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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Fit to be king
Lilli Dellheim '25 M.A., Special to the Hawk • July 13, 2024

After surviving cancer, pitcher Luke Smith is back in his ‘happy place’

Graduate student pitcher Luke Smith pitches during an intersquad practice game Jan. 26. PHOTOS: LEAH CATLYN ’27/THE HAWK

Graduate student Luke Smith likes finding himself in high-pressure moments on the mound.

So when the pitcher for St. Joe’s baseball team entered in the bottom of the seventh of a one-run game with runners on first and second at a game Feb. 24, he felt calm, especially since he had been preparing for that moment for two years.

A 3-2, 10-inning loss to Presbyterian marked a moment that had seemed impossible at times.

Smith was diagnosed with gray zone lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, in December 2022. The communication studies major from Delran, New Jersey, missed the 2023 season.

Through it all, Lisa Smith said her son looked forward to the day he’d be back playing the game he loves.

“It’s his happy place on that baseball field. All he wanted to do is get back and finish off his job,” Lisa Smith said. “He looks at this as something he loves, but something he’s part of, this team, and he wants to contribute.”

In the game against Presbyterian, Smith, once again, was given that opportunity. Luke Smith’s parents, Lisa and Ken Smith, watched the game at home. Ken Smith described the moment as “the greatest memory” of his son’s career.

“There was no moment bigger for us than him getting back on the mound,” Ken Smith said. “Everything else pales in comparison to that feeling of watching him come running out of the bullpen and get back on the mound.”

Ken Smith said he will forever remember this new chapter in his son’s story.

“It’s unbelievable to us that he can do it again,” Ken Smith said. “It’s amazing what he went through and how far he came back.”

Yet near the end of his treatment, after losing his hair and some muscle, Smith had begun to lose hope of things returning to the way they were.

“Toward the end, it was kind of like, ‘Oh this might never really change again,’” Smith said. “But then once I got the scan that I was cleared, it was a new life. As soon as I heard that, it was go time. Nothing will stop me.”

As Smith began to return to his old physique, he reflected on his new perspective.

“That whole experience last year really opened my eyes to what really matters in life, and how baseball is a small little fraction of my life, even though it’s extremely important to me,” Smith  said.

And Smith makes sure to remind himself of that.

“I even look at a picture of myself before every game to think about where I was last year and how blessed I am to be where I’m at right now because things could have been a lot different,” he said.

Another reminder was a green rubber bracelet sported by teammates, friends and family that he continues to wear. It reads, “I’m not afraid and I’m going to fight,” words Smith uttered after learning of his diagnosis.

“When I was pitching, I was wearing the bracelet and I could look at it every single time and think about how lucky I am, and that this moment is just perfect,” he said. “It’s exactly what I was waiting for.”

That “perfect” moment on the mound was one Smith described as “surreal,” partially thanks to his teammates. He took the loss, allowing two runs (one earned) on three hits with two walks and two strikeouts over three innings.

“Hearing the guys cheer me on even when I got back in the dugout after the inning, it gave you this weird feeling in the air. Something felt different,” Smith said. “A lot of guys were telling me their hair was standing up because they were with me [through] the whole thing.”

For Lisa Smith, the real victory was seeing her son doing what he loves again.

“Obviously, his goal is to be the starter again, but win or lose, it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “It’s just being able to experience this again for one more time. Couldn’t get any better than that.”

But Smith still has some unfinished business on the diamond.

“I didn’t come back for any other reason other than to win a championship this year with my teammates,” he said. “Last year definitely felt like a year that could have been done, and I didn’t get to really be a part of it.”

The Hawks were the Atlantic 10 regular season champions last year, but saw their run in the A-10 Championship come to an end with a 15-10 loss against Dayton, May 25, 2023. 

As Smith moves forward in baseball, his parents hope his story inspires other families going through similar experiences.

“Most people get scared of the word ‘cancer’ and feel like it’s the end, but really it’s just a part of our life,” Ken Smith said. “You can battle anything and come back from it.”

At this next stage of his battle, Smith credits the people around him for getting him to this point. 

“I just want to say thank you to everybody at St. Joe’s, and all the doctors and nurses, my family, friends,” Smith said. “I definitely wouldn’t be here without any of them, and I’m ready to see what this season turns into where we go.”

An earlier version of this article was first published by the Philadelphia Inquirer March 2 as part of the Inquirer’s college correspondent program. 

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