August 22, 2013
By Mark Janssen
Imagine, if you will, that one day you're a coach of your son's track and basketball teams, and a hunk enough of a man to be nicknamed 'Big Dog' by your fellow workers.
The next day, however, you're a wheelchair-bound 46-year-old paraplegic following a somewhat routine surgery to remove a herniated disc in your back.
"It's a tough deal, but I have the optimism and faith that I will walk again," said Billy Ray Smith. "I'm not the first one that this has happened to. There's a foundation in place with the rehabilitation people. There are steps you have to complete before you get to the next step, but I'm looking to complete the task."
WHO'S BILLY RAY SMITH?
If the name Billy Ray Smith sounds like "Texas" it's for good reason. He was an all-star prep basketball player in Garland where he averaged 25 points per game, and then attended Midland Community College where he was listed by Sports Illustrated as one of the Top 5 Junior College transfers in the country.
K-State's Lon Kruger was the one who won that recruiting battle signings Smith in 1988. He would end up with a career average of 5.3 points per game as he started 28 of the 62 games that he played.
"Good memories," Smith said of his days as a Wildcat, which included two NCAA Tournament appearances. "Coach Kruger gave me a chance and we had quality teams. I wouldn't trade those days for anything."
Completing his basketball career with the 1989-1990 season, Smith needed one more semester to complete his social science major.
Basketball teammate Reggie Britt talked his buddy into trying out for Bill Snyder's football Wildcats in the fall of 1990 despite the fact that he had never played high school football due to a dirt bike/car accident.
Britt ended up quitting his bid to become a tight end, which left Smith to battle it out alone as a 6-foot-5, 225-pound defensive end/lineman.
Laughing, Smith said, "When Reggie quit I had to stick it out or people would have thought basketball players were too soft to play. I did all right. I started on most of the special teams and played a little defensive end behind Elijah Alexander and Reggie Blackwell. Those were two pretty good players."
HEALTHY TODAY, PARALYZED TOMORROW
After his KSU days, Smith worked at the Manhattan Flint Hills Job Corp as a recreation advisor before returning home to join good friend and former Wildcat basketball walk-on Reggie Carney with the Pepsi Cola Company as a production supervisor.
Fast-forward 20 years and Smith was starting to feel the aches and pains that many former athletes do. Not able to horse around with his kids, or navigate gymnasium bleachers, last August 1, Smith had his right knee scoped to repair the meniscus ligament. The expected routine recuperation didn't go as planned. It was anything but the norm.
"After eight weeks I was still on crutches," said Smith. "I had no feeling in my right leg and I couldn't place my foot where I wanted to. They called it 'club foot.' At 46, I eventually went to using a walker."
An MRI was performed that showed a herniated disc that was causing this numbness in the lower half of his body. Surgery was performed on April 3 in Dallas' UT Southwest Hospital.
The procedure was supposed to take four or five hours, but instead it lasted eight hours.
The procedure was supposed to return the feeling to Smith's legs, but instead it left him paralyzed.
He was a paraplegic.
Out of the recovery room, Smith was asked if he could move his feet, "... and I couldn't do it." He was asked if he could feel hot and cold, "... and I couldn't do it."
Smith had never had surgery before, so "... I thought this might be normal and it would take time. I was hearing a lot of stuff that you don't want to hear, but never in my mind did I think I was paralyzed."
Smith returned home in three weeks, but still couldn't move.
He was a paraplegic.
"Hearing that word, and later having to write it on medical forms, was very tough," said Smith, who has daughters that are 28 and 11, and a 14-year-old son. "Not until then did it really sink in. It wasn't real to me, but I had no movement, so that's the term I had to go by."
Two-plus months later, he says, "I was able to move my toes a little bit. That little bit made me excited for the therapist to come back the next day. It was progress on a tough journey."
Today four-plus months after the surgery, Smith can move his left foot, but can't control it. "It lands where it wants to and can't support any weight. I think of moving my right foot, but it won't pick up, and I still can't feel hot and cold on my legs."
While he lives by himself at his Garland home, Smith compares his status to being an infant.
"I'm trying to learn how to take care of myself. I'm a baby in a playpen who can't walk," said Smith. "Like a baby, I'm hoping I can walk in 9 to 12 months. But it may take 13, or more. I'm not going to put a time on it. I'm still young. I can bounce back. I know I can bounce back.
"God has the time table," said Smith. "I have to be realistic. I know it's not going to happen overnight."
WHAT AN ATTITUDE
Smith wants no pity. In fact, he's the one who feels the pain for friends who come by and don't know what to say.
"I can see the pain in their eyes. They want to see me as I was and not as I am," said Smith. "They don't want this to be real for me, but it is."
Carney continues to check in on Smith on more days than not and marvels at his friend's attitude.
"He's the most positive person I've ever met," said Carney. "People come to see him to try to encourage him, but they leave having been encouraged by him. He knows he's not going to stay in that chair. He believes that one day he will walk again. He's working toward that vision every day. He's been an amazing role model for me."
Fans can send a message of encouragement to smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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