Zach Smith was no different from many other high school athletes when he had to face the unfortunate reality he would be competing in a Prospect uniform for the last time Monday afternoon.
What was different for Smith, however, was how fortunate he was to have one final opportunity to pitch for the Knights in their regional quarterfinal baseball loss at Lake Zurich. And how blessed the 6-foot-2½, 250-pound left-hander was to get the chances to put on his school's football and baseball uniforms at all during his senior year.
Just 10 months ago, Smith was participating in Prospect's off-season football camp in downstate Rantoul. He was trying to rebound from a broken bone in his right foot in the winter and hoping to earn a starting spot on the offensive line.
But a day that could actually be considered unseasonably mild in the mid-70s suddenly saw Smith's own body temperature spike to nearly 108 degrees. He was rushed to Provena Hospital in Champaign and it would be almost a day-and-a-half before he had any idea what had happened.
"When I woke up I thought, 'Where am I,'" Smith said as he was surrounded by his parents Scott and Diana, head football coach Mike Sebestyen and doctors. "I thought I just went down for awhile and I was in the hospital. I said, 'Can I go back to practice now?'
"Everyone said, 'No, Zach, I don't think you're going to be going back for awhile. Today's Thursday and you went down on Wednesday. I said, 'OK, maybe this is a little more serious than I was thinking.'"
Playing football and baseball again wasn't of much concern as Smith had suffered heatstroke and stayed in the hospital through that weekend. But as Smith was recovering, his competitive nature also had him turning his attention to getting back on the field as soon as possible.
After he was given the OK to play by his doctors, Smith did return to the football field and started eight games before breaking his left foot prior to the playoffs. He also returned to baseball after a year away and late in the season threw a gutsy 128-pitch performance for a victory.
"My immediate reaction was kind of questioning, but ultimately I knew I would end up playing," Smith said. "I knew it would take some time, which it did."
A scary situation
Smith transferred from St. Viator just before his junior year so last summer was the first time he took part in the Prospect football program's annual trip to Rantoul. The first full day of conditioning, practices and film sessions was uneventful and Smith said he was careful to make sure he stayed hydrated.
He said he woke up feeling a little sore on Wednesday but didn't think it was anything unusual. He said he felt a little winded during conditioning drills but attributed it to his size.
"After that we were doing 10-yard sprints where we were down in our stance and firing off the ball," Smith said. "Halfway through I was feeling a little dizzy but I kept going. I thought I had felt this before and thought nothing of it. Then coach blew the whistle and I went down to a knee and I was really dizzy at this point."
Sebestyen and other Prospect coaches could tell something was wrong. Smith's core body temperature had soared to 107.8.
Approximately 200 miles and nearly four hours away, Smith's dad Scott was three weeks into his new job as McHenry's athletic director when he saw Sebestyen was calling.
"I thought he had blown his knee out or something else happened," said Scott Smith, who had been a head football coach at Niles North and coached on the Prospect staff with Sebestyen and some of the other assistants. "But I could hear the ambulance and I could hear the fear in his voice. He explained the whole situation ... and said it's serious and you need to get here as soon as you can."
Sebestyen was on the phone with Smith for nearly the entire trip and stayed with Zach until his parents got to Champaign.
"I was lucky the coaches acted the way they did, because that's the reason I'm still here," Zach Smith said.
"Mike and all the coaches were awesome," Scott Smith said. "It was the longest 3½-hour drive of my life, but I knew because of my relationship with (assistants) Tom Whalen and Mike Kamedula, and I'm sure they would do this with other people, I knew they would do everything they could as if it were their own kid. My wife and I appreciate everything they did."
Zach Smith said the heatstroke was caused by dehydration. He said he likely didn't drink enough Gatorade between the last practice and when he went to sleep during the first full day in Rantoul.
After a four-day hospital stay, he was ready to come home. Whether he would be ready to play football again was another matter.
"We had a discussion as a family on the way home and I said, 'I love football and I love watching you play football," Scott Smith said, "but you have a lot going for you. Your future is much brighter than you playing football and I'm OK with you not doing it.'"
Zach Smith's doctor ran some tests and said he was OK to play as long as he monitored his body temperature every 15 minutes during practices and games. He bought a temporal scanner, which is run across the forehead, and any time his temperature hit 100 he had to immediately go into the shade or an air-conditioned area.
Smith was back in action when practice started in mid-August and he didn't have another significant heat-related issue. He missed only one of nine regular-season games at the strong guard spot because of some ankle trouble, but had missed Prospect's playoff game after breaking the fifth metatarsal on his left foot.
"It was just emotional for me because it was my senior year," Smith said. "I wanted to play football in college somewhere, but when I stepped back and looked at the season as a whole ... maybe God was trying to tell me something, so I started to pursue baseball more after the season."
A change of plans
The broken right foot in the winter of Smith's junior year, which is his plant foot for throwing, resulted in him going out for track last spring. But he came back to play baseball for Prospect's summer league team and the Mount Prospect American Legion team.
Smith isn't overpowering but relies on changing speeds and throwing strikes. He became a vital part of Prospect's pitching staff.
"He just plays the game with a lot of passion," said Prospect coach Ross Giusti after Monday's loss where Smith pitched in relief. "A kid like that with high energy, you always pull for him.
"There were numerous games he gave us an opportunity to win. Zach was just a kid you could always rely on, whether you were behind in the game or ahead, to throw strikes and get outs."
Smith, who has a 4.8 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale and scored 27 on the ACT, wasn't ready to give up his athletic career. He plans to pitch at Harper College next year before eventually going to a four-year school to study pharmacy.
"All of my life, I've always been a competitive kind of person," Smith said. "To just go to school and be competitive in academics wouldn't satisfy me. I like to be out competing and I love sports because I've been doing it since I was really little."
Smith's dad was able to use what happened as an educational tool for the coaches he worked with at McHenry.
"There are always good things that come out of these things," Scott Smith said. "I used the opportunity to talk about hydration and to make sure players are hydrated the night before a practice."
And the best thing for Zach Smith was the opportunity to continue doing what he really enjoys.
"When I woke up, the doctors told me if the ambulance was 10 minutes later, I may not have made it," Smith said. "I could have died. It made me open my eyes and I'm so thankful for everything I have."