Rock Chalk Weekly: The Ties That Bind
Written by Trae Green, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Lord, please let me make it back inside today.
Deep in the heart of Baltimore, this is life. The streets take a venomous, clenching grasp on those who inhabit Maryland’s largest city.
Television shows like “The Wire” do their best to portray the lives of poverty, the wars over drugs and the senseless violence that plagues the community.
But, fiction is just a small dose of reality.
It’s never ‘if’ something is going to happen, it’s a matter of when and where it will happen. Every day, every step out of the front door, comes the hope that today won’t be the day the clock expires.
Sadly, in a place like this, time is shorter.
The truly scary part is when tragedy does strike and someone goes to prison or is found dead, it’s not a shock.
Sure, that person is someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, etcetera, but to those who live it daily, it’s accepted as a part of life – just another case and circumstance – the next person or the next body.
The minority are those who avoid entanglement in the spiderweb.
Here, avenues for change are merely daydreams.
Not long ago, on the desecrated streets of East Baltimore, two college-aged men stood and talked. At one point, they were the best of friends. Now, they don’t see each other often. The factors of distance and differences forced them apart.
As children, they had been cut from the same cloth of inner-city life. They’d grown up together, seen things nobody – let alone kids – should ever see, and through it formed a connected, hardened bond.
Now, they couldn’t be any more different. Their surroundings had placed them on a simultaneous, tumultuous path from childhood through junior high, but today, their lives couldn’t be leading in more of an opposite direction.
“I’m proud of you, Fish. I’m proud of you for getting out.”
He thinks about it often, how different everything could be right now. This time, standing there catching up on life, it was like looking in a mirror of what could have been.
In that moment, Fish Smithson knew his childhood friend – ensnared in that inevitable trap – was right.
He would’ve been caught too, if it hadn’t been for Shaky.
Antoine (Shaky) and Anthony (Fish) Smithson are both Baltimore bred to the bone.
The brothers have always been nearly inseparable. Close in age, they helped each other grow up and kept one another on the straight-and-narrow.
They grew up in an area called “Down the Hill,” a neighborhood that justifies the city’s ‘Mobtown,’ nickname in a place many of the residents prefer to not be called by their government name.
“It started when I was six,” Shaky, now 28, said of the epithet. “It came from the Baltimore community. I was fast and elusive. I had good moves on the football field and the basketball court. One time my cousin said, ‘You’re a shaky little (expletive),’ after that, it just stuck with me.”
‘Fish,’ stuck with Anthony at a young age also. After years of prodding about the specifics, Kansas’ junior safety remains tight-lipped on the reason he insists to go by the moniker.
That’s about the only thing he won’t talk about.
Rarely seen without a smile on his face and a group of people around to carry a conversation with, Fish’s personality relates as well to 40-year-olds as it does a 3-year-old.
He can make anyone crack a smile by flashing an ear-to-ear grin that exhibits a radiating exuberance in a room.
He’ll talk, laugh and joke about nearly anything, just don’t ask him about the name Fish.
His brother won’t spill any secrets either. He’s more than happy to give any detail on his own alias, but when it comes to any story behind the name Fish, the conversation abruptly grows quiet. It was sworn on long ago that the reason would remain within the family.
“That’s one thing we said we’d never discuss,” Shaky said. “There’s a sentimental reason why he got the name so that’s why we don’t say it.”
It will remain an instant conversation starter for the rest of Fish’s life – his signature even features a drawing of the aquatic animal before he writes Smithson on the paper.
In the end, he’s fine with all of the questions. They don’t bother him anymore. The name gives him a reason to share the story of where he’s from. He’s proud of it, proud to have emerged from the depths of the deepest, darkest abyss.
Proud to have just kept swimming.
The danger is everywhere. The bullets expelled from the guns of people with no conscience have intended targets, but no names inscribed on the metal-jacket casing.
An afternoon outside in the yard can turn tragic in the blink of an eye.
“There was one specific time my family was out on the porch in the middle of the day at about 2 or 3 o’clock,” Fish recalled. “These boys ran up the street and started shooting while my little sister was out there.”
