Urston Smith was being as strong as possible for his 16-year-old sister Morgan and 10-year-old brother Tony prior to their mother's funeral last Friday at Community Mission Baptist Church in Elkhart.
Cardiac arrest following kidney failure and surgery left the three siblings grieving their mother with close family and friends. Ursula Smith was 47.
Then a bus pulled up from Allendale, Mich., and Smith's Grand Valley State Lakers family, over 40 football players and coaches, stepped off.
"I started bawling my eyes out," said Smith, a junior wide receiver and criminal justice major who 24 hours later would play a critical role in a dramatic 62-56 double-overtime win at Saginaw Valley.
"I didn't know they were coming to the funeral," said Smith, a former multi-sport star at Elkhart Memorial High School. "One by one they started coming in and I hugged them. I was so happy they came. I thought the team would be headed to the game, but they showed up for me and it was great, exactly what I needed."
Matt Mitchell, the Lakers head coach who arranged for the bus and invited players and coaches to come along, said it was the right thing to do.
"We wanted to show we care about him, show our respect," Mitchell said. "It threw our travel schedule off, but we wanted to be there for him because he has gone through a lot. His mother had been sick for quite awhile, and he is the oldest of three children. His parents are divorced and he has had to kind of be the oldest male in the family, the man of the house.
"We knew it weighed on him. We have a tight team, and we have good chemistry, and sometimes action speaks louder than words. The guys wanted to go. I thought it spoke volumes about the relationships he has built on this team and the kind of people we have on this team."
Bart Williams, the quarterback who throws passes Smith's way on Saturdays, said the team experienced something special for a teammate.
"I didn't personally know her, but people were saying great things about her and the emotions in the church were just amazing," he said. "I choked up. It felt good to be there with him and with the other guys on the team."
Smith had missed the game against Findlay on the previous Saturday and had practiced only a few times while going between home and Grand Valley.
"It's been really hard for us, and I had to take care of a lot of stuff that last week and be home caring for my sister and brother," he said. "I was trying to be strong for them. If they had questions, I answered them. I just had to be with them as much as I could."
Mitchell said initially they didn't expect Smith to play in Saginaw the day after his mother's funeral.
"We had a lot of discussions about the right thing to do, but he was adamant about playing," he said. "Coach (Jack) Ginn (assistant head coach and wide receivers coach) stayed after the funeral, then picked up Urston later after he took care of all the things going on, and drove him up to meet with us very late Friday night."
Mitchell and Ginn didn't plan to play him a lot against the Cardinals, though the junior is a regular part of the rotation at receiver and has made several big plays this season.
"Then two wide receivers go out injured and he had to play and he stepped up and made a ton of great plays," Mitchell said. "I went to him on the sideline and asked him if he was good. He said, 'Yeah, I'm good.' It was one of those deals where I trusted the athlete, went out on the limb a little bit, and then he did the job. You know life experiences like he has had make a person more ready for any moment. He's mature, he's talented and he wants to make the play."
Smith finished as the leading receiver in the game with six receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard catch that tied the game with just over 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. It gave him 24 receptions for the season for 559 yards and seven touchdowns, and a team-best 23.3 yards per reception for the Lakers, who are 10-0 heading into their regular-season finale Saturday at Wayne State (7-3) in Detroit.
"It was a tough game, a crazy game," Smith said. "I've never been part of a game like that with comebacks and big plays all over the place. I just played. I knew my mom was watching over us. You know other guys on the team have things going on with their families, too. We all just came together, didn't give up and made it happen."
Football is Smith's way to help cope with life right now, and the memory of his mother is his inspiration to perform. He said his brother and sister are living with one of their mother's sisters in Elkhart through this school year, and then moving to live with another aunt and her family in Wisconsin.
As for him, it's back to studies and football at Grand Valley.
"Football helps because I can just get away out there on the field, kind of escape, play hard, get my emotions out, be physical," he said. "I will always think about her. She was great, a strong single mother who kept us together. Any time I make a catch or score from now on, I point up at mom."