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Chasing Championship: Lombardi, Stanley and Champa Bay Dads

Elite champions undoubtedly exist on the fields and rinks of Champa Bay, home of the Lombardi Trophy and Stanley Cup. Though reaching career pinnacles is awe-inspiring, championing fatherhood remains central to Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive tackle, Donovan Smith, and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman, Luke Schenn. For them, father, a role with no playbook, is more challenging than any playoff.


Bubble Screen

Donovan Smith has been on the Bucs roster since 2015 and knows the meanings of challenge and hard work. A Super Bowl champion, father and boyfriend, he also knows the meaning of true love. Love, for both his sport and his people, pushed him through the pandemic.

At COVID’s peak, Smith and his girlfriend Kayla, were expecting a baby. “I wanted to be at everything,” Smith says. But although he was initially allowed at ultrasounds, visitors were prohibited once Kayla was 20 weeks along. Work continued in a bubble—the players created home gyms and attended virtual Bucs meetings, sharing screens for play analysis. Life’s most monumental conversion arrived on July 23 when Kayla gave birth to their daughter, Sarai.

Champa bay dads
Donovan Smith with girlfriend Kayla and daughter Sarai (10 months). Photo by Donovan Smith

Locker room lessons have helped Smith suit up for dad life. “Being in the moment is key,” Smith says. “Put your all into any given moment. If it’s dad time, be all in.” Fatherhood’s rite of passage has entailed time outs—moments when the couple stepped aside, reviewed life’s game tape and opened lines of communication about expectations. “I can’t just come home and relax,” Smith explains. “Sarai is the focus and I need to be active and present.”

Throughout pregnancy, insufficient time with family was Smith’s biggest fear. “I worried about being present enough. Would Sarai even know me?” Sarai knows her daddy well, and the two love outdoor walks and bedtime stories. As Sarai’s needs evolve and her attachment to Kayla lessens, Smith is thankful for increased time with their baby girl. “Teaching her and seeing her grow is amazing. It happens so fast I wonder, ‘When and where did she learn that?’”

He may be 6 feet, 6-inches and 338 pounds of football player, but Smith is human, trying to build a legacy as an athlete and a father. “Mental toughness is key. Life presents speedbumps. You overcome them by giving life 110% and remaining positive. I’m reminded that I have all the capability I need. The world is Sarai’s oyster. We’ll let her run the gamut, and she’ll decide where to pour her all.”


Line Change

Luke Schenn, who’s played hockey since age 4 in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, didn’t let a pandemic push him to the penalty box. A month into pandemic life, his wife, Jeska, delivered their second child, Weston. “Thankfully, I was able to go into the hospital with her. But, once I left, I wasn’t allowed back,” recounted the doting father. Rules meant months before anyone met Weston, and life in a bubble summoned trials.

Overcoming adversity is part of Schenn’s stickhandling. “Reflecting on my hockey career, there’s much I can translate to fatherhood,” Schenn says. “Most of all is pushing yourself and trusting that, with hard work, things work out. Talking to family is key for navigating life’s ups and downs.”

Luke Schenn with wife Jeska and sons Kingston (4) and Weston (1). Photo provided by the Tampa Bay Lightning

Schenn grew up powered by parents intent on supporting learning-through-talking. “My dad talked things through with us. He provided opportunity for redemption.” In a world crowded with uncertainty, parents’ tendency toward openness is vital. Even as a professional athlete, Schenn found COVID’s unpredictability unsettling. “Initially, it felt like the season was taken from us. The team was divided between locker rooms, and pre-game dialogue shut down. There was so much uncertainty.” Leaving his family for the team’s bubble was brutal. Fortunately, the Stanley Cup sealed an upended season and gave the Schenns more conversation starters.

Sports aside, Schenn is in the thick of life’s fathering season. Game days don’t sideline the kids’ 7 a.m. internal clock and familiar morning rush with Jeska, Kingston (4) and Weston (1). “Hockey is big, but the boys are our priority. I’m intent on being our family’s backbone—someone they can always rely on.” Schenn’s introducing the kids to sports, as he’s grateful for the lifelong friendships organized sports cultivates. (Learning good work ethic isn’t the only perk of a Lightning-player-daddy; skating on the Amalie ice when daddy’s not working is pretty cool, too.) Schenn’s goal: raising good people, because good people grow into good teammates—in the games of hockey and life.


Champions

Winning plays are great, but have you seen those moments when loved ones rush confetti covered fields, or when the winning family kisses a cup? When the game clock ends, it’s about the family team we spend life building—about the joy shared championing life with them.


Feature Image: by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Originally Published in June 2021

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