As soon as the shots were fired, Fish and his family didn’t cower or hide from the danger – they ran into the possibility of death head-on.
“That’s just normal though,” Fish said. “We had to grab my sister and make sure everybody made it in the house.”
There isn’t any hesitation in those situations. Family is everything to the Smithsons. They’re quick to sacrifice their own well-being for the benefit of those closest to them.
“That’s the stuff that I wanted to get Fish away from because he deserved a chance at life and a chance at a lot of different things that kids in Baltimore don’t think they have a chance at given their surroundings,” Shaky explained.
Shaky, the oldest of eight to Lori and Tony Smithson, was a star at Douglass High School where, after a second chance, he patented the shifty quickness he would awe defenders with for years to come.
All of the jitterbug moves nearly always followed by a touchdown or a basket almost never happened.
Growing up, maturing and harnessing adult-like responsibilities are inevitable for everyone. In Baltimore, many homes are broken, there isn’t that classic mother-father dynamic for children to come home to from school each day. Instead, it’s kids taking care of kids.
“Once you’re there, in Baltimore, you’re beyond your age,” Fish explained of the lifestyle. “Say you’re 13. Most likely in that world you’re 16 or 17 because a 13-year-old there is doing a lot more than your average 13-year-old. They’re probably taking care of younger siblings and having to go out and provide food.”
In this environment, help isn’t something that is asked for often. Trust is a dangerous belief to place in someone else’s hands.
When Tony was laid off from his construction job, he needed to find a way to help keep a roof over his family’s head in any way possible. The answer to his problem lurked right outside the front door.
Narcotics equaled a fast payday to keep everyone’s life as normal as possible given the circumstances.
The clock moves dangerously fast for the head of the household trying to provide for his family before they go hungry, but, the amount of luck a person carries around with them may have an even shorter ticker attached. Due to the iron bars enclosing a prison cell, the Smithsons became a smaller family with greater needs.
Without anyone asking him to, Shaky stepped in to help raise his siblings, taking an especially close watch over Fish. While Lori worked, Shaky made sure that his brothers and sisters were attended to. In doing so, even though his heart was in the correct place, his grades weren’t, failing him out of the ninth grade.
That’s when that sick feeling settled in that all of the clawing and scratching to lead to a better life wasn’t working. Everyone became dejected. The inevitable had happened and the streets were claiming yet another family.
Home life was disintegrating quickly at that point. Due to financial trouble, Shaky moved in with an aunt and Fish bounced around between different relatives.
“All of my cousins were involved in the street,” Fish said. “It’s easy just to jump into it if something’s going bad for you. In school, it’s hard to separate yourself and try to do well when everyone else around you isn’t.”
Shaky’s stay with his aunt for a year helped him to get back on track and into high school where he could make a difference and get out. The only hitch in the plan was that he wouldn’t accept going alone – Fish had to come too.
“The number one thing was to show others that it’s not where you’re at,” Shaky said. “It’s what you do to get where you want to go.”
The avenue was right there, it just meant traveling the wrong direction of the one-way street he’d always known.
With determination and Baltimore-grit, Shaky blasted his way through high school as a three-sport standout. Football became that ticket on to a better life, but when it came time to graduate, there were few, if any, scholarship offers on the table.
Shaky and his family thought it would be best for him to get to a bigger market at a junior college so he could get noticed and carry on to potentially fulfill his dream of collegiate football.
To Fish’s dismay, Shaky’s ticket just happened to be thousands of miles away on the United States’ western coast in Los Angeles. They pondered every possible way to make it work with the two of them living in California. It just wasn’t financially feasible or in either of their best interests.
“Shaky really wanted me to come out there,” Fish said. “L.A. isn’t too different from Baltimore so we really couldn’t do that.”
As his brother’s departure inched closer, Fish grew weary. This was the first time they had really been separated. Throughout the time they both needed a positive masculine influence in their lives, they were right there for one another.
They wouldn’t be apart for long.
The spring of 2007 was a rough one for Fish. Shaky had made the move to East Los Angeles Community College, while Fish was stuck in Baltimore trying to carve out a path for himself.
