Need does not discriminate. Fish Smithson knows that painful lesson all too well.
From his childhood in East Baltimore to his days playing safety for the University of Kansas football team, Smithson has witnessed the plight of men, women and children facing hardship. And while the faces and locations might change, the heartache does not.
"There are just people in need," said Smithson, a senior who played high school football in Utah. "The difference is, there are certain types of people, but it's really just people in need. I remember last summer we were helping special-needs adults running on the football field and helping them throw and catch and kick at our little camp that we did here. And then we also visited kids in hospitals who were sick, and we were at elementary schools. And when I go back to Baltimore, I see kids who need shoes or cones for football drills. It's the same people who need help."
Smithson has tried to give back to the Lawrence community as much as he can — reading to students at elementary schools, visiting patients in the hospital, even ringing a bell for the Salvation Army. For his contributions, Smithson was nominated in July to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team, which recognizes college football players who balance academics and athletics while dedicating themselves to serving their communities.
Other nominees with state connections are Towson running back Darius Victor, Johns Hopkins linebacker Jack Campbell and Frostburg State kicker-wide receiver Isaac Robinson of Elkton.
Smithson, whose given name is Anthony but has been called Fish since his grandmother Ann Thornton bestowed it upon him in childhood, credits his upbringing in Baltimore for shaping his outlook on volunteer work.
"It definitely molded me a lot," said Smithson, 22. "Growing up, you just see that a lot of people are not fortunate. At the time, I didn't know because that was all I had. So I didn't really complain. My parents didn't really have money to put nice shoes or clothes on me, but I didn't really complain because that was all I had and that was all I was used to. Now when I go back to Baltimore and I see kids that grew up just like me playing youth football, I just want to give back as much as I can, and that's wherever I'm at."
Smithson's sister Tamicka, who is three years older, said that even as a child, her brother would pick up trash in the neighborhood or help inexperienced football players at camps he attended. When he returns to Baltimore during breaks from school, he participates in area toy drives during Christmas and happily jumps into pickup football games in the street.
Tamicka Smithson said her brother, who is the fifth of eight children, has had to share his entire life. But he's also the anchor of the family.
"Everyone overall is elated with Fish," she said. "Everyone's excited. He's 'the favorite.' No one argues with Fish, no one fights with Fish. If there's an issue going on, he's the levelheaded one. We could all be crying, and he might be there with a straight face."
Fish Smithson said his time spent delivering lunches to the homeless in Lawrence alongside teammates resonated with him.
"We gave them food, and this one lady, she started crying and began telling us how her food stamps didn't come in, and she didn't really have anything else to eat," he recalled. "She didn't know when she was going to eat, and we just went out of our way to really help her. … It just shows how much that really meant. I just like doing stuff like that."
Smithson said he hopes more athletes give back to their communities, so they can break the stereotype that they are chasing only fame and fortune. Smithson said the lessons he learned in Baltimore have turned him away from such temptations.
"I definitely want to thank Baltimore because my upbringing made me who I am today," he said. "I realized once I got out, I could look back and see just how unfortunate some people really are, and it's not really their fault. … So once I could leave and see that, I definitely want to give back as much as possible."