Three days after Sean Smith, 48, received his first round of chemotherapy, he went back to his favorite place to feel better — Decatur High School.
“I love these kids and they give me energy,” Smith said. “They give me the strength to fight because they remind me that I have something to live for.”
After experiencing severe back problems for months, Smith’s wife drove him to the hospital on Dec. 13, where he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. His goal is to come to school to teach and coach as often as possible while he goes through chemotherapy treatments in an effort to shrink several tumors that spread from his pancreas to his liver.
“I want to be here every single day, for at least part of the day,” Smith said. “As long as I am physically able, I am here.”
Smith said Federal Way Public Schools has been working with him to make it possible for him to stay teaching. They are discussing having Smith Skype his students from home on the days he is unable to come in.
“The district has been absolutely wonderful to us,” said his wife, Tami. “Also many teachers have stepped forward to offer Sean their sick days and to bring us meals.”
Sean has coached football, track and wrestling at Lakota Middle School. He has also coached the Federal Way premier soccer team Federal Way Storm, which both his sons played for. He is currently an engineer teacher at Decatur and coaches wrestling, track and soccer.
“We all love Sean here,” said David Brower, Decatur principal. “He is very kid-focused and is well respected by the community.”
A few community members set up a bank account to help him pay for medical bills at Bank of America, under SeanStrong. There is also a website, pastor-teacher-coach.org, where people have written about how Smith has impacted their life.
“Sean has been my son’s coach since elementary school,” Lisa Karis wrote. “His son Spencer and my son Nick are the same age and have played every sport together since they were 5 years old. We watched our boys grow together and see them both off to college. Sean has dedicated his life to the kids in this community and is a great man, husband and father.”
Before coming to work at Decatur, Smith worked for Boeing and was a youth pastor for 16 years.
“As a youth pastor I would sit and comfort people that were sick and people that were dying,” he said. “It’s so surreal to be on the other side, to be the one that needs support.”
Smith said this disease has made him appreciate each moment more.
“My wife and I will sit down every night and talk about our favorite moments of the day now,” he said. “I have faith and I’m a Christian so I know where I am going after this and I’m not afraid to die. What I am afraid of is missing out on important things in life, such as my kids getting married and having babies.”
Smith said going through cancer now makes him think back to a student he coached who died of brain cancer last April. Dominique “Dom” Cooks was a 220-pound defensive lineman for the Gator’s football team with a bright future. He died at 18 years old, right after the school held graduation early so he could participate. Cooks selected Smith to be the speaker at the special ceremony.
“I remember when Cookie (Cooks) spoke at the ceremony he said he was thankful for his friends and he was thankful for the cancer because it reminded him that life was short,” Smith said. “He said getting diagnosed showed him who his friends are and that they are here in the halls of Decatur. That’s exactly how I feel now.”
As a child, Smith went through the Federal Way school district and graduated from Decatur in 1984. He participated in football, wrestling and track and met his wife when she transferred from another school to Decatur her junior year.
“He walked up to me during a basketball game Friday night and said, ‘Are you going to go to the dance after this? Because if you are I want to dance with you a lot,’” she recalled. “After that night, that was it. We’ve been together now for 31 years.”
Smith has a tattoo of two gators, Decatur’s mascot, on his left arm. He got it from a student he coached and bought the tatoo with his first paycheck back when he started teaching in 2008.
“I started coaching back in 1994 because I wanted to give back to the school that had given me so much,” he said.
He recalled feeling frustrated in school most of his life until his math teacher discovered Smith had dyslexia.
“They didn’t know what to do with dyslexia when I was in school, so I used to hate school because I felt like a failure,” he said. “Taking his class changed everything for me and gave me confidence. Math saved me in school and I want to help kids here realize their potential.”
Smith said he approaches coaching and teaching the same way.
“What I do as a coach and teacher is to ensure I am giving the kids the skills necessary to push them further and to get past their own self doubt,” he said. “Watching them flourish is the best.”
His favorite memories are watching his oldest son Josh play soccer and his youngest son Spencer wrestle.
He recalled Spencer was wrestling at a tournament and was about to be pinned, but he got a determined look on his face and got up and pinned his opponent, getting seventh place at the tournament.
“After that, I’ve always said that seventh is my favorite place,” Smith said. “It is my favorite because I was so proud of how hard my son fought and that he never gave up.”
Smith plans on exuding this same fighting spirit to combat his cancer.
“They’ve given me an estimated time to live, but I don’t listen to them and I don’t tell it to anyone,” Smith said. “I plan on taking this day by day and fighting it as long as I have breath.”