This May, Brett Smith ’12 will walk through Phelps Gate with the graduating class of 2012. But nine years ago, a doctor told his family that Smith would not graduate at all.
Early in the morning on Jan. 17, 2003, Smith — then a freshman on the football team — and eight other Yale students were in a car driving back to New Haven from New York City when they crashed into a tractor-trailer that had jackknifed on an icy Interstate 95 outside Fairfield, Conn.
Five of the students — all pledges and members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity — survived the accident: Three left the hospital after a few days, and a fourth, Eric Wenzel ’04, also soon made a full recovery. All the survivors except Smith returned to campus within a year after the accident and graduated by 2006.
For Smith, now 28, the path to graduation was not so simple: He was in a coma for four and a half weeks and spent the next four years at home working toward rehabilitation. Doctors were not optimistic about his recovery, but he always expected to come back to Yale, his mother Darlene Smith said. Known by friends and family for his hardworking and focused character, Smith has defied expectations by returning to Yale and completing his degree in history.
“They never had a patient like Brett,” his mother continued. “If somebody says to you Brett’s as good as he’s going to get, then they have failed Brett.”
‘FORTITUDE AND DETERMINATION’
After the car accident, Smith spent six weeks hospitalized in Norwalk, Conn., before being transferred back to Omaha, Neb., where his family was living at the time. There, he continued the process of recovery that would draw upon the strength and mental determination he had developed as an athlete and a student.
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“When you have a trauma, you have two choices: wallow, or fix it,” his mother said.
During the five years before he returned to Yale, Smith re-learned to speak, walk and drive a car.
Smith had already dealt with a range of challenges growing up, when he had adapted to new places as well as recovered from physical injuries. Because his father was a doctor for the Air Force, his family moved often. Since Smith’s birth, the family has called seven different states home.
When he attended high school in Nebraska, Smith played football and basketball. At one basketball practice during his freshman year, he broke his right arm: The injury required two plates and 13 permanent screws to be inserted into his arm. Doctors told him he would never throw a football again, but Smith bounced back from the injury, even excelling in his throwing. Three years later, Yale began recruiting him to play quarterback, in part because of the “fortitude and determination” that assistant head coach Larry Ciotti said later helped him through his recovery.
Years later, in the 2003 accident, Smith broke every bone in his face except his mandible, and he also broke his sternum. He suffered from traumatic brain injuries to his Broca’s area, which controls speech, and to the part of his brain that controls movement of the right side of the body.
“We were told to put him in a home. We were told he would never go to college, let alone Yale,” his mother said, adding that he could neither walk nor talk for two months.
But Smith’s family rallied around him: His brother resigned from his job to return to Omaha and help out, and his mother became his full-time caretaker. Smith said he would not be where he is today without his family.
“I have a stubborn streak — I think it’s hereditary,” he explained. “I told myself if I’m going to do something, I’m gonna do it.”
Mike Ranfone, Smith’s athletic trainer who works with him almost every day at a training center in Hamden, Conn., said he sees that drive today in Smith’s commitment to rehabilitation and training: “Everything that he does is with everything that he has,” Ranfone said. “He just tries to make the most out of every moment, every set, every rep. I’m sure he’s the same way taking notes in English class or doing his homework … The guy is just always on.”
A NEW ROLE
A year after the crash, in the summer of 2004, Smith enrolled in classes at Laramie County Community College in Wyoming and then at Colorado State University — all with the goal of gaining enough credits to be re-admitted to Yale.
In 2008, Smith returned to New Haven. All of the students and fraternity brothers he had met as a freshman had graduated, his master in Ezra Stiles College had left and even some of the football coaches were different.
His role at Yale had changed: Today, rather than focusing on football, Smith said he spends the majority of his time on his schoolwork, on his physical fitness with his personal trainer and on his role as a deacon at the University Church that meets in Battell Chapel.
Originally a biology major, Smith switched to history upon his return because physical and occupational therapy take up too much time for him to continue with lab classes, he said.
When Smith came back to campus, he looked to Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities for academic support, director Judy York said. Smith added that he now receives twice the time for tests as well as copies of notes for his classes.
“It’s been difficult for me because I have to manage my time between therapy and work. I have to be on top of my game at all times,” he explained, noting that the brain injuries he sustained require him to spend more time on work that he used to complete quickly.
But his senior essay advisor, history professor John Mack Faragher, said he has been consistently impressed by Smith’s commitment to academics.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a more dedicated senior essayist,” Faragher said, adding that Smith’s organization and diligence have paid off in his work.
Although Smith’s physical shape has improved significantly since the accident, the sensitivity of his skull has made him unable to go back to the football field and resume his role of quarterback, Smith said. The hardest thing for him today, he said, is remembering his time spent with the football team, which was his original reason for coming to Yale.
“I went out to a football practice last week … and it is so difficult to sit there,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any sweetness about it, it’s all bitter. It is what it is, but I wish that it would have been different.”
Instead, Smith has worked with a neuromuscular massage therapist for the past four years and has gone three to five times a week for the last two years to work on strength and conditioning with his trainer Ranfone. Last year, Smith impressed everyone by completing a “box jump” on the tallest box, which required jumping with both feet on top of a 30-inch tall stand, Ranfone said.
“That was very important to him to get that. That was a very quantitative, measurable gain,” Ranfone said.
Reconnecting with the community of brothers in DKE has been part of Smith’s process of rebuilding his life at Yale. When he returned to campus, Smith attended meetings and participated in the chapter’s philanthropy projects, providing an example of hard work and loyalty to other members, said fellow DKE member Reed Spiller ’12, a friend of Smith’s and current defensive lineman on the football team.
He added that Smith’s legacy will remain with the fraternity even after he leaves.
The whole fraternity continues to take the accident seriously since the nine students — who were returning from pledge activities in New York City — were involved in the 2003 crash, Spiller said, explaining that potential new members learn about the incident and its aftermath during the current pledge process.
After Yale, Smith said he plans to continue his education and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor by getting a second Bachelor’s degree in physiology at the University of Wyoming, where he has already been accepted, and then going to medical school.
Smith added that his efforts to regain the abilities lost in the accident will continue: “The recovery and rehabilitation period is still going on,” he said.
As he has worked toward graduation, Smith continues to progress in both his physical and neurological recovery, his mother said.
“Every time I see him, he’s grown, he’s improved,” she said. “It’s a moment that nine years ago, we didn’t think would ever happen.”