“That year was tough,” Fish said. “Even though we moved around throughout our family because our parents were having troubles, me and him always stayed together. I was very close to him and then when he left it was like I was just there alone.”
After Fish began to struggle in school and was straying in the wrong direction, his supporting cast – his family and brother – made the decision that it would, in fact, be best for him to move in with Shaky.
“The environment and your surroundings have a big impact on who you become as a person,” Fish said. “My grades weren’t good at all. In middle school, going up to my freshman year of high school when I was in Baltimore, I had a 2.0 GPA. That’s when my brother, my parents and I decided I had to get out because the ceiling wasn’t too high for me there.”
Now, Shaky’s priority became earning his way to an institution that was safe and could help provide for him and his brother. He did his part in Los Angeles to get noticed by several Division I programs.
“I picked Utah because of the state itself and I knew that I would have the financial support through the community members,” Shaky said. “Utah was just so family-oriented and a lot of coaches on the staff were on board with what I was trying to do at that time because I told them that I had my brother coming with me.”
Utah? Fish remembers thinking. He can’t even remember if he had actually ever heard of the state of Utah before Shaky told him that’s where he was going to school.
“I didn’t even know they were Division I football,” Fish laughed and said. “I didn’t know anything about them. Once I researched it, looked and saw where it was at, I knew it was far from home.”
Home was the familiarity of the way of life in Baltimore. Not 2,000 miles west in Salt Lake City, Utah. It might as well have been a trip to a foreign country.
Fish’s one-time content attitude about the move to live with Shaky quickly flipped upside down when he found out that if all went according to plan they’d live in Utah.
It was too late for Fish to protest. The decision had been made, a university had been selected, all that was left to do was convince the Baltimore City Department of Social Services that Shaky was fit to gain legal custody of Fish.
Mountains of paperwork, meetings, interviews, home visits, along with stress and uncertainty ensued. It seemed like all they did was wait and spin in circles.
“That was the longest process,” Fish said. “It took up to a year. He tried to get me when he was in L.A. That’s when he tried to start it. My whole freshman year he was trying to start that process and get me. He had to go through a lot of paperwork, a lot of signatures, school records and medical stuff. He had to go through a lot.”
Looking back on it, Fish remembers a time when he didn’t want an approval from social services. The idea and unfamiliarity of Utah scared him that much.
“Being in Baltimore, I didn’t know anything else besides that,” Fish said. “I didn’t know what it was like living anywhere else and I didn’t care.”
It took coaxing and persuading conversations from multiple people before Fish was willing to give it a try. At 15, he didn’t want to see the bigger picture behind the numerous things that were set to change. When it came down to it, the realization set in that for a better life, this was the only way.
“Even though anything can happen anywhere, the percentages are very high in Baltimore and the percentages are very low in Utah,” Shaky said. “We would rather take those chances than take the other chances.”
Following a year of selling the idea to not only Fish, but social services and the NCAA as well, there they were in their new home – Salt Lake City, Utah.
It was anything but easy to begin with. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment close to Utah’s campus. Shaky was a full-time student and an instrumental piece of Utah’s team. Fish was a sophomore in high school trying to find his way on what seemed to be another planet.
Even though Shaky petitioned the NCAA with over 30 letters of recommendation from coaches and people in the Salt Lake City community that he was financially stable enough to care for the well being of his brother, money was hard to come by. They legally accepted donations from churches and any well-wisher that approached them.
Couple the financial burden with the increased pressure put on the brothers to make the situation work and a melting pot of issues arose that created times where they had to choose whether to stick it out or give up.
“It was tough,” Shaky said. “I knew I couldn’t show him any stress because he was looking to me for guidance, everything that a kid looks up to their parent for. I had to make sure my school work was done and that his school work was done. At the same time, I had to take care of the house, make sure the bills were paid and make sure we ate every day.”
Fish’s struggle to adjust took its toll also. The common courtesy of strangers speaking to each other on the street made him leery. That was a completely foreign concept. Nobody says anything to anyone in Baltimore unless there is an ulterior motive and scheme behind it.
