Butler’s Andrew Smith, widow chosen for USBWA’s Most Courageous Award

Andrew and Sam pose in 2013 for their engagement photos at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse. (Courtesy Sam Smith)

One of the most powerful stories in college basketball over the past year involved a man who no longer played the game. The capacity of this story was so inspiring and emotional it transcended the sport. Its tragic and unjust conclusion came last month, when Andrew Smith died decades too young, at the age of 25, on Jan. 12.

The former Butler Bulldog center battled multiple manifestations of cancer for more than two years. The disease first surfaced when Smith noticed something wrong with his neck while playing overseas in Lithuania, around Christmas, in 2013. Within a month he was diagnosed back at home in Indianapolis with a rare form T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, a type of cancer that normally afflicts children under the age of 12.

Smith would bravely spend most of his final 26 and a half months facing myriad health setbacks; his final fight came against leukemia. Well before he died, Smith became a symbol of strength and a powerful figure throughout American sports. He wanted to share his story, inspire others, and let people know he found peace through his faith and strength through his wife, Samantha. In March 2015, his story went national, touching the hearts of millions across the country. Smith was a big man with a huge soul, dry wit, selfless attitude and relentless work ethic.

Andrew’s widow, Sam, was — and remains — in the words of Smith’s coach at Butler, Brad Stevens, “an absolute rock.” She publicly showed courage, grace, humor, vulnerability and so much more throughout her husband’s incredible — and at one point, truly miraculous — endeavor.

Together, they are both the 2016 recipients of the United States Basketball Writers Association’s Most Courageous Award. Andrew receives the honor posthumously, while Sam will be the living embodiment of his spirit, strength, faith and character. The two are receiving the honor despite not being active members in college basketball, which speaks to the power of their story and the weight in which it was felt by so many. It is an unprecedented move by the USBWA.

Smith was a player that Stevens called his toughest — ever. He played a big part on Butler’s record-setting back-to-back teams that reached the national championship in 2010 and 2011. Smith is one of only three Butler players ever to finish his career with the Bulldogs having accrued more than 100 wins and 1,000 points. Because of his role in the program from 2009-2013, Smith remains an important figure in helping Butler’s rise from Horizon League contender to Big East constituent. His 16 rebounds against Bucknell in the 2013 NCAA tournament are a program record.

Smith’s legacy shines brightly, also, because he was an Academic All-American at Butler, a local kid who made the team at the biggest university in the state’s biggest city.

Sam was Andrew’s high school sweetheart. They made an incredible pair. She was the storyteller of his — and their — journey. Sam’s personal blog updates on Andrew’s fight and the family’s struggle became running commentary throughout the world of college basketball, and even more so in greater Indianapolis. Cancer fights can often be private, painful ordeals. Andrew and Sam decided to share their experiences, to let others in to see how strength could be found and miracle could be possible.

In the summer of 2014, Andrew’s miracle arrived after he collapsed in an office building near the Indianapolis airport. He was unconscious, his heart no longer beating, for more than 22 minutes. Most people that face cardiac arrest for even a fraction of that time wind up dead, if not severely brain damaged for the rest of their life. Andrew suffered no detectable neurological effects from the traumatic episode. Within four days, he was walking out of the hospital.

Not all of Sam’s updates were dire. There were many times when Sam shared good news, positive anecdotes and incredible moments of prosperity. In those moments, the force of their love was so evident.

“Andrew packed more living into his 25 years than most of us will enjoy in a full 75 years,” Curt Smith said after his son died. “He lived his faith, relished his family, selflessly served his wife, and pursued his passion of basketball at the highest levels.”

Prior to his leukemia diagnosis, the Smiths planned for a long life together. The first cancer bout and the heart episode were behind them, and so they bought a house. Andrew began coaching a youth basketball team.

As the leukemia battle waged on in his final months, Andrew still insisted on working out, on riding stationary bikes and keeping his spirits up. Three and a half weeks before he died, Andrew and Sam attended Butler’s win over Purdue in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. He was a quiet man who faced his destiny in a moving way. Smith’s death has left Sam with a lifetime ahead of her but an uncertain future filled with shock and the unenviable slow road to acceptance.

Sam spoke at halftime to the home crowd at Butler’s first game, five days after Andrew died. She was emotional, thankful, fractured in voice. The definition of what it means to be brave, to be courageous. It was an incredible act of love and appreciation, and one Sam said she didn’t do alone. Days after her speech, she couldn’t quite remember all she said while standing at center court inside legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse.

“That was all Andrew,” she said.

Their story continues to inspire, and that’s why Andrew and Samantha Smith are the recipients of the 2016 Most Courageous Award.

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