Taj Smith's Journey from Newark to the NFL
Brick City native, Indianapolis Colts player recalls how he overcame tumultuous past.
Taj Smith is revisiting stops along his personal timeline, a rough ride through a painful past that involved burying two older brothers and a soul-shaking murder that left him stained with the cold blood of an acquaintance.
As he talks about his troubled past during a ride through his native New Jersey, Smith pauses often, exhales deeply and shakes his head slowly, decisively.
"Everyday I think about everything I've been through," said the 27-year-old Indianapolis Colts wide receiver. "I don't ever want to go back to that."
Mindful of his past, Smith offers inspiration to his home city of Newark, a city of urban blight. While waiting for the National Football League to solve its ongoing labor dispute, the Weequahic High School product provided nearly 400 youngsters the opportunity he craved when he was getting into trouble during his formative years, combining football and life skills training with the chance to meet pro players at the Taj Smith Never Give Up Clinic held July 16 at his alma mater's Untermann Field.
Last Friday, Smith drove around North Jersey personally thanking the Clinic sponsors, including Applebee's in Union Township, where he retraced the roots of the tumultuous past he overcame over a bite to eat.
A Haunting Past
Before becoming a professional athlete, Smith feared he would become a statistic in an area that his father, Victor Wilson, compared to the movie "New Jack City." His upbringing began in a two-bedroom apartment on 19th Street in Newark, where he and his seven siblings (four brothers, three sisters) bundled together, sleeping four to a bed in their room.
Outside, gunshots provided a omnipresent soundtrack to daily life, filling the air so frequently Smith vividly recalled all the times he fell to the floor out of harm's way. One time in particular, an uncle who dealt drugs was murdered on 19th Street while Smith's parents shielded their children from any potential crossfire coming into their home.
Drugs were ever-present in Taj's childhood – on street corners and even in Smith's home. Both of his parents used and he recalled times he urinated in balloons to help his father pass drug tests for pending job opportunities.
"That was part of my past, being caught up in a vicious cycle and overcoming that. Despite all of that, I stayed with my kids," said Wilson, who has been clean since 1995 and maintains a close relationship with Smith.
Eventually, Smith and his family moved to the Prince Street, where the 10-year-old's indoctrination to those "projects," as he referred to the area, included him fighting nine other boys while his older brothers watched. He tried to stifle his feelings, but ultimately became a product of his violent environment.
For years, loyalty led Smith to swinging his fists in his friends' fights. It was a matter of survival on the streets, where he said, "It wasn't me starting stuff. It was just me helping my friends."
At the start of his junior year at Weequahic, however, Smith jumped into a fight started by another friend and "hurt the guy real bad." Having his buddy's back became cause for incarceration after he broke his classmate's eye socket, jaw and nose.
"I'm sitting in class. Everybody gets up, I get up and the teacher tells me to sit down," Smith recalled, "locks the door, and detectives come in and tell me I (am) charged with aggravated assault."
Getting Out of Newark
After two weeks in a juvenile detention center, Smith found himself expelled from Weequahic and desperately seeking redemption. Enter Ian Scott, a consultant at Newark's Gateway Academy, an alternative school formed as a partnership between the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission and Newark Public Schools that helped rehabilitate troubled students.
"He was considered an aggressive kid even though he was as quiet as a church mouse," recalled Scott, who has since served as a mentoring role to Smith. "You would never know or you would never think that."
For all of his aggression, Scott described a young Smith as almost meek upon their first meeting, with glasses, short dreadlocks and sharing his love of football and writing poetry only after being asked.
Knowing this, Scott called the coaches at Weequahic and West Side high schools, eventually getting Smith back onto the football team at his old school after the then-principal – who said she was retiring that year mainly because of Smith and his older brothers – made it clear that while he could play, he could not dress or even take part in halftime meetings inside the school.
Not being able to dress with his teammates paled compared to what Smith encountered while walking home with a cluster of classmates. They traveled together because there was safety in numbers. Or so they thought. In an alley near Arts High School, Smith, who was a high school junior at the time, said an armed man stopped them and demanded they hand over everything they had.
Everyone but Smith scattered.
"If you're going to shoot me," Smith thought then, "you're going to shoot me in my face not in my back."
Seconds later, the man opened fire on an acquaintance Smith only remembers as "Michael," the blood from the gunshot splattering on to Smith's face and clothes. He does not recall the details of the shooting, only remembering the blood on his skin and the sheer sense of panic as he sprinted to a local gas station to wash up before heading up Irvine Turner Boulevard to catch the No. 99 bus home.
"I jumped in the shower, got in bed and started crying," said Smith, shaking his head and exhaling loudly. "I thought, 'That could have been me.'"
Ever mindful of this experience, Smith was inspired to get better grades and earned his way back into Weequahic after a year of matriculation at Gateway, becoming a star defensive end despite his wiry 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame.
Deep in his heart, Smith hoped his efforts would punch his ticket out of the projects, but his grades and lack of game film left him without a quality college option. And so he worked screening T-shirts for months after graduation, making what he called "good money" and helping his family before going back to visit his old high school midway through the 2002-03 school year.
Luckily, that was the one year an English teacher named Reggie Beard spent at Weequahic. Although Beard estimates he may have spent 72 hours with Smith, their relationship proved impactful. Smith's new friend knew Jeff Chudy, the head football coach at Bakersfield College, a California junior college, and helped Smith find a way to get away.
"I told him about the responsibilities of being a college student," said Beard. "I always believe in giving guys the benefit of the doubt. ... You can see that he wanted to get the hell out of Newark."
