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‘He’ll Find a Way’

After a tumultuous decade marked by an unspeakable heartbreak, an unlikely triumph and an ongoing fight with anxiety and depression, Gage Smith is reunited with his family, refocused on sports and ready to conquer his latest challenge — becoming a member of the USA Bobsled team

Carolyn Doney and Barry Smith met in pursuit of their athletic dreams.

Doney, a Great Falls native, was a star on the University of Alaska-Anchorage basketball team. Smith plied his trade on skates and chased his dream long after college, spending almost a decade playing professional hockey in North America and Europe before transitioning into coaching, not long after he and Carolyn were married in 1990. The Smiths’ first two sons, Maxl and Gage, were born in Erie, Pennsylvania, where Barry was coaching an East Coast Hockey League team called the Erie Panthers, and they would add a third son, Hutton, along a crisscrossing journey that coincided with Barry’s coaching stops in Waterloo, Iowa; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Syracuse, New York; Kansas City, Kansas; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and, eventually, with the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. Barry’s work life made for an unorthodox but not necessarily unpleasant family arrangement, one he says he and Carolyn made early in their relationship.

“That’s why we had such a good marriage,” he said. “When the season starts until it ends, (I’ve) got full rein to go and do what (I) need to do, but when the season’s over it’s (her) time.”

The professional hockey season occupies much of the fall, winter and spring, so for that part of the year the Smith boys saw their father primarily away from home, befriending professional athletes and spending weeks at a time as de facto members of his teams’ traveling party. Before the start of the 2002-03 hockey season, Barry’s climb through the minor leagues was complete, and with a new job as an assistant coach for the Canucks, the Smiths decided it was time to put down roots. They chose Whitefish, the town where Carolyn’s parents had moved in the mid-1990s, and continued to parent at their chosen rhythm, Carolyn at home all school year and Barry in charge in the summer.

Unsurprisingly, sports were a seminal part of life in the Smith home. The oldest boys, Maxl and Gage, launched hockey careers at a young age, and by the time the family settled in Whitefish, football, baseball and basketball became significant parts of the mix as well. Carolyn was a “super mom,” Gage says, and had her hands full with sports, school and, occasionally, her middle boy’s school principals. Still, the family was on solid footing. They had a home and they had each other.

For a while, it all worked. Barry was an assistant for the Canucks five seasons, the pinnacle of a long and winding career. The boys made their own names for themselves and found greatest success on the gridiron. And Carolyn was at the center of it all, a singular force around which her entire family orbited.

Then in August 2010, without warning or mercy, Carolyn Smith developed a blood clot in her lungs and died. She was 47 years old. Her family was shattered.

Gage Smith had a knack for finding trouble even before his mother died. Carolyn saw the good in him, Gage says, even when he was arrested twice before he turned 15 and spent hours in the principal’s office instead of the classroom.

In high school, Gage did not slow much. Barry Smith stayed at home for a year after his wife’s death but, needing an income and knowing only one thing as a professional, returned to the coaching ranks in 2011 and left his oldest boys, Maxl and Gage, with another Whitefish family. (Hutton, the youngest, went to California to live with some of Carolyn’s relatives). Steven Rizzolo and Jennifer Butler helped raise the two boys along with their own children, and Butler says Gage spent enough time home from school on suspension that he was able to paint an entire barn on her property.

“More than anything, I was just a pretty rowdy kid who liked to be physical and roughed people up,” Gage, now 24, said of his younger days. “I would talk back to people; I had a smart mouth. It would get me in trouble here and there.”

It was through sports, and football in particular, that Gage started to find his way. He looked up to his brother, Maxl, and that plus a competitiveness bred into them meant Gage was extra motivated on the gridiron at Whitefish High School. The Bulldogs’ head football coach, Chad Ross, had the two Smith boys in his program and called Gage a “knucklehead” but one who knew right from wrong and learned how to channel his less-favorable tendencies more productively as he got older.

Gage, matching his brother Maxl, became an all-state football player and had the opportunity to follow him to Carroll College but instead opted to prove himself against the best players in the state at the University of Montana.

Without a scholarship, Gage attempted to make the Griz roster as a walk-on and ended up spending his freshman season out of uniform, watching from the sidelines on game days instead of strapping on his pads. Rather than giving up, Gage returned the following season under a new coach, Bob Stitt, and made the roster in 2015. He played three years for Stitt, working his way into a starting job on special teams by his second season.

A walk-on’s path to earning a roster spot, let alone regular playing time, is arduous, isolating and unlikely. But that’s just the way Gage Smith likes his challenges. He beat out players who had been recruited on scholarship, a number of whom were cut by the new coaching staff in the spring of 2015, and balanced classes, practices, workouts and more without the added safety net of a free education.

“I’ve always been somebody who likes to prove my worth,” Gage says. “It’s never been about proving to other people; it’s more to prove to myself that I can go and do these things and be successful. Especially doing it the hard way.”

Gage’s doggedness and self-determination helped him stand out on the football field, but in a family full of strong-headed men it did little to help any of them cope with the loss of the woman who held them all together. Grief, it is said, affects everyone differently and unpredictably, and even as Gage’s football career was coalescing, other parts of his life were still fracturing.

There is not one particular slight or one explosive fight that broke the Smith boys apart, but by the time Gage was getting playing time at the University of Montana, he, his brothers and his father were basically not on speaking terms. The bull-headed boys fought and held grudges, clashing as they worked to figure out their place in the world and their family.

“I was a pretty good father,” Barry said. “But I wasn’t a very good mother. And you need both.”

“We all went through (Carolyn’s death) at different stages, myself included,” he continued. “I think everybody handles grief a different way and they handle it at different times in their lives … Maybe the two older boys didn’t want to recognize it (at first), but in the end losing mom was pretty tough.”

Gage does not draw a direct line between his mother’s death and his struggles with anxiety and depression, but her loss no doubt worsened his mental health. Like most teenage boys, especially football players, Gage shared very little about his illness to those who knew him, and, fitting his personality, fought those battles in isolation.

And for a while that worked, too, until a vicious concussion in a spring practice after his sophomore year for the Griz. He experienced extreme symptoms for months afterward, and when he finally felt good enough to return to the field that fall, he had another concussion in practice.

“Those back-to-back concussions hurt me and put me in a bad place mentally,” he said.

Gage played one more year of college football, in 2017, before walking away from the sport ahead of his senior season. He opened up to a reporter from the Missoulian in the fall of 2018 after making his decision and spoke publicly about his mental health for the first time.

“I was never somebody who likes people feeling sorry for you,” he said. “You never like to admit that you’re weak and when you need help … I do need help. It’s something I struggle with.”

Gage Smith plays for the Grizzlies in Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula on Sept. 2, 2017. Photo by Montana Athletics

Around the same time his football career came to a close, Gage Smith was also closing in on a different kind of achievement. He was beginning to reassemble the family he had let slip away years earlier.

“There was never that one shining moment where everything was mended,” Gage said. “(I was) just growing up and getting over my problems and dealing with people the wrong way, and that goes for my dad and brothers as well.”

There is a moment for Barry, however, when he began to see his family whole again. It was in 2017, during Gage’s final season, when the Griz were playing at the University of Washington. Barry was in the crowd for the first time in years and still chokes up talking about seeing his son on the field.

“That’s where we were starting to come back together and talking, and we were all coming together as a family,” he said. “We all went through whatever we were through, and some were later than others. I think that right there was the start — it was a chance to see him and be together. It’s a pretty proud moment for a dad.”

The years since have done nothing but bring the family even closer. Hutton is now in college in California and spent his holiday break in Italy with Barry, who is coaching a hockey team there. Maxl is in the U.S. Navy and spent Christmas in Whitefish with Gage and the Rizzolo family, something that has become an annual tradition.

“Where we’re at now is great,” Barry said. “It’s almost like it was when Carolyn was around … It was a rocky road — you go through those things — and now it’s in a great place.”

And Gage has found a new channel for his athletic energy, albeit in an unlikely place. Even in the midst of his Griz football career, he and UM sprinter Alex Mustard talked — jokingly at first — about becoming bobsledders. They submitted an athlete resume almost on a lark before their last year of college and were surprised to hear back from a coach who invited them to a tryout in Lake Placid, New York. They delayed their tryout for a year, until they finished school, and began their adventure last fall at the USA Bobsledding rookie camp in August 2019. Four months later, they were both part of a four-man sled that won three silver medals at the Park City (Utah) North American Cup.

The “varsity” level, as Gage calls it, is on the World Cup circuit, where three U.S. bobsleds are currently competing as Team USA’s rookies fight for a spot. Bobsledding is such a specialized sport that almost everyone comes to it with no experience, but the two UM grads have already overcome long odds by making it through the initial screening and out of a tryout camp, and both have had to prove their dedication to the sport just to make it to trainings and events. All of Team USA’s rookies pay their own way, even for travel to domestic and international competitions. To help pay his expenses, Gage has set up a fundraiser on GoFundMe that had raised nearly $5,000 as of Jan. 6.

“It’s always tough having to ask for money and rely on other people, but so many people (in Whitefish) are so supportive and want to see you do good, so it’s really motivating,” he said. “You want people to know that their money’s going to good use and you’re going to work hard and do right by their donation to you.”

Gage says he is planning to go as far as the sport will take them at least until 2022, the year of the next Winter Olympics. Until then, there is a familiar road ahead. He is tasked with earning a spot on a team he wasn’t invited to, and proving to himself that he’s good enough to stay there.

“It’s almost as if every rookie is a walk-on,” he said. “It’s such a similar mentality; you have to earn everything you get. I like that.”

Plenty, though, is not the same. The odds of making one of the country’s few World Cup bobsled teams are even longer than those of walking on at the University of Montana. But this isn’t the same Gage Smith either.

“We’re proud of all our kids in a different way, but how far he’s come and how hard he’s worked to make himself a good person and a good athlete is great,” Barry Smith said. “I’m so proud of what he’s become. He’s done a great job and he’s earned it. I think somehow he’ll find a way.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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