, he had translucent skin. Yet I had never seen a baby more beautiful. I decided right then that my William Franklin Smith III would not be called 'Trey,' as originally planned, but 'Will,' because it was God's will for him to be there alive, and he had a will to live."

Will was hospitalized for a month. When he was allowed to go home, he weighed four pounds. He was on an apnea and heart monitor for eight months, and followed closely by a team of doctors, with daily weight checks and therapy for his arm.

Because of Will's slowness in turning over and walking, and also because of some posturing with his left arm, his doctors were concerned that he might have a degree of cerebral palsy. "I did not breathe easy until that label was lifted completely," his mother said.

Will remained on synagis immunoglobulin and steroid shots for two years, which his mother said "made him super strong. We called him Bamm-Bamm [the son of Barney and Betty Rubble in "The Flintstones" television series] because he would literally push around the furniture!"

The steroid treatments for asthma, croup and other respiratory ailments continued for eight years, but his mother, a reading interventionist at the school her son attends, said that asthma is the only lingering health issue that Will has today.

Will has expressed the desire to participate in intercollegiate sports when he is older, and as long as he controls his asthma, his mother said, there is no reason why he can't.

"As a matter of fact, Will has a secret advantage," she said. "He has sensory processing disorder due to his brain's 'turning off' some sensors because of his pain at birth and in the natal intensive care unit. Will does not feel pain like others do, which means he can crash into others and it may hurt them, but not him. He says that makes him an awesome defensive player."

Lander head basketball coach Jeff Burkhamer said several things made Will stand out at the basketball camps where the two met. "We knew Will was a hard worker, that he would be dependable, and that he already had a great relationship with our players, so we invited him to help us out as a Bearcat Ball Boy."

According to Burkhamer, "Will does a great job. He helps with pregame and halftime warm-ups and is responsible for wiping up the floor and helping the officials if they need something. He also helps our managers with various duties."

Will's enthusiasm for the game of basketball can be seen anytime the Bearcats suit up for a game at Finis Horne Arena. His first love is not basketball, however, but football. Asked to explain his preference, he thought for a moment, then said, "I just like hitting people."