The Boys in Pink

The Wilmington Wildcats on Aug. 18. Photo by David Silverman

The Wilmington, MA, Wildcats have always worn navy and white, but when they took the Gillette Stadium field at halftime of this year’s Patriots preseason match against the Bears, the Wildcats added a pop of pink to their uniform.

The players traded their traditional socks for pink ones, and some even wore pink gloves and sweatbands. It was a small gesture on a large stage to honor the woman behind all of Wilmington’s Pop Warner teams.

In May, Wilmington Pop Warner President Deb Smith was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, which has metastasized to her liver. The Wildcats wanted to make sure Deb knew she was not fighting alone.

Deb has been involved with Pop Warner since her family moved to Wilmington in 1998. She has served as the Pop Warner president for the past 10 years. Simply put, football is a way of life for her and her family, including her five children. Deb has continued as the president despite her diagnosis.

So when Deb stepped on the bus before the team left Wilmington for Gillette Stadium, she was surprised and moved to see the team’s uniform change. This extended even to the coaches and parents, who swapped out their standard sideline outfit for a navy and pink shirt reading, “Deb Strong.”

Wilmington Pop Warner President Deb Smith and the Wildcats on Aug. 18. Photo courtesy of Wilmington Pop Warner

“It was definitely an emotional moment for me and the coaches,” Deb said. “It meant a lot. It meant a lot to me and to my family. Everybody wants to be appreciated but not that you ever expect anything like that. It just made me feel like everything I’ve been doing for years and trying to make our program strong and important for the kids, I’ve been getting the message across.”

She first started coaching cheerleading with her oldest daughter’s team, and in that first season, they competed on a national level. At the competition, the girls wore shirts that read, “Property of Deb Smith” to give their coach the credit she deserved in shaping their season. That same team, now in their 30s, remade those shirts, adding a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon after they heard the news.

There have been t-shirts, cards and phone calls from all over and from former players and their families spanning the years she has coached. The support from the Pop Warner community has been unwavering, and for the most part, a shock to the unassuming Deb.

“I never expected to see the overwhelming amount of support from those families and those children, even from our young football players in our program,” Deb said. “Just to see that, to see the number of kids that have come out, the number of kids that have come back to play this year, the number of kids that have sent cards, it’s just amazing. I never expected anything like that.”

But for those who have watched Deb dedicate herself to Wilmington football and cheerleading for the better part of two decades, the outpouring of emotional support speaks to her impact on the kids and families she has touched through the sport.

Wilmington Wildcats on Aug. 18. Photo by David Silverman

Pop Warner’s New England Region Director, Al Perillo, has worked with Deb since she began volunteering and said she is an exceptional example for the program.

“She runs an excellent program, and she’s an excellent coach. I can’t say enough about what type of person she is. She is just top-notch,” Al said.

And when the Wildcats took the field on Aug. 18, Al said that the players and coaches — from both now and years ago — took what Deb had taught them and put it into action.

“It means that the coaches both respect and love Deb for the kind of leader she’s been, and to do it quietly without even telling her just tells you if she knew they were going to do anything out of the ordinary for her, she would have said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Al explained. “They just went ahead and did it. I couldn’t get over it when I was there that night.”

As Deb battles on, through treatment and all that comes with it, her family, friends and Pop Warner community have been and will continue to be by her side. Knowing this, Deb has been able to see just a sliver of the impression she has made on Wilmington kids since 1998.

“It’s totally overwhelming … It’s amazing to think that you, myself, my husband, we’ve had such an impact,” Deb said. “Some of these kids that have gone through these programs are adults now and are married and just to see them come down and support, I think it just shows you that one act of kindness carries on.”

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