Twelve-year old Austin Smith of Concord spent Thanksgiving with both legs in casts and a grin on his face.
He is surrounded by friends and family, and his Carolina Panthers are having a winning season.
And even though his was not one of the top 10 videos made for the NFL’s “Together We Make Football” campaign, his video surpassed 1,000 votes.
Austin’s 16-year-old sister, Lauren Smith, a junior at Cox Mill High School, is studying broadcasting. When she heard of the “Together We Make Football” video contest to win Super Bowl tickets, she started crafting a plan.
“Dad and I were watching some game. The commercial came on, and we looked at each other and we just knew,” Lauren said. “We started planning it right then.
“We spent, like, two months on it. It came out exactly how we thought it would.”
Lauren and her father, Darrell Smith, immediately started telling the story of Austin and his love for the Carolina Panthers.
Austin was born at 27 weeks, about two-thirds of the way through his mother’s pregnancy.
“We used to joke that Austin came early just so he wouldn’t miss the opening of the NFL football season,” his mother, Tracy Smith, said. “He was in the NICU for eight weeks, on the respirator for six.
“We always knew (cerebral palsy) was a possibility. The diagnosis was that he had a mild case that only affected his lower extremities.”
Austin had spine surgery at age 3.
“The day after the surgery, he could walk,” Tracy Smith said. “He took off on us. I thought Darrell was watching him. He thought I was. They locked down the hospital. A nurse found him in the cafeteria; someone had given him a lollipop.”
Austin received physical therapy once a week for eight years.
“It wasn’t uncommon to come home from work and see him watching the NFL Network when other kids would be watching cartoons. He would tell me about breaking news and trades,” Darrell Smith said in the video.
“I’ll never forget the time he told me he wondered who would draft him when he got out of college.”
When the Smith family moved from Orlando, Fla., to Charlotte in 2008, they drove past the Jacksonville Stadium and Austin asked whether Charlotte had a NFL team.
When Darrell Smith told him Charlotte was the home of the Carolina Panthers, Austin resolved he would pull for the Panthers. From then on, he was a die-hard Panthers fan.
“I wanted my own team and did not follow my mom and dad’s lead,” Austin said. “I was moving and knew I could go see some games. Cam Newton is my favorite.”
At their first Panthers game together, Darrell and Austin were watching the Jumbotron and saw an advertisement for the Charlotte-Meckenlenburg Challenger Flag Football League for children with disabilities.
“It caught both of our ears, and I called the next day,” Darrell Smith said.
Austin began training for the next year’s season. When the season started, he was identified as a serious contender and became his team’s quarterback, an honor normally reserved for one of the adults.
“There’s nobody that’s more excited to be here,” said Austin’s coach, Chris Doll.
Austin needed reconstructive surgery on both feet, but it would have interfered with the football season. Austin led the decision to postpone the operation and underwent the four-hour surgery Nov. 5, the week his flag football season ended. During the surgery, the Smiths uploaded the video to the NFL’s Web page.
After the two-month recovery period, when the casts are removed, Austin will learn to walk again.
“I don’t let the fact that I have a disability slow me down,” Austin said. “I haven’t known any other way of life. Because I was diagnosed at such a young age, it’s all I know.
“My family does not baby me or treat me like I am disabled,” he said. “My family does not limit me to anything I want to try. They encourage me.”
Lauren is proud to help tell her brother’s story.
“I got props from my teacher,” Lauren said. “She voted for it and put it on the school website.” The Smith family was hoping the video would garner 100 votes.
Cox Mill was not the only one to put the video on its website. With Facebook links from the Smith family and friends, the video soon surpassed the 100-vote mark.
Charlotte-Mecklenberg Park and Recreation sent the link to the Panthers, who put it on their website. Austin even received a mention on the Panthers radio broadcast during the Monday Night Football game Nov. 18.
The video received 1,021 votes.
“We are so pleased that this video has made it all over the world, as far as New Zealand, Australia, Asia and South Africa,” said Austin, whose favorite part of the process was seeing all the “likes.”
“I really wanted to do the video for him, because he is so determined,” Lauren said. “There is so much he can’t do, so I want to help him with the things he can do.”
Austin said, “I am not able to do things the same way my friends can, but I somehow always find a way.”
Kristen Fortin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Kristen? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.