- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) - Khalin Smith parked his white 2006 Buick Lacrosse close to the door of the warehouse where he slept. Even closer was his sleeping bag, laptop, Bible and bag of snacks. He made sure his only possessions weren’t victim to a neighborhood in which gunfire was common.

It was Smith’s first night at his new home in Bakersfield, California, a far cry from the downstairs bedroom next to the pool where he had lived in that city for the past two years, while studying and playing football at Bakersfield College.

That night, Smith recalled, “I woke up and tried to get some snacks and seen heck of rats and mice. They just ate them. I was sleeping with the mice.”

A privately owned warehouse is where the 21-year-old found himself along his path to becoming a Division I football player - a road that featured a custody battle, failed grades, evictions and the daily struggles of being a less-fortunate black kid growing up in Vallejo, California.

Last summer he was one passing statistics grade away from being eligible to enroll at the University of Idaho, the school he had signed a Letter of Intent to play for that February, reported the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (https://bit.ly/2aWumO4).

But before the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Smith would make his debut with the Vandals late that August, he would have to recover from the poor scholastic and social decisions that landed him in this situation.

‘I’m not going to let this go’

Smith, 22, had just spent two years living with Brian and Carla Frost and their daughter Maggie in a 2,700-square-foot, four-bedroom house on a golf course fairway in Bakersfield, a city of about 364,000 people 112 miles northeast of Los Angeles. His bedroom was downstairs, with direct access to the backyard pool. Brian, a retired high school teacher, treated Smith like a son and provided everything he needed. He even included Smith in their family photos.

Over the past couple years, Frost had become acquainted with Smith’s family. From across the street in the house he was remodeling, Frost would watch Smith play basketball, and would often ask Smith and his cousins for help moving large appliances into his home.

“I saw this kid, and he didn’t look like he partied, he’s not a gang banger, he’s just a nice kid,” Frost said during a phone interview. “He deserved better means.

“I got to know him for a while - I just don’t help anybody, you know? I just thought it’d be a tragedy if this kid didn’t have a chance to fulfill his potential. With the people I could introduce him to, he’ll go places.”

Now, he’s playing at Division 1 Idaho, Frost said, “So he’s going places.”

Frost introduced Smith to Bakersfield offensive line coach Corey Actis, a former student at Liberty High School in Bakersfield, where Frost used to teach and coach tennis.

“The first thing (Actis) said to him was, ‘Well, can you block?’” Frost recalled.

Smith’s response? “Yes, sir.”

Frost found Smith a job at a church and says he spent $10,000 to $20,000 on Smith’s football equipment, his cellphone, food and books.

Still, Smith worried about his mother, Keishira McCarver, 285 miles north in Vallejo. He’d phone home and hear police sirens in the background. While he was living a life of luxury, she was in Vallejo managing a seven-person household.

“I still struggle with it,” Smith said after an Idaho fall camp practice in April, “because it’s still the same thing. It’s not over with. I’m just trying to fulfill my dreams so I can get them in a house like that.”

During his second year in Bakersfield, Smith’s mom believes she was poisoned.

Out with friends at a bar, McCarver remembers having two drinks, then feeling “different” five minutes later. The next morning she started hearing voices saying “very horrible things about me, my children.” Three days later, she went to the hospital, but by then the poison was out of her system. Therapy helped, but she still hasn’t been allowed to return to her job with the Vallejo School District.

Smith was upset, mad at himself that he couldn’t be there to protect his mother.

“I didn’t want to be in football anymore,” he said. “I wanted to head back home and figure out what was going on with my mom and take care of her.”

Smith did his best to make the Frost’s place feel like home, but it wasn’t the same.

“They gave me a lot of love,” Smith said. “They showed me things I never seen - they always had food in the refrigerator. That was always a plus to have food in the refrigerator, to have a warm place to sleep.”

Those two luxuries alone made it easy for Smith to ignore his Bakersfield College teammates’ jokes about a black kid calling a white man “Pops,” comparing it to the movie “The Blind Side.”

Frost has never watched the film. That wasn’t the reason he eventually opened up his home to Smith. That wasn’t the reason he brought him to Bakersfield.

“He just a got piece of my heart,” Frost said. “He shouldn’t be wasted. Something told me to act on it, so I did.”

