By Marty Farmer
Rachel Smylie had a smile that could light up Oak Park Stadium. When I heard about Smylie's death in a single-car crash on April 7 in Namibia (a country in southern Africa) while studying abroad, like anybody who heard the tragic news, I was deeply saddened.
On further reflection, my thoughts actually turned back toward the aforementioned stadium where so many OPRF athletic teams have competed throughout the years. From the first time I covered an OPRF football game 13 years ago, I've always found it surprising how Oak Park Stadium functions as a three-hour kaleidoscope of sounds, sights and spectacle within the context of the fall sports season. Then, within a half hour of the game's completion, the stadium transforms into a gridiron ghost town with scattered game programs and plastic cups blowing like tumbleweeds through the emptied stands.
The juxtaposition of a lively high school football game enhanced by energetic students, impassioned alumni/fans and hard-hitting players, followed by the eerie postgame stadium silence for some reason reminded me of Rachel.
She was an intelligent, pretty and kind 21-year-old, full of promise, an engaging young lady who built her life around family and friends, sports and her sorority and educational experiences that led her to study abroad during her junior year at Michigan. Looking through pictures, I noticed two commonalities — her inimitable smile and how she always, fittingly, positioned herself in the center of group photos.
Suddenly, on a Sunday night in Namibia, she was gone like the fleeting glory of a football game.
While her life and any football stadium obviously have nothing in common, both reach full beauty via the involvement of others. Like fans recounting a memorable game or swapping stories about a star player, Rachel's life is being honored and celebrated by the recollection of stories about her from others.
Although I covered a handful of OPRF volleyball games when Rachel played setter and right side hitter for the Huskies, I never met her. So it's the endearing anecdotes about Rachel from her OPRF teammates and coaches that I've heard in recent days that have brought her spirit to life for me.
"Rachel was one of the most genuine, caring and happiest people I knew," OPRF volleyball teammate Jamie Sheer said. "As a teammate, she was the glue to our volleyball team. She constantly had a smile on her face that was contagious.
"At 6 a.m. tournaments when everyone was half asleep, Rachel would always wake us right up by gathering us in a room and start a dance party. She had some of the best dance moves and tried to teach the team but no one could get to her level. If she ever saw someone who looked left out, she would do whatever it took to make them feel included."
Rachel also played four years with the OPRF lacrosse program. She was the junior varsity attacker of the year her sophomore year in 2009 and led the Huskies to an 11-3-1 record. Like volleyball, her impact in lacrosse went well beyond the field of play.
"Rachel had such an amazing smile, and it was great because we could just call her, 'Smylie'," said former OPRF lacrosse coach Katie Hansbro. "We had a team joke how Rachel would always close her eyes when she shot at the goal in practice. Our parent photographers even caught it on film. Somehow she would still get it in the goal with her eyes shut."
Katie Fegan, who coached Rachel on the Huskies' junior varsity lacrosse team, also remembers the affable player well and her ability to keep everybody on the team upbeat and loose.
"Rachel always had the ability to make people laugh in any situation," Fegan said. "I vividly remember during one practice, it wasn't going so well. Players were underperforming. Rachel just froze in the middle of a drill for comedic effect with a grin on her face. Everyone including the coaches just started rolling laughing. The practice and attitude from all of the players and coaches changed for the better from that point moving forward.
"I hope Rachel and her family realize what a lasting impact Rachel had on so many lives. I'm a better person for having known her."
Other memories included pasta parties at the Smylie house, Rachel braiding teammates' hair and, of course, leading either the volleyball or lacrosse teams in some seriously spirited group dancing.
"I remember this song, 'Pop, Lock and Drop It' came out and the lacrosse team always had a great time dancing to that song," Hansbro said with a laugh. "Rachel always led the charge with her dance moves. About the only thing that distracted Rachel from lacrosse was school. She would often recite notes from her AP classes during warm-ups before practice or a game. I would try to get her to focus on lacrosse but clearly her hard work in the classroom paid off."
The OPRF lacrosse program will host a "Smylie Classic" tournament on Saturday, May 3 in Rachel's memory. The team is also having special armbands made with her name to be worn during games and is hoping to raise money to donate to the newly created Rachel G. Smylie Memorial Scholarship.
To the Smylie family, I offer my heartfelt thoughts and prayers. Long after the games of 2014 have come and gone, I'll remember your unique daughter and her beautiful smile.
Every time Oak Park Stadium springs back to life.