By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Taj Smith’s voice cracked and soft tears joined the sweat trickling down his face.
It’s hard for Smith to talk about his past in Newark, N.J., a place where the pervasive culture of gangs and drugs helped claim the lives of two of his brothers and nearly a dozen of his friends.
Smith admits he was no saint.
According to a feature in the New York Times, he was kicked out of his high school. And when a mentor fought to have Smith accepted back on the football team, he wasn’t allowed to enter any school buildings.
That edict included the locker room, which meant Smith was forced to dress in the parking lot.
Compared with the challenges of his past, fighting for the fourth consecutive year for a spot on the Indianapolis Colts’ roster doesn’t seem quite so daunting.
“Taj is a guy that’s certainly displayed a lot of perseverance in his life,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said after Tuesday’s morning practice. “He’s had some very, very difficult times. He’s a guy that has some wherewithal to get it done, but he’s also an achiever.”
The deaths of Smith’s two oldest brothers have come to define his life.
He has a tattoo on his right hand to memorialize them — “BMLS,” Brothers Memories Live Strong.
One brother was burned to death in an alley seven years ago, and his murder remains unsolved. The other reportedly took his own life in 2009 before police burst through his hotel door in Virginia.
Smith has dedicated his days to ensuring other at-risk youth don’t meet similar fates.
He spent the offseason and the lockout visiting high schools in Newark. He talked to students about the effects of violence and told them stories from his own life. He tries to hold camps in the inner city and generally reach out to as many people as possible through whatever public events he can organize.
Unlike some professional athletes, he’s not running from his responsibilities as a role model. He’s seeking out opportunities to change lives.
“It’s just a blessing for the kids to see that there’s someone in the city that actually lived there and actually moved out and made something of themselves,” he said.
Smith still is making something of himself.
He spent most of the past three seasons on the Colts’ practice squad. And it all almost came to an end in an instant last September.
On the final play of Indianapolis’ final preseason practice, Smith tore his hamstring.
And the club placed him on an injury list that made him ineligible to return before November.
“It was tough, just sitting around, just trying to get healthy,” he said. “I watched the whole football thing, and not being out there with my teammates, it did hurt a lot. But I just kept pushing, and God blessed me to come back.”
By December, he was on the Colts’ active roster for the first time.
In his first game, against his childhood favorite Dallas Cowboys, he blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.
No one on the field had a smile bigger than Smith’s.
“It was a blessing because some people don’t get a second chance,” he said. “Obviously, I did, and it paid off.”
Smith has gotten some time working with the first team in camp this season, but he’s just as hungry as ever.
Five Colts — Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez and Blair White — are nearly locks to make the Week 1 roster. Indianapolis isn’t likely to keep more than six wideouts, which means Smith is battling with several teammates for what likely will be just one job opening.
He made a good start with a 44-yard touchdown catch in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Rams.
“At the end of the day, there’s still a lot more I can improve on and stop making mental mistakes with stuff I know,” he said. “(The touchdown) was great. It helps me out. I just gotta keep making plays so I can end up on the team.”
Some would say it’s remarkable enough, given what he’s been through, for Smith to be here in the first place.
The opportunity isn’t lost on him.
He just believes it’s all part of a higher plan.
“God’s first always,” he said. “He blessed me with the gift of actually being out on the football field. It’s much more than just football. It’s about how you will be. I do my best to try to let (kids) know that. It’s hard work, and you gotta sometimes give up a lot to get to where you want to be. You gotta start hanging around different crowds and just do the right thing.”