“It was really a shock to see how friendly everybody was and how outgoing they were,” Fish said. “I already had my guard up because being from Baltimore, you can’t just go around and meet people because people aren’t that friendly. If they don’t know you, they’re going to think you’re up to something or you’re trying to set them up for something.”
The ethnography was also a complete 180 from where they had come from. The United States Census Bureau lists Baltimore at 63.3 percent concentration of African-Americans. Salt Lake City lists the same race at 2.7 percent.
There were so many different types of people walking up to Fish, greeting him and offering kind words that he didn’t know what to think. It brought the realization full-circle that there is a completely different world outside of the confines of Baltimore.
Thirty minutes into telling his story and up to this point, the weight of the memories rendered Fish completely stoic. Now, for the first time comes that notorious grin.
“When I went out there I saw a Polynesian person for the first time,” Fish laughed and beamed. “I didn’t know anything about Polynesians. I thought they were Italians. All my coaches and teammates started laughing, but I was serious, I didn’t know what ethnicity they were.”
It’s a funny memory now, but back then so many different people and circumstances made Fish bury his personality away. He was never defiant or a troublemaker, just quiet and introverted.
Except when it came time to put shoulder pads and a helmet on and set foot on the short-trimmed grass of a football field. That was his sanctuary, a place he could feel comfortable enough to be himself again.
When they first arrived in Utah, Fish wasn’t playing on the varsity team, which hurt the chances of him coming out of that shell even more. Shaky was encountering problems of his own as well, battling injuries.
Regardless of how well a parent or guardian tries to cover up when things are getting tough, kids see through it and know something is wrong. Shaky never let Fish see him get stressed or have a negative attitude. The move was already hard enough on his younger brother, so Shaky couldn’t let him see the one person that he truly trusted and leaned on break down.
Regardless of how hard Shaky tried to hide it, Fish knew the enormity of the situation. The pressure on both of them kept mounting until it boiled over and resulted in what they both claim was the only argument they had during their time living together in Utah.
“I know we went through times of struggle being out there financially and everything,” Fish said. “There was a lot built up. I was mad about not playing on varsity and then he was mad about getting hurt. Interaction between brothers got fired up. After we argued and fought for a little bit we just sat down and talked about what we were going to do going forward. He let me know what he needed me to do. I needed to make sure my school work was good so he wouldn’t have to worry about that. Keep the house clean and keep my room clean. All the little stuff that parents get on kids about, except he was letting me know, brother-to-brother, how to handle those parts so that we could make it easier. That way, all of the real problems we had could go a lot smoother when we didn’t have to worry about the little stuff.”
The dynamic changed that quickly. Things began to look up. When they no longer had to worry about the small, tedious issues they excelled between the lines.
Fish went on to claim the starting quarterback job at Highlands High School and led his team to a state championship in the very same stadium that his brother shook his way to All-America honors after leading the nation in punt return yards.
Each free moment out of school and off of the field they had was spent together. That’s how it had always been and it wasn’t going to change now. Only now, they were doing things they didn’t have the chance to do in Baltimore. They went to the arcade, saw movies, went bowling, ran around Salt Lake City, threw each other pass routes and even went to Park City to snowboard.
Just as Fish sat amongst the Ute faithful and watched Shaky most Saturdays, his older brother returned the favor, along with several of his teammates, and watched Fish on Friday nights.
They knew the relationship they had was special. The brothers were the best of friends. Still, it was difficult that it was just the two of them there together.
It was hard achieving all of the success, but still knowing that the rest of their family was stuck in a place that wouldn’t allow them to leave.
They kept in contact with their family back home on a daily basis. There were never any hard feelings or any jealous, ‘Why not me’s?’ asked. Everyone was all-in with the plan, desperately praying it would work out.
“That’s one thing I love about my family,” Shaky said. “They trust me. Given that Fish was with me it wasn’t ever really like, ‘Oh he’s gone,’ it was, ‘Oh he’s safe.’ My mother said that she knew her son was going to take care of her son. It was all love. It was never anything negative.”
