Growing up in one of Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods, Antoine "Shaky" Smithson wanted only to avoid it and then to escape it. He spent his youth lying low, seeking refuge in the safety of the gym or his own living room. When he was finally able to put the city in his rearview mirror, he went to Los Angeles first and then the University of Utah.
It was as if Shaky couldn't put enough distance between himself and the old neighborhood. The drugs and violence and pointlessness of the street life. His father's lost job and incarceration. His parents' split. A lost year of school. The months of helping care for siblings in his father's absence.
So here he is, sitting in his apartment in the foothills above Salt Lake City, of all places, and it's as if he has landed on another planet. He can walk outside and not feel threatened. There are no gangs hanging out on street corners, no one offering drugs or menacing violence. He has broken the hold that the old neighborhood has on so many like him.
"They have cameras on the light poles on each corner," he says. "That's how bad the crime is. It's not often that kids make it to 21 years old. I'm blessed. I'm glad I'm still living and doing what I love to do."
What he loves to do is play football. Shaky — the name he earned (and prefers) for his moves on a basketball court — counted on football to save him from a hard life, and, cliche or not, that's exactly what happened. His gridiron skills brought him to East Los Angeles College and then to the University of Utah, where he plays wide receiver and running back for the Utes.
"I'm fortunate to be here," he says.
Almost the first thing Shaky did when he arrived was to share his good fortune. He offered a lifeline to another family member. With his mother's encouragement, he officially became the legal guardian of his younger brother, Anthony, and brought him to Salt Lake City this summer. Shaky is 22, Anthony 15, and they share an apartment and a life of school and football.
"I'm very glad we did it," Anthony says. "It's a better place than Baltimore. There was stuff I wanted to get away from."
The Smithsons have slipped into a practiced routine. They rise at 6:30, shower and eat breakfast. A classmate picks up Anthony and drives him to Highland High while Shaky goes off to classes at the U., where he majors in sociology. In the afternoon, they report to their respective football practices.
Shaky has nine catches for 56 yards. In Saturday's win over Louisville he filled in at running back because of injuries and had four carries for 18 yards.
Anthony, who plays for Highland's sophomore team as a ninth-grader, has nine touchdowns and five interceptions in five games while playing quarterback, receiver, running back and cornerback.
After practice, the brothers meet at their apartment and spend the evening doing homework, eating dinner and watching TV.
"Yeah, I can cook," says Shaky. "I just call my mama. On Sunday I fix mashed potatoes, corn, string beans … ."
Shaky tried to claim legal guardianship of his brother when he was enrolled at East Los Angeles a couple of years ago "but the support system wasn't in place," he says. He needed a Division I football scholarship and financial assistance to take on the responsibility of his brother. After transferring to Utah in February, he began the legal guardianship process in March, and Anthony joined him in June.
"Basically," says Shaky, "I'm his father now."
Shaky and Anthony receive financial assistance from the Division of Social Services, from the Rev. France Davis and from team chaplain Phil Thompson. "Adoption was the best way to go because Anthony was in the DSS system," says Shaky. "He still gets (financial) help that way."
Shaky isn't what you might expect from a young man who survived a tough urban environment. He doesn't wear his hardships in his countenance. You won't find attitude, wariness and anger written into his face. Instead of a scowl, his smooth, unlined face, framed by a mop of long hair, is open and breaks into an easy smile. As Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham puts it, "He's just a pleasant personality. He's very polite and conscientious in the way he conducts himself."
"My sisters and brothers look up to me," says Shaky. "It would be wrong if I walked around with a chip on my shoulder like my life isn't good. Growing up in Baltimore and defeating the odds of making it out and making it to college and being successful in sports and school, and making a way for my little brother so he can have a chance … my life is good."
Shaky is the oldest of Tony and Lori Smithson's seven children. (There is also an older half-brother, Tony Jr.) Remarkably, all of their children managed to steer clear of trouble and excel in school thanks to an attentive, extended family — maternal grandmother Quincy Thornton, aunt Shelly and uncle Toni Smith, as well as their parents. None of them was able to attend college; they are determined the next generation will have that opportunity.
