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Arkansas high school football coach leaves lasting impact on ‘adopted’ son

By Sam Pierce

This article was originally published June 17, 2018 at 1:43 p.m. Updated June 18, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

tommy-gilleran-left-and-dale-smith-gilleran-embrace-in-front-of-the-press-box-at-the-football-field-at-lake-hamilton-high-school-dale-played-football-for-tommy-when-they-were-both-at-the-fountain-lake-school-district-and-later-moved-in-with-the-gilleran-family-his-senior-year-of-high-school-dale-is-now-an-assistant-football-coach-and-teacher-for-lake-hamilton-high-school

Tommy Gilleran, left, and Dale Smith-Gilleran embrace in front of the press box at the football field at Lake Hamilton High School. Dale played football for Tommy when they were both at the Fountain Lake School District and later moved in with the Gilleran family his senior year of high school. Dale is now an assistant football coach and teacher for Lake Hamilton High School.

When Dale Smith-Gilleran introduces himself, one of the first things people usually ask him is, “Are you Tommy’s son?” And he tells them, “Yes, I am.”

“I am proud to say Gilleran,” Dale said. “He has been in the area for most of his life, and people know that name. They know it means hard worker and loving person, and it means sacrificing.

“I have never heard anybody say anything negative [about the name]. I make sure to say it because I am proud to say it. I want people to know.”

The summer before his senior year of high school, Dale moved in with Tommy Gilleran. And although it was never an official adoption, Dale added Gilleran to his last name.

“I was a kid who didn’t have any direction or any authority figure in my life,” Dale said. “I struggled in a lot of different places. I wasn’t a good student, and I had temper issues and was constantly in trouble.

“Football gave me a direction. It gave me a reason to stay out of trouble, and it gave me a father figure when I didn’t have one.”

When he was in the seventh grade at Fountain Lake, Dale started playing football for Tommy. Dale now serves under Tommy as an assistant football coach at Lake Hamilton High School as a strength and conditioning coach and also teaches biology. Tommy is going into his second year at Lake Hamilton, after being at Fountain Lake for 12 years.

“When Dale was a junior, he started living with us some and being with us some, when his dad was out of town,” Tommy said. “In fact, he started going on vacation with us the summer before his 10th-grade year. He was already a part of our family.”

Going into Dale’s senior year, his biological dad moved to Indiana.

“I grew up in New Jersey until I was about 11 years old,” Dale said. “When I turned 11, I wanted to meet my dad and get to know him. I came to live with him [in Arkansas], and the home situation just wasn’t ideal for a kid.

“He had some issues he was dealing with; there were some things that he pursued that he probably didn’t need to. When he left, the plan wasn’t for him to leave for a long period of time. It was just supposed to be for a couple of days.”

But after those couple of days had come and gone, that’s when Tommy and his family stepped in.

“We had built a relationship outside of school,” Tommy said of his family and Dale. “My wife said, ‘I always thought it was going to happen anyways,’ and it was like meant to be.

“We had been waiting for this moment, and it happened. The Lord called us to take care of [Dale] and to raise him up. My wife was on board with it, too. There was never a doubt. We just needed a bed and a dresser.”

Tommy said if the couple had officially adopted him, Dale would have lost his benefits for college.

“He was considered homeless going into college,” Tommy said. “Even though he had a home, he had a car, he had all those things — he was able to get a full Pell Grant — which is $5,000 to $6,000 a year.

“When he graduated, he didn’t have any debt. In the end, he didn’t owe any money when he graduated college, which is great for any college student.”

“When you are a kid, you don’t see the ins and outs of things. You don’t know how much it costs to have a full-grown kid in your house, eating all your food, being driven places and needing things such as clothes,” Dale said. “I was very appreciative of those things, but now that I am my own adult and pay my own way … and he had two kids of his own on top of that.”

Tommy’s daughters — Sarah and Maddie — were 14 and 8 when Dale moved in.

“I never really saw him as a threat,” Tommy said. “He always treated them like they were brother and sister, and that’s how they treated him.”

“And that’s how they made me feel,” Dale said. “I was just thankful that I had a safe place.”

“I had other kids stay with me from time to time,” Tommy said. “Mark Makin, when he was coming through, he would stay with me for a week when he would get in trouble with his foster mother.

“We were always open to have kids stay with us. We felt like they needed that space to be safe. That’s what we did. We are here to love and serve other people. I never felt threatened with any of the kids who stayed with me.”

Dale, 24, graduated from Fountain Lake in 2012 and from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia in 2016. He said becoming a coach and teacher is his dream come true.

“I remember taking a class with one of my other coaches in the ninth grade and just loving the class,” Dale said. “And [Tommy and I] always had a relationship; we hung out all the time. I just saw how much fun they had and how much they enjoyed what they were doing.

“I loved football, too, and I wanted to coach and teach.”

Dale said that what Tommy did, there is no way he would ever be able to repay him. But if he could take what was given to him and pass it on and have the opportunity to help and serve other kids in the same way, that gives him fulfillment in life.

“Everything I have was given to me,” Dale said. “I had a lot of help. God put a lot of people in my life to help. If it weren’t for them, there is no telling where I would be.

“My biological family has a long line of issues, mainly substance abuse, and I just knew I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want my [future] kids to live that life, and God has given me the chance to break the cycle.”

Dale and his wife, Lauren, will have been married for three years this August. They met at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or FCA, camp at Spring Lake in Lonsdale, while in college. They do not have any children.

“I knew she was everything I wanted in a wife,” Dale said. “She was godly, athletic and loving. We had a lot of things in common.”

He said the biggest impact Coach Tommy had on his life was inviting him to the weekly FCA meetings after practice during high school. Dale liked it because it was a place where he could get a free dinner.

“I knew I was getting fed physical food, but I was also getting spiritual food every time, too,” Dale said. “It was something that made a huge impact in my life, later down the road.”

“Ultimately, it is where I met and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Through Tommy, I learned what it meant to be a Christian, what it meant to be a real man and take responsibility for your actions and work hard and love people.

“He still shows me what it is like to be a good husband and a good father. He shows it every day and still does.”

Dale said he and Tommy still hang out on a regular basis, including going to the movies or out to eat. They are still very much a part of each other’s lives.

“He gave me a family when I didn’t have one, and for that, I will be forever grateful,” Dale said. “I know what it looks like to be a good father, and I can’t wait to be one and a good husband.

“He has given me a family to go to on holidays.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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