Jeff Jacobs: Two injuries, an act of kindness and still reason for opponents to share laugh

There are times when it is difficult for athletes to put into words why they perform acts of sportsmanship.

Good intentions do not always give way to easy explanations. Sometimes the heart reacts more eloquently than the tongue.

This was not a problem with Grace Smith of Windham Tech. She knew exactly why she picked up Tori Iozzi of Ellis Tech off the pitch and carried her three-quarters of the way across midfield toward her team’s sideline.

“I had known previously Tori was allergic to grass,” Smith said. “I mean really allergic.”

It turns out Smith and Iozzi were summer-league teammates for Thompson in NECONN soccer.

Earlier this week, we announced the start of the GameTimeCT Athlete of the Week for boys and girls sports. It is a very cool idea. An honor that should ignite interest from Greenwich to Thompson.

Well, I want to nominate fairly amazing Grace Smith for the unofficial Jeff Jacobs Sportsmanship (or is it Sportspersonship?) Award. The National Federation of State High School Associations has made sportsmanship the “No. 1 Point of Emphasis” for 2022-23 and it isn’t lost on me.

So this was in the second half of Windham Tech’s 8-2 home victory over Ellis Tech on Monday. Iozzi, a junior from Sterling, ran toward the ball.

“My leg started cramping — bad,” Iozzi said. “Half of the Windham Tech team, who I knew, came over. I can’t touch the grass because of my allergy. Grace tried to hold me up.”

Iozzi, who said she had hydrated properly, had cramped before but nothing like this.

“It went through my whole calf,” she said. “It was the worst.”

Iozzi’s body breaks out in a rash when her skin touches the grass. She tries her best to stay on her feet. When she did drop down with the cramp Smith said she saw the rash forming.

“It already was red and bumpy,” Smith said. “My teammates huddled around her because we had played previously with her in the summer. We wanted to make sure she was OK.”

Iozzi kept repeating she was allergic to grass.

“So I picked her up,” Smith said, “and carried her.”

We talk about examples of bad sportsmanship most every day. From youth leagues to the professionals, bad stuff happens. Often. Too often. So it was a touching scene when Smith carried her opponent off the field and into the arms of the Ellis Tech coach.

It also turned out to be a scene with some humor.

“We started laughing about how I was dancing (jumping around) with the cramp,” said Iozzi as her calf was being taped before a game Wednesday. “It was a bad dance. It was a funny dance. It was The Cramp Dance.”

There were a number of cramp dances across Connecticut in the heat of Week 1 of high school athletic competition. There was one Grace Smith.

While her parents were proud of Grace — mom Tia knows Iozzi from summer soccer — Smith had no idea the school would put it out on Instagram.

“At the end the day you’re playing your sport, but stuff goes on in the game,” Smith said. “We’re all people and you can help them out. It doesn’t matter what team you are on.”

Now would the place to report that the great tides of sport immediately brought vast rewards to the senior from Willington. The crutches and the large boot on Smith’s right leg would demonstrate otherwise.

Ellis Tech, Smith said, had only 11 players for the game and dropped to 10 with an injury. When Iozzi went down, that meant nine.

“The refs were lenient and gave her time to recover,” Smith said. “And she finally got back in.”

Only five minutes after play resumed, however, Smith was trying to make a move with the ball when her opponent kicked her ankle. Smith got a free kick.

“I didn’t want to come out of the game,” Smith said. “I knew it seemed serious, I’d been hurt before, but I don’t like being out. I want to play.”

Smith took the free kick. She scored.

“(Coach Brandon Strout) took me out right after the goal,” Smith said.

With a high ankle sprain, Smith said she shouldn’t be out for more than four weeks. There will be a checkup in two to examine her progress.

“It won’t be the entire season, but it could be a big portion of it,” Smith said.

Smith also plays basketball for Windham Tech. She plans to attend Manchester Community College for two years before going on to a four-year school. At Windham Tech, she is enrolled in the Health Technology program. She is a Certified Nursing Assistant.

Smith wants to become an ultrasound technician. We talk about the career choice. We talk about the joy of being a parent and seeing the development of their baby for the first time. It is impressive to talk to high school kids with such focus.

Iozzi is in the carpentry program at Ellis Tech in Killingly. She is interested in cabinetry. She also is considering playing soccer in college.

“I liked the smell of wood,” Iozzi answered when asked how she became interested in carpentry.

She breaks out into laughter. Why?

“I'm embarrassed that I like the smell of wood,” she said.

“So do I,” Smith said a few hours later and 22 miles away.

Me, too, and the smell of morning dew on the grass. I held that nugget back from Iozzi. You know. Allergies.

Smith’s brother Brandon Quinones died in 2012. He was 18. He had graduated from Windham Tech. His trade also was carpentry. Grace was 7 at the time.

I asked her what she had learned from Brandon’s life and death and if she thought it had an impact in any way on what she did Monday. It brought an emotional response.

“I love family, I hold it dear to me,” Grace said. “I think it did help my perspective. I like to think about what I would do if I was in another person’s shoes before I judge. Obviously, there are times when I fall into judging people before I get to know them. But I always try not to. You never know what’s going on in their lives.”

So Brandon would be proud of you?

“Yeah,” Grace Smith said. “And probably laughing at me, too.”

The Cramp Dance is not without its humor.; @jeffjacobs123