Tragedy Strikes Back Home
In his first year 3,000 miles from home, Smith became a cornerback at Bakersfield, but a strained hamstring sidelined before a bruised ego over lack of playing time got him kicked off the team. The following fall, he switched to wide receiver but thought of quitting after not seeing the field his first two games. But then, in the third game, he scored two touchdowns and was well on his way to becoming a Division I prospect.
During his college days, Smith spoke to his older brother Al-Mutakabbir daily. However, his brother, a drug dealer in Atlantic City, didn't pick up the other end for two days.
Taj Smith hoped against hope his brother was behind bars, but learned the worst from a Bakersfield assistant coach: Al-Mutakabbir Smith was found burned to death in an alley Oct. 21, 2004, after his roommate allegedly tied a black plastic bag over the 22-year-old's head before setting him on fire.
Immediately, Taj Smith took a flight home, went into the bathroom of his family's apartment, punched a wall and the tears started flowing. The case regarding his brother's death is still pending, leaving Smith to continue to wistfully ask: "How could anybody be so cruel to somebody?"
"I'd never really seen Taj cry before," said Bernadine Smith, Taj's mother. "He was in the bathroom and I was in the bathroom with him and he punched a wall."
"It was shocking," said Epiphany Smith, one of Taj's three younger sisters. "It was a whole bunch of 'Why did this happen?' I can't even begin to tell you how our family was impacted by it."
Soon after Al-Mutakabbir Smith's funeral, some of Taj Smith's old, angry feelings he tried to stifle began surging back, making him rethink running a comeback route to Bakersfield.
Everyone in his inner circle convinced him going west again was his best and only move. Scott stepped in and offered a sobering reminder of life in his hometown.
"We love you and enjoy you being here, but there's nothing good here," Scott recalled telling Taj Smith. "I want you to go and finish what you started. The other guys around here, they're dying everyday."
Added Epiphany Smith, who eventually followed Taj's lead and left Newark to study business at Westwood College in Georgia: "He was going good. We were all affected by it, but we didn't want him to stay home and get into more trouble."
A couple of weeks later, Smith listened to reason and returned to California, breaking his old pattern and running a new one.
"I was to a point where I was trying to plan to get the guy back," said Smith. "But when reality set in, I knew that nothing I would have did could bring (Al-Mutakabbir) back, and in all actuality, something could have happened to me in the process by trying to get the guy back. I didn't want my mother to lose another child."
Another Murder Amid Gridiron Heartache
A couple of weeks later, Smith went back west. He learned sign language from a professor named DeAnn Sampley, who took him and other students to Romania so they could work with children in hospitals and orphanages.
And he graduated in December 2006, with a 3.8 grade point average that helped him earn an academic and athletic scholarship to Syracuse University; Rutgers had also recruited him, but the school was too close to home, Smith said.
After two years of playing for the Orange and earning his degree in special education, Smith earned a free-agent tryout with the Green Bay Packers. They cut him, but the Indianapolis Colts signed him to their practice squad Sept. 23, 2008.
Football dealt him with some heartache, too, such as the three hours in 2009 when Smith was called up to the main roster before being relegated back to the practice squad. But no 250-pound linebacker could have blindsided him the way a call from home did Nov. 17, 2009.
On the other end of the line, Bernadine Smith was sobbing: Fuquan Wilson, Taj Smith's 30-year-old brother, shot fatally himself as police entered his hotel room in Virginia after Wilson slashed his brother-in-law's throat and shot him in the head following an argument.
"That's what they say happened," Smith said solemnly. "Gotta roll with that."
Now the oldest of his six surviving siblings, Smith shook his head again, his dreadlocks flying about as though he just got his bell rung.
"Why'd you do it? Why'd you do it fool?" he asked softly, sadly.
For comfort, Smith developed a bottle-a-day vodka habit. He left open containers in his car, did shots before practice and even practiced under the influence. No one was any the wiser until New Year's Day 2010, when he was arrested on a DUI charge.
"They could have let me go, but obviously they found something in me that they wanted to keep me," said Smith, who kicked the habit for good after his arrest. "I told everybody I apologized. I was just going through a lot at that time and they understood it."
After joining the Colts at Super Bowl 44 (he did not play), a refocused Smith impressed during training camp that summer. He said head coach Jim Caldwell told him he would have earned a roster spot, but he tore his hamstring on the last play of the last practice prior to the last preseason game.
Not long after, the Colts cut him loose. Another obstacle, sure, but also another second chance came his way when Indianapolis resigned him and promoted him to the active roster on Nov. 30 – five days before his current team was playing the squad he rooted for with his father, the Dallas Cowboys.
Beforehand, Smith told everyone within earshot he would block a punt. Late in the third quarter, he proved his clairvoyance, deflecting the kick and scooping it up for his first professional touchdown.
"Taj has been through a lot," said Victor Wilson. "His camp couldn't have had a better title, Never Give Up. It talks about his life. Taj's got his head on straight. It's truly a blessing to be his father."
Said Bernadine Smith: "I thank God that he is the strong person he is today because it made him into the man he is today. He wants to see kids not go through the things he did."
Nearly 400 kids saw Taj Smith in the same light at his clinic earlier this month, where he mentored youngsters on everything from running pass patterns to dreaming big, studying hard and staying in school.
"I'm just trying to follow what he did and follow in his footsteps," said Daveon Washington, a former wide receiver at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School who graduated in June.
Taj Smith will see those kids again when he comes back home after seeking a more prominent role than serving as the special-teams standout he was last winter. With the NFL finally ending its lockout, he can return again to the national platform he has used to inspire kids across the Newark.
"I'm just ready to go back," Smith said. "Not just because of money, but because I want to prove myself. I'm not where I want to be. I've just got to keep fighting."