The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) is proud to announce its nominee for the 2019-20 National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Sprit of Sport Award is Anna-Jonesboro High School sophomore Marlee Smith (right).
The NFHS selected Smith as its Section 4 winner of the award, making her the sixth individual from Illinois to be named a section winner.
“Marlee is an inspiration to others,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “Not only because of the bravery she showed as she fought cancer and returned to athletics, but more so in her selflessness. To show such kindness and generosity at such a young age is a sign of a remarkable young woman."
Marlee’s athletic career at Anna-Jonesboro High School began in promising fashion, as she made the varsity golf and varsity basketball teams as a freshman. However, a major curveball laid in wait ahead of her freshman season for the Wildcat softball team.
Marlee was diagnosed with T -Cell Leukemia on March 17, 2019. She went from playing the sports she loves on a daily basis to a 30-day hospital stay that included spinal taps, chemo medications, blood transfusions and bone marrow biopsy. Despite that grueling regimen, she immediately found solace in helping others.
“Being sick and unable to play basketball was devastating to me,” said Marlee. “But during some of my hardest chemotherapy treatments, I was offered fantastic opportunities to speak at some pediatric cancer organizations and golf tournament fundraisers. God gave me these chances, so I had more to do than feel sorry for myself. These organizations gave me something to look forward to when I thought I had lost everything.”
While she found the strength to tell her story to benefit others, there were numerous setbacks along the way for Marlee, including a stroke in her left middle cerebral artery that took away strength and grossly impacted her coordination.
Just a year ago, Marlee was a thriving athlete concentrating on lowering her golf scores and raising her point per game average.
However, since March of 2019, her new stat line includes two ER trips, six lengthy hospital stays, 18 clinic visits, 20 spinal taps, and 26 units of blood and 12 units of platelets transfused. Lingering effects still include the loss of sensation in her fingers, bilateral feet, monthly testing to monitor her heart, kidney and liver functions, and the long-term side effects from chemo therapy drugs.
Despite all this, with the aid of a golf cart, she managed to play for the Lady Wildcats golf team this fall, remarkably earning a third-place finish in the River to River High School Conference meet. She was also back playing with the basketball team this winter, albeit playing junior varsity, as she works to regain her strength, coordination and agility.
But her story doesn’t end with her just making it back to sports. Along the way, she organized a toy drive for the young children she spent time with on the fourth floor at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. Other high schools caught wind of her story, and the toy drive, like Marion High School, whose team showed up to their contest at Anna-Jonesboro in December with each player bearing gifts for Marlee’s toy drive.
"Despite what I was dealing with, the young kids in treatment are going through much worse,” said Marlee. “Some couldn’t get out of bed or lost limbs. I saw kids there beginning treatment in early December and knew they wouldn’t be able to get back home by the holidays. I wanted them to feel as much of home as they could, and make sure they knew people cared."
Marlee beat cancer and is back playing golf and basketball, which is amazing in its own right. That she managed to remain an honors student and be active in multiple school and community groups during her treatment is equally remarkable. Her story and courage will never be forgotten by her classmates, coaches, teammates, and loved ones.
But it’s likely that her most lasting impact will be in those she inspired or gave hope to through her talks, or whose day she brightened through her toy drive.
“Being nominated for this award touched a special place in my heart,” said Marlee. “Everyone at my school and in my community has gone above and beyond for me. I am so very thankful for all the support I have received. It shows that one person can make a difference in the world, make a difference in someone else’s journey.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) developed the Spirit of Sport Award in 2008 as a way to recognize individuals who exemplify the ideals of the positive spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics. Student-athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, administrators, trainers and other individuals associated with a school’s athletic programs are all eligible for the honor, which generally recognizes individuals who have overcome adversity or gone above and beyond their peers. The IHSA receives one nominee to represent the state of Illinois each school year. Section 4 includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Marlee was recognized and then interviewed on the 2020 IHSA Girls Basketball State Finals, and was also the subject of a feature story on Section618.com. See all three videos below: