FORT WAYNE – Matt Smith has only a few months to determine what he will do with the rest of his life.
A musician with an ear for mixing background beats who spent a summer internship with Patti LaBelle, the senior defensive tackle with the Saint Francis football team will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree.
It’s what he’ll do with that degree, and where he’ll go with it, that keeps him uncertain about his future, even as he nears the end of his football career with the Cougars.
Smith is strongly considering going back to his south-side Chicago home, and he wonders whether that is what’s best for him.
The corner of 95th and LaSalle, where thousands of cars a day from the Dan Ryan Expressway make a constant hum, and where the Red Line El rattles homes that still have windows, is no place for the weak. Smith didn’t just grow up there; he survived it. Many didn’t. But his mother, Carol, is there, and because she recently had cancer surgery, he knows she needs him.
And while his degree and his musical experience give him options, Smith wonders whether he truly has a choice. But how do you go back when you’ve been out for three years?
I could make one call and I could go back to doin’ whatever I wanted to do in Chicago, Smith said. I could talk to one person and be back in that life. I could say something to the wrong person and be dead tomorrow if I go back home. It’s that easy.
It has been that hard.
Because the coach’s office is so small, where he pulls on his dark socks and shoes for practice, Smith looks bigger than when he appears on the field.
At 5-foot-11, he isn’t tall. But he is 270 pounds; thick through the shoulders and arms. His core is solid; his upper thighs, powerful. And while he is primarily the immovable object to stop the run, he has three quarterback sacks and is credited with the team’s only safety.
A two-year starter, Smith was found by the Saint Francis coaches at the College of DuPage, a junior college in the western suburbs of Chicago. Before that, he went to Simeon Career Academy, where he was a Chicago Public Schools all-conference defensive tackle.
From the time I got here, I was a loose cannon, Smith said. When I first got here, oh, man. If somebody said something wrong to me, I’m punchin’ ’em; I’m fightin’ ’em; I’m doin’ everything that I used to do in the ’hood. Say somethin’ wrong to me, I’m brawlin’, I’m sprawlin’ with you.
As I got here, getting to know coach (Eric) Wagoner, seeing the life he lived, coach (Kevin Donley), coach (Warren) Maloney – all these coaches – I was lookin’ at their lives, seeing that I don’t have to be like that; seeing that there’s a better way to grow and a better way to do things instead of trying to pull out a gun or put up your fists to fight.
It was his lifestyle, he says.
As a youngin’, when I was little, I did so much stuff.
It was all he knew while growing up in the shadows of 95th and LaSalle, wondering which gang was going to come around the corner.
I seen people get shot, Smith said. I seen people get jumped. I’ve jumped people. I’ve been jumped. I done got shot at. It’s a part of life, especially if you’re standing on the corner, hanging out with your friends. If you’re standing outside on the corner, you’re vulnerable. You’re a target. In Chicago, you got territories.
You can walk past something on the curb, and you’ll see flowers, ’cause that’s where a friend got shot, or murdered, or jumped on, or died.
As he got older and bigger and his football skills earned him respect, the ’hood left him alone. Some gang members even put cash in his hand to keep him away from trouble.
They knew that wasn’t the life that some are supposed to live, Smith said. The only reason people were living their life is that’s the only thing they knew, and they wanted me to know more. Also it had a lot to do with my mama, who kept pushing me to go to school, especially after my pops had passed.
His father died when Smith was in sixth grade.
Drinkin’, Smith says. Alcoholic.
But along came football, and, eventually, Saint Francis.
Loyalty is really important to me, Smith said. If people show me a new way, show me a way out, then I’m going to be loyal to them, no matter what. These coaches have been loyal to me. When I was hurt, they stuck with me. I’m loyal to them. My friends in the city, they respect these coaches ’cause I respect these coaches.
These coaches helped me to do things that I wouldn’t be able to do if I was still in Chicago. They helped me become a better person. They helped me be more of a leader and less of a follower.
But it’s the same loyalty that will probably return him to 95th and LaSalle this spring.
He says his mother needs him, but he also says the neighborhood needs him. There were those who helped him; now he can help them.
The gun, Smith admits, still has the power in Chicago. But he also sees power in his degree.
It’s going to be more powerful to me than anything, ’cause it’s gonna hold a place in my heart. It’s gonna hold a place in my mama’s heart. And it’s gonna hold a place in the hood heart.
If you’ve got a gun, pretty much the only two doors that are going to open are the graveyard or jail.