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Concord teen’s inspirational story to air Sept. 19 on ‘Today’

Thirteen-year-old Austin Smith had the street clogged for most the first weekend of September.

As film crews from NFL Films and NBC unloaded crates and boxes, cameras, boom mics and lights, Austin sat in his Concord garage spinning a football between his hands.

The crews busily rearranged the Smiths’ living room and dining room for their interviews. They moved the couch into the hall and pushed the pillars by the fireplace to the opposite side of the room.

Austin’s mom, Tracy, ran to a neighbor’s house seeking out a tall barstool that the film crews had requested. The dog was put outside, and the kids on bikes were asked to quiet down.

Lighting and sound needed to be perfect; after all, millions of people will be watching when the final product runs on NBC Sept. 19.

Austin appeared cool and collected, casually tossing the football to his dad, Darrell, who was standing off-screen. But inside, Austin was nervous.

“This will be on national TV,” he said, wrestling with his nerves. “I can’t even present a project in front of my class.”

NFL Films contacted the Smith family after Austin’s sister, 17-year-old Lauren, uploaded a video she made to the NFL’s “Together We Make Football” campaign in November 2013. The video told the story of Austin, a die-hard Carolina Panthers fan who has cerebral palsy.

“I really wanted to do the video for him because he is so determined,” Lauren said. She initially made the video hoping her brother would win a trip to the Super Bowl.

“I’m still hoping for this year’s Super Bowl,” Austin, said half joking about not winning the original contest last year. Then a smile of perspective eased across his face.

“It was cool enough to have this weekend!” he said.

The crews followed and filmed Austin for nearly 30 hours. Then his story will be edited and compiled into a 2- to 4-minute segment that will air on NBC’s “Today” on Sept. 19.

Austin was born in his mother’s 27th week of pregnancy and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a condition that has left its mark on his mobility.

After several surgeries, Austin relies on a wheelchair for most of his getting around. He can now walk across the large campus of Harris Road Middle School, however, by mostly using his crutches. Heavily fatigued after school, he returns home and recuperates.

“I don’t walk the rest of the day,” said Austin.

Still recovering from the reconstructive surgery he underwent last November, Austin wears braces on both legs.

“I had double tendon lengthening and tendon transfers,” said Austin, who after the surgery declined a chance to meet his favorite player, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

Newton had been at the hospital the day of Austin’s surgery, but Austin did not want to meet his favorite player while sedated and groggy.

Austin still regrets that decision, but reasoned, “I was in pain!”

The NFL and the Carolina Panthers have arranged for Austin to have a VIP tour of Bank of America Stadium and meet the Panthers team before the story airs. He is crossing his fingers he will get to meet Newton, running back DeAngelo Williams and star linebacker Luke Kuechly.

“I don’t know why everyone is excited about my story,” Austin said. Then his mother and sister began offering reasons people would be impressed by the middle schooler’s spirit.

“I guess I am determined,” said Austin, “because the disability doesn’t hold me back. I can’t do everything everyone else does. They can jump 3 feet, and I can jump 2 inches,” he said, laughing. “But I cope with it.”

“He always finds a way,” said Lauren Smith, who deflects credit about the spotlight Austin is attracting.

“I know Dad and I made the video,” she said, “but the NFL is here because he (nudging Austin) is awesome.”

Austin smiled at his family and confidently corrected his sister: “ We are awesome.”

Austin’s story will run on Sept. 19 on NBC’s “Today.” In Charlotte the program airs 7-11 a.m. each weekday on WCNC-TV, which is channel 36 over the air and channel 6 on most area cable systems.

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