Kwadarrius Smith has a message. It’s a message that easily could be filled with negativity, blame and vengeance.
Smith has taken a different route, focusing his energy on thinking back to how he got to this point in his life.
When he steps on the campus at the University of Missouri this summer, he’ll likely be quite emotional. It will be the day he can say he made it. A day that, at times, he thought would never happen.
While growing up, there were numerous things Smith didn’t know about his future. When and where would he get his next meal? Would he ever have a bed to sleep in at night?
Would the living room coffee table ever be strewn with something other than full ashtrays and drug paraphernalia? Would his mother wake up from one of her stupors? Would his father ever come home? Would the wrong look on Smith’s face lead to anything other than physical and verbal abuse?
He talked about his childhood recently, sometimes finding it difficult to hold his emotions in check. It’s quite amazing to see where he is today after learning about the things he endured as a youngster. Those challenges, however, have always driven him to succeed.
He would not listen to those who said he would not amount to anything.
In third grade, no one would take him to school. So he would get up, get ready and walk. Sometimes he had breakfast. Sometimes he went a day without eating. But he endured it all, persevered, even begged people for help. He got through it, somehow.
“Sometimes I would go without dinner and breakfast the next day. My mom was abusive, and an alcoholic and an addict. My dad was always in and out of prison,” Smith recalled. “I was in foster care three times.”
Florida court records help document Smith’s difficult childhood, but they barely scratch the surface describing what he endured.
He knew a woman who regularly visited from the state Department of Children and Families by face.
“I remember when she came to my house one time and my grandmother told me I was leaving for good,” he said. “I remember my mom actually fighting me like I was some stranger on the street. I have this scar … that was from when she threw an iron at my head and busted the side of my head open. ... She went to jail that night. That was my first experience with DCF.”
But it’s not the past within which Smith wants to linger. It’s not lost on him that hundreds of other Central Florida youngsters continue to go through similar difficulties in their daily lives. To them, his message is simple: There is hope; never give up.
“Until I was in middle school, I thought I was the only one,” Smith said of the things he had to endure. “But then I saw there were other kids who were just like me, just trying to find a way out.
“I was so driven. I looked at how my parents lived and all the drinking and all the smoking. … They didn’t go to college, didn’t go to high school, and I looked at that and I said, ‘Man, if I take that path I’m going to be just like them.”
In February, Smith signed a National Letter of Intent for a track and field scholarship at Missouri, where he will also be a preferred walk-on with the football team.
“I cried a lot on National Signing Day because I knew what I had to go through to get there. It was a struggle,” Smith said.
It’s a position about which he had always dreamed, and he’s proud. He had plenty of help along the way, from teachers, friends and parents of friends. Now he’s committed to giving back.
First Academy track and field coach Ricky Argro might know Smith better than any of his mentors. He’s seen the growth in the youngster since his freshman year, on the football field, on the track and in his everyday life.
“He’s definitely come a real long way. We have similar backgrounds, so me and Kwad, we have a different type of bond,” Argro said. “Knowing his background and knowing how he was when I first met him … he’s definitely become a great young man and he will do big things, even bigger than what he’s going to do on the track and on the field.
“Kwad used to be real introverted and didn’t really talk to a lot of people. Now he’s one of the most popular guys around campus. Everybody knows him and respects him and loves him. Every time I see him, he has a smile on his face with a bunch of people around him. He’s made a total 180.”
Smith recently took his message public, first in front the student body at Orlando’s First Academy, and then to the students at Orlando’s Blankner Elementary/Middle School through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“I shared it with all of them and a lot of people really liked it and thanked me for it,” Smith said. “A lot of the kids at Blankner are going through rough times and some of them came up to me afterward and said that I was like their hero and they hoped to be like me some day.”
It was most difficult for Smith to present the testimony of his past to his peers who knew him in the hallways at TFA. There was a lot they did not know.
“The kids at my school were shocked. I guess their perception of me changed,” Smith said, “I was a little nervous about it, but I wanted people to know who I really was and where I came from. … I kind of got emotional, but I knew that I had to get myself together. I just wanted the story to be crisp … so I kept my composure.”
Learning what Smith has overcome makes it easier to understand who he is today.
He’s confident and steadfast. He had to be. He also has always been one looking for the acceptance of others. He is always looking to gain praise and admiration … and, of course, to be loved.
He never had that as a child.
He’s accepted his past and done all he could to reach the highest goals. His grades are fantastic. He was the Class 1A state champion in the 100-meter dash last year. He was one of the best slot receivers in Central Florida during this past football season.
Now he has bigger goals. One is a college degree, of course. He also wants to continue to share his message.
“At Blankner, I wanted to touch those kids lives, so they wouldn’t grow up and say, ‘I’ve got it bad … I’m never going to be anything. I want to drop out of school,’ “ Smith said. “I want them to say, ‘No. Kwad Smith had the same story I have. Kwad Smith is the same type of guy I was when he was my age, so if he can do it, I know I can do it.’ I want to change kids’ lives and I know they needed to hear that.”
And of course Smith will continue to push himself toward his own goals.
“When I look back at the past, I will see a little boy who once had nothing,” he said. “Now, this little boy grew up and he has everything; all of these opportunities to fight for. I know what it feels like to not have a place to eat or live. I know how it feels to not have money, so if I want to have it, I have to commit my very being to these things.
“Pain is temporary. Whether it lasts a minute, or a day or even a year, something else will eventually take its place. I give God all the glory for everything. He’s how I got here today. He put me through this for a reason.”
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, and on Instagram at os_recruiting.