As soon as he arrived at the Frost’s, Smith became part of their family. Carla and Maggie, then a high school sophomore, welcomed him.

“He took care of me like a son,” Smith said.

But distractions caused Smith’s grades to drop toward the end of his sophomore year. He participated in the June graduation ceremony, but still had classes to complete before he could enroll at Idaho, including three statistics exams on which he needed A’s to pass.

“He kind of got hooked up with a girl,” McCarver said. “I’m like, ‘OK, why aren’t you at Idaho yet?’ He was like, ‘Mom, I gotta clear my grades. I messed up.’”

Frost was also upset.

“(Frost) thought it wasn’t going to be possible, so he got discouraged at me,” Smith said. “We got in a heated situation, and he kicked me out.”

Smith spent the next two weeks living out of his car. The warehouse was owned by the father of the girlfriend he’d met at Bakersfield. There, Smith continued his studies, while working part-time as a seventh-grade basketball coach.

In the warehouse, Khalin Smith did push-ups, read the Bible and repeatedly watched LSU’s 2011 “Game of the Century” win over Alabama.

He said he was “imagining me being on that TV screen.”

“I would just do push-ups and keep doing homework,” he said, “Push-ups, then keep doing homework, saying, ‘I’m not going to let this go.’”

With the help of two classmates, Smith earned the necessary passing grades in mid-August.

One week later, Smith’s Buick was filled to the ceiling, his stomach was filled with Monster energy drinks and his sights were set on an 18-hour, non-stop drive to the Palouse.

“I never drink energy drinks, but I was so ready to get on that field,” Smith said.

Smith arrived just before fall camp ended.

If Frost had not provided the push Smith needed by kicking him out, perhaps Smith wouldn’t be here at all.

“I ended up taking that as motivation and proving him wrong,” Smith said. “I just worked my butt off and aced it. In a warehouse.”

‘It was a tough journey to graduate’

Interstate 80 runs from San Francisco to Sacramento. Vallejo and Fairfield sit alongside it, about a half hour apart and a little closer to the Bay area than to the state capital. In the seven years before Smith graduated from high school in Vallejo in 2012, his family relocated six times. As a result of a custody battle, he lived with his father in Fairfield from age 13 until he returned to his mom in Vallejo when he was 16.

Occasionally, during those six moves across Vallejo and Fairfield, Smith’s family didn’t have a place to stay. They’d have to live with his grandparents or in hotels.

As children, Smith and his younger brother, Emari, had to be inside before the street lights came on. There were times their mother wasn’t working. The brothers had to learn how to fend for themselves, and take care of their mother.

“It was kind of hard, me and my brother having to scrape up some change or look for soda caps to try and get free sodas, or go to Dollar Tree and have a bunch of pennies,” Smith recalled.

Said McCarver, “That’s actually when they got stronger and better. They did everything possible to try to accommodate me and let me know everything would be OK. They kind of toughened up at that point.

“Khalin felt like he had to be the man of the household. He had to protect my feelings. He had to defend me in everything. He was very much the (man of the house) at that time.”

At the same time, Smith had to worry about protecting himself, especially at school, where his mother believes his popularity drew envy from his peers.

Then a school district employee, McCarver, known locally as ‘Ms. Key,’ was a well-known figure in the community. If Smith had issues at school, she was bound to hear about it.

“High school was rough,” Smith said. “My school was a bad school. A lot of knuckleheads who want to fight you all the time and knock you off your path.”

Smith’s 2012 graduation from Vallejo High School was nearly ruined by a group of about 15 classmates who tried to beat him up during his walk to the gym for the practice ceremony. Smith was protected from their attack by his mother, her brothers, Vallejo police and a host of school security, who received word from McCarver earlier of their plans to assault Smith.

“They weren’t graduating and they wanted to drag me down with them,” Smith said.

Said McCarver, “They were just jealous. I couldn’t even believe it. His feelings were a little bit hurt. Their statement to him was, ‘If you don’t hang with us anymore you’re going nowhere.’”

But he did go somewhere: onto the stage to graduate.

“I walked on the stage smiling, then got up out of there,” he said. “It was a little bit of shock because I was so ready to make my mom proud and walk on that stage, and they were trying to mess that up. But the people we are, as in my family, we don’t let nothing mess up our extravagant moments.

“All I was ready for was to walk on that stage. It was a tough journey to graduate.”