Their mother’s intuition held true. One son did indeed take care of the other son, but it wasn’t as one-sided as Fish portrays it to be. The learning was mutual. They both grew up and learned how to become men in their time together.
“Fish helped me out more than anybody can know,” Shaky said. “He helped me grow so fast given the situation. That’s why I thank him a lot too. He’s always thanking me and saying that I did this and did that, but he doesn’t know that he did a lot for me. I had to step up and do things for him at an early age. It prepared me for the real world and for life after college as well. He didn’t give me a hard time.”
When it came time that they graduated and explored new opportunities separately, away from Utah, they look back and are thankful for the lessons they instilled in one another.
After three years of living in that Utah apartment together, they were apart again. Shaky on a stint with the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers and Fish packing his bags for Navy Prep.
Following a year with the Navy, Fish signed on with Hartnell Community College in the same state his brother had played JUCO football in a few years prior in hopes to get noticed by a big-time program.
Fish earned Hartnell’s Defensive Most Valuable Player award and led the California Community College Athletic Association with eight interceptions – catching the eye of Kansas.
Just as he had negative thoughts entertaining the idea of moving to Utah with Shaky, Fish had reservations about once again dropping the familiar and moving to Lawrence.
Shaky was the one he called for advice when he couldn’t decide what to do. Like the first time around, it didn’t take Shaky long to convince his brother that packing up and moving would be the best decision.
When Fish enrolled at KU and played his first season in 2014, there wasn’t anyone more proud than Shaky. The end goal had been realized. All of the hard work, the sacrifices and the decisions made that held an unknown outcome had finally paid off.
“I’m seeing the relationships that he’s building and seeing how much fun he has and how great of a student he is – I’m proud,” Shaky said. “I wouldn’t change one thing that went on. I would do everything the same that happened with us. I’m a proud brother. I’m sincerely happy that he came to Kansas and that he can make a name for himself. He takes pride in that and he wants to be great.”
Shaky made the trip out to KU’s first game in 2014, a 34-28 victory. Shaky makes it to as many games in Lawrence as he can. The two go out for Sunday morning breakfast, sit across the table from each other and talk, just like they always have.
“Every single day it seems like I’m talking to a grown man now and I have a lot to do with that,” Shaky said. “It helps me sleep at night knowing that my brother is safe. Knowing that my brother is good and he’s got a chance to be something special, that’s all I can ask for.”
The name Fish strives to make for himself wasn’t always the one people in Lawrence were going to know him by.
When he first arrived on campus and made his way to his locker on the lower level of the Anderson Family Football Complex, something was wrong.
It wasn’t his locker.
He stared up at the nameplate perched on top of the wooden dresser he’d spend the better part of the next three years standing in front of.
The sign read Anthony Smithson.
He stood there and looked at the nameplate.
He could be rid of that connection to Baltimore forever.
He could’ve wiped the slate clean and dropped ‘Fish’ the second he moved to Utah. Here he was with another opportunity to sever the ties for good.
When he’s faced with that decision of moving on from that life forever, he draws on that conversation on the street corner.
After his friend expressed how proud he is of him, Fish, like looking in a mirror of what could have been, asked his friend how life was treating him.
“He gave me that look and let me know that, ‘Man, I’m surviving,'” Fish said. “The way he was saying it was that no day is guaranteed. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it.”
There’s so much pain. Countless memories are difficult to look back on and recall without his tone of voice dropping, choking back tears.
He’ll more than likely never let anybody in on his secret. Not because there is a grand reason waiting to be unveiled, or that the nickname derived from a negative connotation. We, as human beings, just aren’t capable of comprehending some things unless we’ve been there, seen it and lived it.
Perhaps that’s what makes it unexplainable.
There was plenty help along the way, but it was Baltimore that raised Fish. It taught him to persevere, even when the darkness is flooding in – just keep swimming.
“I put myself in the shoes of people that I went to middle school with and grew up with,” Fish said. “I try to see where I would be if I hadn’t left… It would be very different.”
‘Fish’ is a small piece – one of the only pieces of home – not left behind on the journey beyond Baltimore.
The nameplate had to be changed.
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