Allie LaForce gently places her right hand on the baby bump that — even in a ribbed, white tank dress — is just becoming visible during her 20th week of pregnancy. The 33-year-old Vermilion native, a sideline reporter covering professional and college sports for the cable channels TBS and TNT, and her husband, Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Joe Smith, are being photographed for the cover of this magazine.
“I like the stomach pose,” she tells photographer Angelo Merendino.
For LaForce, the wait to show has felt interminable. “When you finally do,” she says, “you just want everybody to know.”
But that wait is nothing compared to what LaForce and Smith have gone through to get to this moment. The pregnancy is an event they’ve dreamt of, lived for, during their three-year journey to conceive a baby free of the disease that has taken so much from Smith — and still could take far more.
The 38-year-old Cincinnati native’s maternal grandmother and mother died of Huntington’s disease, a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates the physical and mental abilities of those who suffer from it, usually during their prime working years — and there is no cure.
Smith has a 50% chance of developing Huntington's disease. If he does, any children he and Allie conceived naturally would have a 50% chance of developing it, too.
That chilling fact inspired the couple to establish HelpCureHD, a nonprofit that provides grants to cover a round of in vitro fertilization with preimplantation genetic testing for couples at risk of conceiving children with the disease and in financial need. Since its inception in 2015, HelpCureHD has raised roughly $3 million and accepted just under 100 families for funding that, to date, has helped bring 17 babies free of Huntington’s disease into the world — a number LaForce says would be higher if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t delayed or halted elective procedures.
“We’re eliminating HD one family at a time,” as LaForce likes to say.
The effort to conceive via IVF with preimplantation genetic testing is a challenging one. LaForce points out that no matter how young, healthy and wealthy a woman may be, she can’t control how many eggs will be retrieved after 10 to 14 days of self-administered injections to stimulate the ovaries, how many of those eggs will be fertilized by sperm in a petri dish, how many embryos will develop to the point they can be biopsied or how many of those embryos will be free of genetic abnormalities.
But she doesn't regret a minute of it.
“When you’re in love with someone, you would do anything to make them happy,” she says. “Their struggle becomes your struggle. And your battle becomes their battle.”
LaForce and Smith met in 2011, while she was a Fox 8 News sports reporter and he was a pitcher in Cleveland. Smith had noticed LaForce, so he enlisted pitcher Justin Masterson to find out everything he could about her during an interview she’d scheduled with him. “For every question I asked him, he asked me two questions,” she recalls. “I thought, What is up with this guy? He was married with kids.”
Smith then answered a challenge she’d issued in her Twitter bio — “Can anyone take me one-on-one in basketball?” — with a simple “I can.” The two ended up playing in front of a Fox 8 News camera crew.
“That ended up airing on television, which was hysterical,” LaForce remembers.
LaForce resisted Smith’s subsequent text advances. She already had a boyfriend, and she considered sports reporters dating athletes an unwritten breach of professional conduct. Moreover, she believed the stereotype that all professional athletes were serial cheaters. But a few months later, on the night she and her boyfriend broke up, she agreed to meet Smith for a drink at the Flying Monkey Pub in Tremont. “He ordered a whiskey, I ordered a water, and he didn’t talk the whole time,” LaForce relates. Conversation only began to flow after he suggested they go for a walk.
“He walked me to my car and just said, ‘Make sure you call me when you get home so I know you’re safe,’” she says. “He was so respectful.”
It was the beginning of a relationship that continued after LaForce moved to Los Angeles to host a daily CBS Sports Network show, Lead Off, shortly thereafter. Smith became a free agent and accepted a deal with the Los Angeles Angels in 2014. “Their stadium happened to be 8 miles from my studio,” LaForce says. “So God was looking out for us.”
Smith had watched as his grandmother struggled and eventually succumbed to Huntington’s disease. But he’d never really dwelled on how it could affect his own health or starting a family.
“Before Allie, I never was with anybody that I thought we were going to have kids,” he explains.
Then his mother, Lee, was diagnosed with the disease in 2012. It precipitated a serious conversation with LaForce about what the future might hold before they got engaged during the 2014 MLB All-Star Game break.
LaForce was unfazed. She’d lost an aunt to cancer and a cousin to leukemia. Another cousin never walked again after he was in an accident that broke his neck. The tragedies had taught her that one couldn’t predict or prevent them.
“I don’t know a family that doesn’t have a struggle,” she says. “So I just took it on as, ‘OK, well, when that comes, we’ll face it.’”
LaForce and Smith married on Jan. 17, 2015, at the United Methodist Church in University Circle. In lieu of wedding gifts, they asked their 450 guests to donate to a Huntington’s disease research study conducted through the Cleveland Clinic. During a tour of the clinic, they learned about IVF with preimplantation genetic testing, a procedure in which cells taken from an IVF-created embryo undergo testing before the embryo is transferred to the womb.
“It blew our minds,” LaForce remembers.
So did the cost. According to LaForce, a single round averages $30,000 — Smith estimates they’ve spent $75,000 to $80,000 to date — and not all insurance plans cover it. They decided to use the donations to start HelpCureHD instead.
LaForce writes in a blog post for their foundation that “Joe convinced himself he would get tested to save me the burden of going through weeks of shots and surgery. Then he would decide that he wasn’t ready to get tested, and we would convince ourselves [IVF with preimplantation genetic testing] was the answer.” Embryos could be tested for Huntington’s disease as well as a range of chromosomal abnormalities. If some weren’t viable, they could elect to not know why.
