Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 2:00 a.m.
Sharielle Smith was pinned inside a tangled heap of metal when she regained consciousness.
Her four-door Saturn ION had just hydroplaned off Interstate-75 near Bradenton and slammed into a concrete pillar. The impact sheered off the back of her car, ripped her rear wheels off and folded the front wheels underneath the vehicle.
Smith momentarily blacked out on impact. When she came to, she was still strapped into the driver's seat and struggled to breathe.
Among the motorists who had stopped was a nurse, who had entered the vehicle and was holding Smith's head.
"She said, 'Don't move,' '' Smith said. "I was like, 'I have to. I have to know if I can play basketball again.' ''
Smith was cut from her car with the Jaws of Life and air lifted to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. She suffered a punctured lung and burns to her neck and arm from the seat belt and air bag that secured her during the crash.
Amazingly, Smith avoided a head-on collision with the concrete pole when her car took a fateful spin to the side just before slamming into the beam.
"Otherwise," she said, "I would probably be dead."
Now, six months after surviving this harrowing accident, Smith is enjoying a successful freshman season, as Florida (6-12, 0-3 SEC) prepares to host Auburn (14-5, 1-2) tonight at 7 p.m. in the O'Connell Center.
"I'm definitely blessed to be here today," she said.
Smith was traveling from Gainesville to her Bradenton home on a wet July morning when the accident occurred.
She was just two exits from her home when an 18-wheeler merged into her lane. To avoid a collision, Smith swerved away from the truck toward the median.
She slid off the roadway beneath an overpass. The left side of her car slammed into a concrete support.
Several motorists stopped and called police. Smith told them to call her family.
Coincidently, Smith's mother, father and brother each worked with the Manatee County Police Department at the time.
Smith's mother, Carolyn, is Major of the Manatee County Corrections Bureau. Smith's father, John Edward, is a former Lieutenant. And her brother, John Smith II, is a deputy.
When the family received a call at their home that morning saying Sharielle had been in a serious accident, they raced to the scene.
"It was the ride of a lifetime," Carolyn Smith said. "I've seen everything in 25 years of law enforcement. But when it's your own child ... I don't know how to describe it."
The family arrived at the scene, but wasn't allowed to see Sharielle, who was in an ambulance awaiting an air ambulance to arrive.
"My parents thought I was dead because of the way my car was," Smith said. "They didn't believe the people who were telling them I was OK. They saw the car before they saw me."
Carolyn Smith said when the family arrived, all they saw was "a partial car."
The impact destroyed the back of Smith's car and left a trail of debris strewn about. Had Smith collided head-on with the concrete poll, most agree she would not have survived.
It was such fortune that solidified the family's faith.
"It was like this car was picked up and guided away from that pillar," Carolyn Smith said. "Only God could have picked up her car and guided it. My husband and I agreed it was something special."
Meanwhile, word reached Gators assistant coach Michael Peck shortly after the accident. He immediately phoned head coach Carolyn Peck, who was on the road recruiting at the time.
"Her dad is telling me they had to cut her out of the car, they had to airlift her to the hospital and the condition of the car," Carolyn Peck said. "I'm thinking, 'No way.' ''
Smith spent several days in the hospital recovering.
When it became evident Smith's life was not in danger, her family began wondering about her basketball career.
Smith has been playing hoops since the second grade. She played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton and also played in AAU leagues all over the state.
Smith had admired Peck since her days with the WNBA's Orlando Miracle and had long aspired to play for the Gators.
"She knows nothing else but basketball," Carolyn Smith said. "We're thanking God she was alive. But we were also thinking, 'If she can't play basketball, what are we going to do?' ''
Smith's parents drove her back to Gainesville for the fall semester. She wasn't exactly at her peak basketball form. Smith was still battling shortness of breath.
"My body was mixed up," Smith said. "I was ready to get back on the court, but I had to realize I had to give my body some time to get back to where it was. I'm good now."
Smith showed flashes of her potential when she scored six points and grabbed nine rebounds against No. 4 Tennessee on Jan. 11. Perhaps her best effort was a 12-point, nine-rebound performance against Alabama State on Dec. 28. For the season, Smith is averaging 3.2 points and 3.5 rebounds as one of Florida's key reserves.
Her success, though, can't be measured with statistics. Simply being able to slip on a uniform, to play basketball and to smile is sometimes enough.
"I don't take things for granted anymore," Smith said. "I've never been in any other accident. I've never had any broken bones before. Now I realize anything can happen at any time."
Contact Brandon Zimmerman at 374-5051 or email@example.com.
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