Youth Soccer Community Rallies to Support Brave Danny
It was a beautiful Friday evening in Southern California when life changed forever for Danny Smuts Jr. in the middle of a soccer match.
Darting across the center of Frances Ryan Park in Escondido, Danny stretched to intercept a pass and fell to the ground clutching his back.
His father’s first reaction was one of surprise that his son, a talented 14-year-old center midfield player for Escondido’s FC Heat, had made an unusually sloppy tackle.
Danny was a star Under-15 soccer and baseball player and referee and it was unheard of for him to ever shirk from a challenge.
But his father’s surprise quickly turned to concern when Danny failed to get up. Within 30 seconds the teen had lost all feeling below the belly button and it was clear to everyone watching that he was struggling with something way beyond the ramifications of winning or losing a soccer game.
It was only nine days later after many tests and MRI examinations that doctors learned that Danny had suffered a spinal stroke that, for the foreseeable future at least, has robbed him of the use of both his legs.
The diagnosis wasn’t caused by a physical blow or a tackle. It’s a condition that was going to happen; it just happened to be on a soccer field.
It is possible Danny will be paralyzed for the long term, if not for the rest of his life, a prognosis that he is already meeting with courage and determination to both battle against the odds and make the very best of his dramatically changed circumstances.
The soccer game in which Danny collapsed – a match-up between FC Heat’s Under-15 and Under-14 sides in Escondido’s Dave Shelton Cup – happened on July 17 and the teenager is now hoping to return home from the Naval Medical Center Children’s Hospital in San Diego at the end of August.
It has been an enormously challenging time for his close-knit family - parents Dan and Cyndie, who are both teachers, and brothers Drew, 19, a former San Diego Surf player, and Jacob, 6, and for all of those close to him.
But his father, Dan, a former Cal South and high school soccer coach, says his son has been an inspiration to everybody.
“He has been the strongest one through the whole process,” said his dad.
“We are battling this on two fronts; we are going to do everything we can to get every nerve sense back. At the same time we need to make sure that Danny will lead a good life.
“Danny has the attitude, ‘If this is what I can be, I will be everything that I can. It is very easy to think about all the things you can’t do but Danny’s not thinking like that.”
Dan believes the lessons his son learned while playing soccer have served him well in dealing with personal tragedy.
“They are learning to get up after they have fallen. I feel that doing a lot of sports has helped give him that perspective.”
Dan said many “very good people” in the community have reached out to help his family through such a difficult time.
“I would like to thank everyone at Escondido Soccer Club. They have been phenomenal, as has Cal South,” said Dan. He also wanted to give special thanks to Escondido Youth Baseball and to the family’s church, Community Lutheran Church in Escondido.
The tournament in which Danny was playing when he collapsed continued as doctors tried to establish what had happened to the young midfielder and it so happened that the same FC Heat teams that were playing that day made it to the final.
FC Heat’s director of coaching Steve Yorke ruled that the final should be postponed…until Danny can be there in person to watch and cheer on his friends.
It is a gesture that sums up the footballing community in Escondido and in youth soccer in Southern California as a whole.
Yorke described Danny as as hugely talented soccer player in an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune
“He has very fast feet and natural skills to beat a player one on one nearly every time,” Yorke said. “He has a nose for the goal and can score with either foot.”
He said Danny received first aid almost immediately because two of the parents on the sidelines that night had medical training.
“A paramedic who is the father of one of my players was watching the game. He came on the field and nobody moved Danny and just kept him calm,” Yorke said.
“Next to the field was Dr. Peter Minkoff, who is one of the directors of FC Heat. We called the paramedics who tested his blood pressure and transported him to the hospital.”
For the Smuts family, the events of the past month also have their own financial challenges; they must restructure – and in some cases, rebuild – their home to make it wheelchair-accessible and allow Danny’s transition to run as smoothly as possible.
For that reason, a GoFundMe Campaign has been launched to help with medical expenses and build a new bathroom for Danny.
In his message to potential donors, Dan Sr. writes proudly of his son. ”His optimism continues to be contagious to everyone he meets. Through rigorous therapy for hours a day, he is making extreme progress in regaining his independence.
“He is now using a wheelchair to move himself around the hospital, and his shoulder and core strength is improving.”
For anyone interested in supporting Danny, here’s the link to the donation page:
If ever there was a youth player – and a family – deserving of the support of the soccer family in the United States, it would be the Smuts of Escondido.
Spinal strokes are extremely rare. They occur in just 1.2 percent of stroke cases. Patients can see either a gradual recovery over several months or they may never regain the use of their legs, bowel and bladder functions.
The full effects of Danny’s stroke – and its long- term effects – will become much clearer over the next six months. He is supposed to start high school at Mission Hills, where his father teaches science, at the end of August.
Football.com will keep you posted on Danny’s progress.