This past Monday night, it couldn't have meant more to me to be able to watch Georgia and Alabama play for the national championship.
I am no fan of Alabama except when they play out of conference games, and generally have no opinion toward Georgia in any way. Yet watching that national championship game is now a Top 5 moment of my life.
This hasn't been the greatest year for me. On New Year's Eve, I went into the hospital with extreme abdominal pain. My wife thought I just had appendicitis, which at the time seemed to be a worst case scenario.
However, in those dark early morning hours, a doctor came in and delivered news in as plain and blunt a manner as possible.
"You have a blockage in your stomach. It's a tumor and it's cancerous. We're going to need to operate as soon as we can get a surgeon in and it's going to be complicated because your organs don't appear to be where they're supposed to be."
Then he got up and walked out, leaving my wife and I in stunned silence.
I have had to process death so many times in my life and realizing that I have lived an amazing life on borrowed time literally from the moment I was born prepared me to handle the doctor's words with the levity of someone telling me we're out of salt – at least when it comes to me.
As for my wife, it was a different story. She wasn't ready for this.
I'm the one who always has to be strong when things look the darkest and process everything alone when no one else is around. It wasn't a burden she was used to carrying, so while others saw strength and hope, I saw on her face that feeling I felt time and time again over the years.
At the time, we thought I would go through surgery in the early morning hours of New Year's Day. That was when I wrote the following story, scheduled to go live while I was in surgery.
Asking a Favor of the Razorback Football Team
I have been the first to stand on the mountain top and say bowl games don't matter. I always empathize with the players if their hearts aren't exactly into the game.
However, just this once, I need to ask the Razorback football players to please find their hearts on Saturday and leave it all on the field, because, for my family, it's going to matter more than any game will ever matter.
You see, today hasn't been the best for us. My wife had to bring me to the emergency room after I spent the day with extreme abdominal pain.
We were expecting a possible case of appendicitis. It turns out it's much worse.
I apparently have a cancerous tumor blocking my intestines. I will have surgery sometime between this writing and the bowl game to try to remove it.
Now this isn't about me.
It's about my wife.
When I was only two days old, doctors removed a good chunk of my intestines in emergency life-saving surgery because they were knotted up.
Because I have so little intestine left in my body, the surgery is a bit more dangerous that it might normally be, and even if things go well, the road to follow is going to be rough at best.
As I made the most of my borrowed time the good Lord and those doctors gifted me 42 years ago, I met an amazing woman who is a hard core Razorback fan.
She admits it's silly to have a game affect how the rest of her day is going to go, but she can't help it. Whether it be football, basketball or baseball, her day is on a high if the Razorbacks win, and she can't help but feel down when they lose.
That's why I am begging every player to go at it with all you've got against Penn State. I'm not asking for a win. Sometimes that's out of your control. I just need effort. For her.
If all goes well, we plan to spend my early hours of recovery snuggled in my hospital bed celebrating by watching Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.
However, if things turn south, that will most likely be the first time she has to step away from being strong for our kids and dealing with everything that comes with a moment like that.
It will be her mental getaway. While you probably don't fully realize how much impact what you do on the field has on people who grew up in Arkansas, your effort will lift her spirits in the darkest of hours, and as a husband, I will not be capable of being more grateful.
OUR LOVE BONDED OVER RAZORBACKS
I knew I had one I couldn't let get away after our first date over 20 years ago. I cooked a chicken parmesan dinner and, afterward, she insisted on watching the NFL playoffs.
Once I found out she loved watching the Razorbacks too, I was hooked.
Our neighbors, who are Ohio State fans, are well aware of how the Razorbacks are doing because she's screaming in either excitement or frustration.
You should also know that a referee has never done right by you in her eyes, especially against Alabama. We won't even begin to talk about how that Auburn game last year affected our household.
As a husband, I was proud to be able to take her to her first Razorback football game against Texas A&M the year Johnny Manziel and Brandon Allen dueled it out in Fayetteville. It was such an electric atmosphere.
I skipped a few lunches to be able to pay for those tickets and we drove through horrible storms to get there, but the glow in her eyes and the hoarseness and excitement in her voice as we made our way up the hill to our car afterward made it well worth it.
She even insisted we watch every single game of the Chad Morris years even though we knew the outcome because it's just in her blood to support the team.
The highlight was probably when we took my dad, who had driven to our house north of Dallas from his home in Warren, to the TCU game. We were front row in the end zone when Austin Allen ran right in front of us after scoring the winning touchdown in double-overtime.
I've was able to take her to Bud Walton with the kids during Musselman's first year, and had hoped to cap off her bucket list with a game in Baum this spring.
It's been my goal as we progressed through our marriage to make her game-watching experience as good as we could afford.
We started with a tiny television sitting on a milk crate in the corner of our apartment. We watched Houston Nutt's final years on it, and hoped the best for Stan Heath's basketball teams while sitting on a $90 Ikea love seat that was so small she would elbow me in the ribs as she reacted to each play.
My son and I built an outdoor area with a fire pit and made a giant drive-in movie screen out of canvas during the pandemic so my parents could come visit the kids safely while we all watched another heart-breaking loss to A&M.
Now, we've got a massive TV downstairs and a full movie screen upstairs with wireless speakers so she can view the Razorbacks in the best way possible from anywhere in the house.
