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October 31, 2010

Smithson finds good times at Utah

These are good times at Utah. Which is in sharp contrast to the HBO Documentary titled "Hard Times at Douglass High", a feature meant to spotlight the every day impacts of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The filmmakers chose the Baltimore, Maryland high school because they felt it was representative of urban high schools in high-risk, poverty-ridden communities nationwide, and the challenges and obstacles those students face on a daily basis. The school itself has deep historic roots in the civil rights movement and is the alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was one of the lawyers who challenged the constitutionality of school segregation in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. The school boasts other significant alumni, including jazz great Cab Calloway.

As the team captain and point guard of Douglass' basketball team, Utah's Antoine Shaky Smithson was one of the students highlighted in the poignant documentary that was filmed over the course of the 2004-2005 school year. While many negatives were featured, Smithson's role in the documentary highlighted what was positive, and there was hope for an individual school overwhelmed with seemingly insurmountable issues and egregiously insufficient resources with which to battle them.

At the crux of the issue was that Douglass High School was not meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind act and in danger of being overtaken and run by the State of Maryland. As such, any positive or small success was being used to demonstrate to children, parents and the community at large that success could still be had with hard work, discipline and ambition, and those characteristics could be instilled in the youth of Baltimore and other similar communities.

The oldest of seven siblings, Smithson did fall victim to some of those challenges in his early high school career, failing to qualify for football in his ninth and tenth grade years. As a result, he played football only his junior and senior seasons, while playing track, baseball and basketball all four years at Douglass. Despite having success in all four major sports, Smithson says that football was always number one with him. "I always wanted to do this. Ever since I was five and they'd ask you what you wanted to do for a job, I always put down the NFL as my career," he said.

Growing up, Smithson also used sports as a means of motivation to do well enough in school, and to keep out of trouble. He also cites several positive influences that kept him out of trouble and on track under difficult circumstances in the tough neighborhoods of Baltimore. "I had a lot of positive mentors growing up. I was lucky. I had my dad, my uncle, my high school basketball coach at Douglass," he said. "Also Antonio Freeman, of the Green Bay Packers."

Smithson and Freeman both hail from the Baltimore area, and at age 14, Smithson was attending a football banquet where he was given an MVP award, and Freeman was a speaker at the event. The two met and have kept in touch ever since.

A well-rounded athlete, Smithson had a multitude of opportunities out of high school, including football offers from Maryland and West Virginia and heavy interest from Florida State, who would ultimately not offer because of his academic situation. An accomplished basketball player, Smithson also had an opportunity to play for John Thompson III at Georgetown.

Because of his academic challenges, Smithson turned his focus toward junior college. With heavy interest from coaches in the Los Angeles area, Smithson narrowed his choices down to three junior colleges, ultimately choosing East Los Angeles Community College, where his cousin Quinton Garrus, a running back also from Maryland, was attending. Smithson had also built a strong relationship with several players at L.A.'s Pierce College, who were making the move to East Los Angeles.

Smithson graduated from East Los Angeles Community College in just three semesters, with a 3.2 GPA. With his academics on par, he became a big-time recruit and was pursued by the likes of Oregon State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, USC, New Mexico, New Mexico State and several other schools. Smithson also recalls that Kentucky was recruiting him so persistently that they called him as he literally signed his letter of intent to Utah.

Smithson would ultimately choose Utah because of the strong relationship he formed with defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and later with receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. "I got a chance to talk with Coach Kalani [Sitake] and coach Rod (Aaron Roderick) and coach [Kyle] Whittingham. They were down to earth people so it was a no-brainer to come here," he said. "Also, just Salt Lake itself, and I had to get my little brother out here, so just the environment here was important. [Some of the other schools] that recruited me were kind of back in the same place I came from, so I just wanted to go someplace where I could just focus on school, and my brother could focus on school."

As has been well-documented, Smithson is the legal guardian of his 16-year-old brother Anthony, who is thriving at Salt Lake City's Highland High School. A large responsibility, Smithson sees it as a blessing and something that has changed his life in a significant way for the positive. "I had to change my lifestyle. It made me more focused, more serious. I don't do anything, or make a decision without thinking about him, or how it will affect him," he said. "It's been a big change, but it made me change everything. I want him to have opportunities a lot of kids don't have, so when I think of that, it's no sacrifice at all."

