COHASSET — For many boys, playing sports is part of a routine throughout their lives. But for some it’s just a dream as they watch from the sidelines.
This is the case for 7-year-old Daniel Smith.
Daniel has a neuromuscular disorder called nemaline myopathy. His muscles do not contract as everyone else’s do. When he was a month old he had several operations on his throat and larynx because of weak respiratory muscles that made it difficult for him to breathe. Now, at 7, he wears leg braces to keep his balance. The muscle weakness has spread throughout his body.
And yet Daniel lives for sports. He constantly wants to talk sports. His favorite home exercise is throwing the football around with someone.
When his mother, Sharon Smith, brought him to his first football game at Cohasset High School, he was overjoyed. But one player specifically caught his eye.
He talked incessantly about meeting number 52, captain Jake Herth. Herth’s mother overheard Daniel and his mother and brought him to meet Herth after the game.
That’s where the friendship began.
The next time the 4-foot-5, 48-pound Daniel was at a game, he got his picture taken with the 6-foot-1 200-pound defensive end.
Herth then began to go over to the Smiths’ home to throw the ball around with Daniel.
Sharon Smith still has no clue why her son picked Herth out from the rest of the team and why he wanted to meet him so badly. Daniel isn’t even sure himself.
“I don’t know,” said Daniel. “I just randomly started saying, ‘Who’s 52? Who’s 52?’ ”
His mother is glad he did.
“Something about number 52 jumped up at him,” said Sharon Smith. “He had no idea he was captain or an incredibly sweet young man, but he just knew he had to meet number 52. Jake is a wonderful, kind young man and he really made sure that the whole team embraced Danny and really made Danny feel special. The coaches, staff, every boy on that team has really gone out of their way to be really excited to see Danny and make him feel like he’s one of the teammates.”
Throughout the time Daniel was getting to know Herth and the team, the youngster, a second-grader at Joseph Osgood School in Cohasset, was in a cast after breaking his ulna and dislocating the three bones in his elbow along with the radius after falling during a game of capture the flag in July. Doctors inserted a rod from his elbow to his wrist to hold the bones in place.
Daniel went into surgery to have the rod removed and the next day was surprised by his idol, Herth, who had brought him a jersey autographed by the entire team and an invitation to the team’s pasta dinner the night before their homecoming game.
At the homecoming game, Daniel was brought out to the coin toss. After flipping the coin Daniel tossed the ball around with his mom. When the Clippers beat Rockland, 19-8, they gave Daniel the game ball, autographed by the team.
As much as Daniel has been affected by the team’s kindness and friendship, the team has also been affected by Daniel, their biggest fan.
His bright blue eyes and smiling face looking up at them as he hands out high-fives after their game uplift the team and remind them they’re doing more than just playing football.
“Me and the rest of the team realized how much we can affect a younger kid, especially when he told us he wants to be just like us,” said Herth. “You don’t realize how much of an impression you put on kids like Danny.”
Herth began playing football his freshman year of high school, but this year he has really emerged as a leader, on and off the field.
“Jake has really turned himself into probably the quintessential leader, and I don’t mean it just in the football sense,” said Cohasset head football coach Peter Afanasiw. “He’s very easy to talk to, not just from the coaching perspective. He’s very welcoming with all teammates, whether they’re seniors or freshmen first-time players. He’s a stable and positive presence in the locker room and on the field. He’s everything a coach would want out of a senior and a captain.”
Herth has made a lasting impression on many people, but most importantly he’s impacted the life of Daniel, the stranger-turned-friend.
If you ask Daniel what his favorite sport is, he’ll blurt out ‘football’ without hesitation. His reason why is a bit more surprising.
“Because I really like being with Jake,” answered Daniel. “He’s awesome to play football with.”
“All the captains are very friendly to me,” he added with excitement. “I love doing the coin toss and wearing Jake’s jersey.”
The team loves having him around just as much as he enjoys being there.
Shane Haggerty, senior captain and wide receiver, enjoys talking sports with Daniel and having him around.
“He’s always so excited when he’s with us,” said Haggerty. “He’s always laughing, having fun. At the end of the games he’s always so happy. We all line up and we get in single file and all give him high-fives. He sits with the senior captains at the pasta dinners and just talks sports with them.’’
Daniel was named an honorary captain of the team this season because of his positive influence on the team, motivating them with his seemingly invincible positive attitude.
The Cohasset season reaches its conclusion today with the Thanksgiving Day game against Hull, and seniors like Herth won’t return to the field. But Daniel will have a spot on the team as long as he wants one, according to Afanasiw.
Herth also plans to continue his friendship with Daniel, throwing the football around and talking sports. The big-hearted captain has an even greater hope for Daniel.
“I’m hoping at one time he gets to play some recreational sports and the team can go to support him as much as he’s supported us just by watching,” said Herth. “I’m hoping he gets a sense of community out of it, and I’m hoping that when I graduate next year he’ll remember how important he was even though he may not be the star of the show.”
Coryn Doncaster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.