I've celebrated the high times with her for two decades and comforted her in the low times. We almost knocked a hole in the ceiling following Michael Qualls's dunk that took down Kentucky, and it felt like we lost a close friend when that pop foul fell to the ground against Oregon State.
Just this once, I am calling on the Razorbacks to step into that role. Celebrate with her through your effort if this works out as we hope God will allow it.
And if it doesn't, comfort her with the heart you show on the field in Tampa.
Mrs. Smith never asked for a win. She's only ever asked for your best.
Fight with all you've got for her.
I will too.
Then things changed
At the last possible moment, God intervened.
Despite being asked 1,000 times before and since whether I felt any nausea and reporting that I felt nothing, I woke up from a medicine-induced sleep feeling queasy.
All I threw up were a few drops of medicine, but the dry heaving dislodged something in my stomach and within two hours I felt great. The doctors decided since I was a complicated case they needed time to explore the insides of my body and put together a plan of action.
Not only did this allow me to go home and watch what was an uplifting dominant win by the Razorbacks, but it put me under the direct care of the the top colo-rectal surgeon in Texas, Dr. Burleson.
Over the next week, I was poked and prodded as Dr. Burleson determined how bad things were.
We knew three things for sure:
1) There was definitely a large mass blocking my colon.
2) My colon was in the upper rib area basically under my right pectoral muscle instead of down by my right hip area where it should be.
3) There was tremendous scar tissue throughout my stomach from previous surgeries that made things even more difficult. Odds were the feasible way in would be from the opposite side of my body from where this would normally take place.
Sorting through it all
I spent of lot of that week trying to keep my mind off things by writing about mundane Razorback news while trying to help my wife, kids and mother understand there was no need to worry for me.
They were all I worried about.
Back during the emergency room visit, I sent a last message to myself that was to be brought to the attention of my family by a former school colleague should things not work out. I keep a goodbye message on my phone at all times that I send to myself when we have potential school shootings at the schools I have taught at over the years so my family knows how much they mean to me.
I had adjusted this message a little on the drive to the emergency room.
Now, with more time, I thought about whether I should record video messages and schedule them to be sent to my kids and wife on holidays. I also pondered whether to sit down with my wife and explain how important it is to get my death certificate to the insurance companies as soon as possible because, while Sports Illustrated would pay me, the school district where I teach had already made it clear none of my contract would be honored, meaning paychecks would be gone immediately.
Instead, I opted to make what I presumed to be my last four days matter. I made it a special point to allocate a single day focused on our family as a whole, and a day focused on spending quality time with each of the three most important people in my life.
Just prior to Christmas, I had been frustrated that I hadn't been able to afford tickets to Hamilton. Our family bonded singing the songs together during the early days of the pandemic.
When it came out on Disney Plus for Fourth of July, my daughter made us all dress up like characters from the musical, and we spent the evening watching it together.
She's a child of the creative arts, so I wanted nothing more than to be able to take her to see it, but, as God would have it, all we could afford to give her for her first Broadway musical experience was a ticket to go with me to to see "Dear Evan Hansen" on its final night at Bass Hall.
God's plans are always best. That performance was 11 hours before my scheduled surgery. Had I gotten the Hamilton tickets, we would have never been able to go, but, as it was, we had a great father-daughter memory to fall back on no matter what happened.
The Day of the Surgery
The doctor scheduled the surgery for the morning of the national championship game.
I had only one goal from the second I got up to do my final surgical scrub in the darkness of the early morning hours – make sure I was around to watch the Alabama-Georgia game with my wife in the hospital.
I had seen how much God had already done up until this point, but I couldn't help but think there still needed to be more divine intervention if something so many Americans were taking for granted was going to happen.
It turns out I was right.
When the doctors got in, it took a long time to clean things up just so they could get started on why they were there.
What they found was worse than they had thought. The tumor in my colon was the size of a baseball.
Not only that, but the swelling it created had caused my colon to fuse with my liver.
When all was done, the doctors had removed my appendix, part of my life, a section of my small intestines, and a chunk of my colon.
There were a lot more incisions on me than previously anticipated. I later told people I asked that it looked like I went four dreams against Freddy Kreuger.
Not only did I arrive in recovery much later than anticipated, but I was there longer than expected because of the wear and tear on my body.
I remember coming to briefly before my body gave out again. I could see a wall to my right that had a small clock on it.
All I wanted was to be able to see the time. I just needed to know whether I made it back in time to watch the game with my wife like I had said I would if I made it through.
Unfortunately, the doctors removed a contact that I couldn't get out of my right eye while I was under. I couldn't see the time. Within seconds I was back out.
When I awoke, I was in my room.
There was my wife. I had come to just in time for her to go pick the kids up from school so she could assure them I had made it through.
She fed them and then left them with my mother, returning to join me seconds into the most important game of my life.
Georgia vs. Bama.
A game that meant nothing to me other than the fact I could see it meant there was hope I would survive.
Alabama football comes in a close second only to Kentucky basketball for programs the draw the ire of my wife's wrath on behalf of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
It was great to see the joy on her face as Kelee Ringo ran that interception back 79 yards to seal the win over Alabama.
It was great to see her face indeed.
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