But a few months later, in the winter of 2012, Smith had little to his name.

He had enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College, 44 miles north up Highway 101. But there had been no playing time that fall for a tight end on a team that ran a spread offense. No apartment because his roommates returned home to Florida during Christmas break. And no real reason to continue on.

Smith lived in his 1998 Suburban for two months. He lied to his teammates about why he had all of his clothes in his car, often claiming it was laundry day. He parked on side streets and spent most of his time in the library.

The stress of balancing school, living in his SUV and seeing little chance of getting more playing time became too much, so he moved home in the spring.

“I forgot to drop the classes,” he said. “I got all Fs.”

That spring, Frost, just casually visiting his neighbor, walked into McCarver’s two-bedroom apartment in Vallejo and saw Smith sleeping on the floor along with his two uncles, Emari and two cousins. Frost was aware that Smith was a star athlete. He’d often chat with McCarver, who raved about her son’s talents on the gridiron. Frost found it odd that he was packed in this apartment and not away at school.

“This kid, he’s got no chance,” Frost remembers thinking. “He just didn’t have anything, poor kid, but he was still nice as he could be.”

‘I was thinking about just driving off the ledge’

In Moscow, a year ago, Smith found himself facing another uphill battle. As a tight end, he was behind starters Deon Watson and Buck Cowan on the Vandal depth chart.

But he felt drawn to the Idaho defensive players, who refer to themselves as “The Darkside,” - nasty, tenacious and crazy.

Smith knew he belonged on the field, so he asked his coaches if he could join The Darkside.

In six games last season, Smith had 22 total tackles (two for loss), a sack and a pair of pass deflections.

His height makes completing passes over his head difficult. His tight end experience means he can hold onto any ball he gets his hands on. And his combination of speed and athleticism mean he’s probably going to score with that ball.

“He’s explosive. He has a great first step. He can help us on the edge,” said Idaho linebackers coach Eric Brown, Smith’s primary recruiter. “Then that passion for the game and that hunger to be better, that shows up every day in our drills and every day on the field.”

But success on the field came at cost, as his dedication to football meant less time with his girlfriend, who was pregnant with his daughter, Emiliana, now 7 months old.

During the pregnancy, Emiliana’s mother expressed her displeasure with Smith always being busy in Moscow with meetings, practice or school.

“She was just tired of being alone,” Smith said. “I told her she can move back (to Bakersfield) because I wanted her to be with her family when she had the baby.”

Now Smith and Emiliana’s mother don’t get along. He said he only occasionally has opportunities to see Emiliana via FaceTime.

Their week-long visit to Pullman in March lasted just one day because Emiliana’s mother got sick. After dropping them off at the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport, Smith was distraught.

“I wanted to commit suicide, because I was without my baby. I was driving, and I was thinking about just driving off the ledge,” Smith recalled of his tear-filled ride along Airport Road. “Then I was thinking, ‘How would that be if I was a coward and just left my daughter’s life that way?’ I need to be here for her.

“I’m kind of still going through the slump right now. I haven’t been smiling.”

‘This season I am not going to be stopped’

He’ll have plenty of chances to smile this season. McCarver is moving to Pullman to live with her son. He believes it’ll help his focus and provide stability, along with those hot meals he loves. It will be the first time in his career he’ll have his mom nearby. He needed that, and McCarver, last year.

“I can literally tell her anything. I can tell her things that other people would be ashamed of. I love that about my mom,” he said. “Everything that we’ve been through has just made us stronger. Every time I have to cry, she’s there to wipe the tears away and help me out. She never neglects me. She’s always been strong for me, especially with the things that she goes through.”

Smith is cherishing his senior year at Idaho. He keeps one of Emiliana’s diapers pinned to his bedroom door, a reminder that this year - and the rest of his life, really - is no longer just about him. Next to the diaper is Jace Malek’s obituary, a reminder to always do one more rep, and always keep fighting, because that’s what Malek - a former teammate who died of bone cancer in February - would do.

And it’s what Smith has been doing his whole life, no matter what obstacles he’s faced.

“When I walk out on the field, every time, I shed a tear. I say a prayer and be thankful to God that I’m on this field,” he said.

“This season I am not going to be stopped. At all.”

___

Information from: The Moscow-Pullman Daily News, https://www.dnews.com

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