This is no small feat, given the temptations and dangers of their neighborhood and the shortcomings of the education system. Shaky attended Frederick Douglass High School, which was the subject of an HBO documentary — "Hard Times at Douglass High." (Shaky appears in the film as the point guard and captain of the basketball team.) The school was established in 1883 as the "Colored High and Training School." It is the second-oldest historically black public high school in the country.
The school's most famous alumnus is the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who successfully argued the case that desegregated schools. Ironically, Douglass High is still almost entirely black — and struggling. The HBO film shows students refusing to attend classes or do homework, a dearth of textbooks, a majority of noncertified and unqualified teachers, a 50 percent dropout rate, rampant illiteracy and poor home environments in which two-parent households like the Smithsons' are rare.
"It's a rough area," says Whittingham, who visited Shaky's mother, Lori, while recruiting Shaky. "It's very meager living conditions. It's like South Central L.A."
The Smithsons were an island in a sea of trouble. One of their rules: When the street lights come on, the children come in the house. They spent much of their free time playing games and reading indoors simply to avoid trouble.
"I just went to school and stayed in the house most of the time," says Anthony. "There were lots of people on the street corners, just waiting, hanging around at night."
Shaky tells the same story: "I was at school a lot, which is how I stayed out of trouble. I was in the gym all the time. I just went home to eat, shower and sleep.
The Smithsons managed to raise happy, motivated children against the odds. Anthony is a straight A student who aspires to play football and "do something with math. I'm good in math." His 18-year-old sister, Tamica, won an academic scholarship to the University of Maryland. Shaky had a 3.2 grade point average at East Los Angeles and earned his associate of arts degree in just three semesters, which enabled him to report to Utah last spring.
"All of us do well in school," says Shaky. "We knew we wanted out of there, and we knew we had to go to school or my mom wouldn't let us play sports."
If the Smithson children managed to avoid trouble, their father wasn't so fortunate. Tony, a construction worker, served a three-year prison sentence. Shaky, who won't discuss the nature of his father's crime, says, "He lost his job — the economy was bad. He was just trying to take care of his family." The Smithsons lost their home and moved in with Aunt Shelly. "When Dad was locked up," says Shaky, "we couldn't afford a house."
Shaky, a ninth-grader at the time and an honor-roll student, virtually stopped attending school and stayed home to help his mother. The following year, he had to repeat ninth grade at a new school — Douglass High. At Douglass, he met the man who would become another mentor, Rodney Coffield, the basketball coach and a Baltimore school police officer.
"When he came to us he was not quite ready," says Coffield. "He was not focused academically, and he was dealing with a lot of adversity in his life. There were things in the home he had to contend with. He matured into a fine young man. He made good choices. He had to walk every day through one of the worst parts of Baltimore to get to school. There are two to three murders a week. He survived all that and came to school every day and worked hard."
Shaky was captain of the basketball team and a versatile star for the football team — he was a running back, quarterback, receiver, safety, punt/kick returner and field goal kicker. He was named all-city quarterback one season and all-city receiver the next.
Because he didn't qualify academically for a Division I school, he enrolled in junior college. At East Los Angeles, Shaky was equally versatile. Last season he led the team in rushing, receiving, punt returns, scoring and all-purpose yards, and threw three touchdown passes. In one game alone he passed for 162 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 102 yards and one touchdown and collected 117 receiving yards.
The Utes recruited Shaky as a receiver, although he is getting some action at running back. Shaky's mother, aunt and uncle flew from Baltimore to Salt Lake City to watch Anthony and Shaky play football for their new teams one weekend. Coffield also plans to attend a game to watch Shaky play for the Utes.
Shaky peppers his conversation with repeated acknowledgement of the people who helped him make it this far — Coffield, his parents, his aunt and uncle, his grandmother, his half-brother Toni, who helped support him when he attended East L.A.
"We stick together and help each other," says Shaky. "That's how we are. And everything is good now."