COLUMBIA - Hickman senior running back Gary Smith simply can't help smiling when talking about the game he loves.
Smith began playing football when he was 5 years old. Now in his senior year at Hickman High School, it has become a big part of who he is. "I have the heart for it," Smith said of football. "I just love it, like you'd love a girl or like you'd love your mother."
This passion makes it easy to see why Smith is so excited to have a second chance at his senior season.
After surgery for a dislocated wrist, it appeared that Smith would be out for the season. But he was recently told by doctors that he could return to the Kewpies as early as next week for their game against Rock Bridge at Memorial Stadium.
Smith was devastated by the initial news of his injury. After he moved back to his hometown, Atlanta, from Columbia before his junior season in order to be closer to family, Smith's mother felt that he should come back and finish high school at Hickman. Smith was excited to be back in Columbia for his senior season.
His anticipation was a big reason the original prognosis was so difficult to handle.
"I was in pain," Smith said. "I was crying, I had tears in my eyes."
Head coach Jason Wright thinks the immense commitment that high school athletes put forth in the offseason makes injuries like Smith's that much more frustrating.
"The summer stuff, the 6:30 a.m.'s (practices), the 7-on-7's at 6 a.m. on Saturdays," Wright said. "You do all those things, and then for the injury bug to pop up and hit you, it's got to take the wind out of you."
Smith regained that wind pretty quickly, though. The level of sadness he felt with news of his injury was only matched by the joy he felt when doctors told him that he would be back.
"I couldn't do anything but smile," Smith said. "I was happy, and I just wanted to be around football the same day that he told me it was going to be OK."
It's not a surprise that Smith's instinct was to be around football. Despite the injury, Smith can still be found at every practice alongside his teammates.
Hickman coach Jason Wright said he thinks Smith's presence is indicative of the player that he is, and has been important, despite Smith's inability to get on the field.
"He's such a spiritual leader," Wright said. "He's a team guy. He cares deeply about people. I think people care about him. He's the epitome of a team person."
Smith credits that spirit for his quick recovery. With the help of his mother, and prayer at the Healing Room Ministries of Columbia, Smith never lost faith in the chance for him to play again.
"My mom kept telling me I was going to be able to play," Smith said. "I always had faith. I knew I was coming back. I tried to think nothing negative, it was all about the positives."
There are plenty of positives for the Kewpies with Smith's impending return. Smith gained 106 yards rushing off the bench for Hickman in its opening-week loss, and the offense has struggled in the two weeks since his injury.
"It'll be a breath of fresh air," Wright said. "I think it's going to lift our spirits and I think he's going to give us a boost from an offensive standpoint and from a team standpoint, just being a leader."