Smithson's personal situation was a both a challenge, and a factor in his deciding on a school. Environment was important, but he needed the support of the Utah coaches and program in order to move ahead. Their support of his decision was paramount as coach Whittingham and the Utes had to apply to the NCAA for a special waiver which allows for increased benefits, given Smithson's personal situation and guardianship of his brother. The waiver was granted and is only the fourth of its kind ever granted by the NCAA.

"I think it typifies the kind of character [Smithson] has, and the type of man that he is. He's a solid person through and through," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham . "To undertake what he has is a big responsibility. You talk about the demands of a Division I athlete in and of itself let alone having this other responsibility that he has speaks volumes about the kind of person he is."

As a result of his story, Smithson was recognized by the Football Writers Association of America and the FEDEX Orange Bowl's Courage Award as a nominee in November, 2009. Today, Anthony Smithson is a rising football prospect in his own right, playing both quarterback and cornerback at Highland. Most importantly, older brother Shaky reports that Anthony has achieved a 4.0 GPA, so it appears that his efforts and sacrifices are paying off.

"We love the area a lot. We love Salt Lake and it's a great place for us," Smithson said of his new home. "The people here are great. Everyone [here] has been good to us, so we really love it here."

Smithson is one of the keys to #8 ranked Utah's success and wears many hats as a team leader, wide receiver, and a punt returner. Through the first seven weeks of the Utes' season, Smithson leds the nation in punt returns. So times are indeed good at the University of Utah as Smithson is having the season he hoped to have in 2009. Head Coach Kyle Whittingham agrees.

"[Shaky]'s given us so much. First of all in the punt return game. He's breaking records. He's leading the nation and doing so many good things," Whittingham explained. "He's making big plays as a wide out, too. He's not catching a ton of balls, but he's made some big plays for us, that were key at the time."

Racked with injuries throughout his first year at Utah, Smithson accounted for 742 yards in 2009; 543 of which came on punt returns. Because of injuries, the unselfish Smithson bounced from wide receiver to running back. In limited time at receiver, Smithson had 13 catches for 100 yards on the year, and as a running back rushed 27 times for 99 yards. Smithson has already surpassed last season's cumulative totals.

Experiencing unparalleled success as a Ute, Smithson is the same player day in and day out, taking nothing for granted. His former junior college team, East Los Angeles went 1-19 over two seasons, and Smithson learned to practice the same way daily, regardless of result, something that has carried over to his success as a Ute.

"Humble. I think that's the word. I think this whole team is humble, starting with the head coach, coach Whittingham. We don't take anything for granted, every day is a grind day, no matter if we lose or we win by 28 or 48," said Smithson of his team's mindset. "We're going to work hard that next Monday and our coaches instilled in us that every day is a work day. We take pride in that."

For himself, Smithson takes that attitude and finds an uncanny balance between that and a quiet, self-assured confidence. "I think I'm the hardest person I've ever had to go up against. Honestly. I don't think there are that many people that are that hard to go against," he said. "I'm my own man and I make my own mistakes and it is usually my mistakes, more than something someone else is doing."

As Smithson and the Utes enter a critical juncture of their season, it was relevant to ask what obstacles or issues might keep the team from achieving their ultimate goals for the 2010 season. In his response, Smithson reveals both his character and that of his entire team.

"Complacency. That is the one thing that could keep us from getting where we want to be. Fortunately, this team has its head on and that's something we're not battling right now. We are working just hard now, maybe more than ever, than we ever have. So I don't see that as something that could happen, because we're aware of it. We've addressed it ahead of time, so it's not an issue now," he said. "I don't take anything for granted. Instead of worrying about we could have, or might have, I focus on being grateful for where we are right now, for what we do have,"

With a focus and a maturity not often seen in someone his age, Smithson still has a passion and a love for the game, and still finds joy and fun in playing in it, especially at home in front of the notoriously raucous crowd that fills Rice-Eccles Stadium every home game.

"It's crazy to look in the stands and see your name on a poster, and everyone cheering your name. It's awesome. You know, the MUSS loves me, and I love them back, and it's a great experience to have people appreciate the way you play," Smithson explained. "All I try to do is win and entertain the fans and try to have fun out there."

With little time to enjoy off the field pursuits between football and school, Smithson says he loves bowling and is something of a homebody, preferring to relax and play video games with his brother. With a good shot of realizing his dream to play in the NFL, Smithson knows the value of his education and plans to fall back on his Sociology degree, hoping to work with children in some way, most likely as a counselor. His hope and intention is to make sure children know they have options and a future, if they choose to go after it as he has.



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