Smith’s thoughts of the relief a possible negative result would bring were overshadowed by the prospect of living with a positive one and the hopelessness it would engender. He’d watched his mother go from an active woman who traveled to watch him pitch to a person in a long-term care facility who couldn’t even speak. She died in August 2020.
“What happens to my mindset?” he asks. “Do I change everything in my life?” He also imagined the guilt he’d feel if he tested negative and his sister subsequently developed the disease. “Is there a right thing, a wrong thing? I don’t know. All I know is I married a tough woman that takes care of me.”
LaForce credits that toughness to an unwavering faith in God instilled by her parents. Although the family didn’t go to church regularly because she and her two siblings participated in various weekend sporting events, they prayed together and thanked God for blessings in good times and bad.
“Whenever we had a challenge growing up, my family just rallied,” she adds. “We were LaForces. We’re strong, and this will bring us closer together and closer to God. And every struggle did.”
LaForce began her first round of IVF in January 2019, before Smith’s second season with the Houston Astros. Many women had shared IVF experiences that gave her strength and hope. To pay it forward, she began sharing hers on Instagram and HelpCureHD blog posts.
She doesn’t skimp on graphic details, right down to the drawbacks of estrogen pills: “You basically pee blue and wipe blue all day long.”
“If you don’t share the real and the true details, then you’re not really doing anyone a favor,” she says. “You’re doing them a disservice.”
She also tells of the low points. One of the first was learning that none of the embryos created during that first IVF round had developed to transferable maturity — news delivered in a voicemail she listened to 10 minutes before hosting televised NBA All-Star Saturday Night activities in 2019.
“I had to hold back tears,” she remembers of that evening in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The experience spurred HelpCureHD to develop a network of 32 facilities around the country that LaForce describes as “respectful of your time and your energy and your emotions” like the couple’s subsequent provider, HART Fertility Clinic near Houston.
Even more devastating was the miscarriage she suffered in mid-2021, after a second round of IVF yielded three healthy embryos.
The disappointment and loss, however, drew LaForce and Smith closer. “When you go through fertility treatments and you don’t have success, you automatically think you are lesser of a woman because of it,” she says. “He never let me believe that.”
Traveling with a cooler full of medications and giving herself shots in airplane, arena, stadium and gas-station bathrooms had become “like popping a multivitamin.”
“I was motivated by failure and by people telling me I couldn’t do something,” she adds.
People had told her she couldn’t win the 2005 Miss Teen USA competition as a novice pageant contestant, play basketball — even as a walk-on — at Ohio University at just 5 feet 7½ inches tall or land a reporting gig with a national network with less than 10 years of experience. She’d proved them all wrong. “I was just going to keep going until we had success.”
LaForce began a third round of IVF in October 2021. “I realized, Oh, no! We only have two embryos left. If I miscarry again, we’ll only have one,” she explains. The effort yielded two more healthy embryos.
Her resolve only wavered once, after a long-awaited Feb. 28 embryo transfer resulted in pregnancy. A month later she had an ultrasound to determine if the baby had a heartbeat. Her previous pregnancy had ended when an ultrasound didn’t detect one.
“I thought going in, If this doesn’t work and I have to start over again, do the two months of shots and go through this waiting game of waiting for a heartbeat knowing that I’m 0 for 2, I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” she says.
It was a question she didn’t have to answer. The ultrasound technician zoomed in on a tiny heart that, even to LaForce’s and Smith’s untrained eyes, was clearly beating.
LaForce still fears she’ll miscarry again. “But I am allowing myself to celebrate here and there,” she says. She happily reveals that the baby is a boy and is looking forward to her baby showers — Smith’s Twins teammates’ wives threw her one in early July, and her mother will host one next month.
She intends to return to covering the NBA for TNT in September as usual and continue until she can no longer travel in early October, just weeks before her Nov. 16 due date. When people tell her she should slow down, she points out that she miscarried after weeks of bed rest (she experienced some bleeding early in that first pregnancy), eschewing caffeine and following every other doctor’s order.
“This round, I lived my normal life — had a cup of coffee a day, traveled and did March Madness, worked out occasionally, whenever I had the strength and energy,” she says. “And we’re 20 weeks pregnant.”
In fact, work sustained her through a first trimester of hormone-shot soreness and fatigue. “When you’re on the move — you’re in and out of hotels, and you’re on planes, and you’re in front of thousands of people doing what you love — it gives you great life.”
To those who question the ethics of using IVF with preimplantation genetic testing, she replies, "We feel God gave us this gift."
As LaForce often states in her blogs, God’s timing is perfect: The baby is due to arrive while the couple is enjoying an annual retreat to 141 acres they own in southwestern Ohio.
LaForce plans to continue working after the baby is born. Her goal is for the baby to travel with her at least some of the time. She would like a big family. She and Smith, whom she says espouses a more cautious “have-one-and-see-how-it-goes” attitude, have three more healthy embryos available to be transferred.
“We own property in Northeast Ohio, which is where we plan to settle down and have a family when Joe retires,” she says.
But the incredibly busy life she and Smith lead, traveling from city to city, is all they’ve ever known. And they’re surrounded by couples who have mastered raising happy, healthy children in rentals and hotel rooms.
“When I’m ready to rock and roll, we’ll just figure it out as we go,” she says. “We always have.”