University of Utah football player Shaky Smithson, left, laughs… (Salt Lake Tribune photo…)
The quaint, two-bedroom apartment Antoine and Anthony Smithson share in Salt Lake City could not be more different than home.
The brothers grew up on the corner of The Alameda and 29th Street in Northeast Baltimore, on a block where many of the houses have overgrown lawns and bushes cluttering yards that are no wider or longer than the 10 yards any football team needs to get a first down.
In that neighborhood, Antoine — who usually goes by Shaky — and Anthony knew to be wary. They knew too many of the people they saw were dealing drugs. Crime was rampant. Murder became something you lived with.
So it took some time for Shaky, the Douglass grad who now plays wide receiver for Utah and has taken legal guardianship of his younger brother, to understand the overtures of his new neighbors. They all wanted to help any way they could. That was new.
Anthony, just 16 years old, had fewer reservations. He felt relief almost immediately.
"I don't really get homesick because I know what's back there," he said during a phone interview. In Baltimore, "if people don't like each other, nobody fights no more, like fist fight. They always bring guns and shoot. They like killing. If you fight somebody on the street, it's not over … They're going to come back tomorrow with a gun or a knife or something like that and try to come at you."
That seems so far away for the Smithson brothers now. Shaky is preparing for unbeaten and eighth-ranked Utah's game against Air Force on Saturday. If the Utes get through that, they face TCU — currently No. 4 — next weekend in a game that could have national title implications. He leads the nation in punt-return average (23.3 yards) and, with five games left, has a shot at setting an NCAA single-season record for punt-return yardage (he's at 560, the record, set in 1948, is 791).
Everyone knew Shaky was poised for a strong senior season. The way Anthony — whose friends call him Fish — has played is more surprising. An injury forced the junior into the starting quarterback spot at Highland, his new school, midway through the year. He leads the Rams, who will play in the first round of the state tournament Friday, in passing (36-for-67, 850 yards, eight TDs) and has also rushed 78 times for 391 yards and five touchdowns. On defense he's made four interceptions.
On the field, the Smithsons make it look easy. They move effortlessly, blessed with an innate ability to see through and weave between the havoc that is football.
Off the field, their path was much more cluttered.
Shaky's grandmother was the one who signed him up for basketball — in a league for 8-year-olds when he was just 6 — and served as a steadying force for the family.
Her death at age 57 of scleroderma, a rare chronic autoimmune disease, "devastated" Shaky. Seven months later, his maternal grandfather, Julius Smith, died from a heart attack at 57, leaving his mother Lori, now 44, without both her parents.
Around the same time, Shaky's father Tony was laid off from his construction job. He turned to the street to support his family and was eventually arrested and convicted of possession of narcotics with intent to distribute.
"When things weren't working out with his job, he reverted back to what he knew," Shaky said. "Being that he never saw his father, he said his kids would never want for anything, which we didn't. … It wasn't to hurt anyone else. It was just to make sure his family was good."
With Lori, who was working in the nutrition department at Johns Hopkins Hospital, left to care for her four daughters and two sons, Antoine, who was in his first year at Lake Clifton, often stayed home from school to help his family.
"All of them helped out a lot, but Antoine was the oldest," Lori said. "He did everything basically. He helped me out a lot with the kids."
Helping out with his siblings, however, kept him from attending the majority of his freshman year at Lake Clifton, causing him to fail out.
Shaky enrolled at Douglass for his second attempt at ninth grade, bringing him to Rodney Coffield, Douglass' basketball coach.
The two met in Douglass' gym during open practices in the fall. Antoine's hair was much shorter then, compared to the dreadlocks he wears now, but his attitude was still the same: confident with a little swagger to his step. One thing that really stood out from that day, Coffield said, was the way Shaky moved on the court.
"When he got the ball, he kind of shook his body … and got a jump shot off," Coffield recalled. "It kind of goes with the fact of what he does in football: when he catches the ball he kind of gives everybody this little shake to get them off of him. Everyone knew at that point, towards the middle of September, who Shaky was by the way he dribbled."