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September 4, 2012
"If I didn't jump in front I was never going to see her again."
Five year old Cleveland Smith was asleep in his bed, but it was hard for him to ever sleep soundly. His father may not have wanted to be a part of Cleveland's life, but was nonetheless about to become a central figure in what is perhaps the defining moment of the current Western Michigan defensive lineman's life.
Smith's father would only come around the house to abuse his mother, but this night was a little different.
"One day he came in and had a gun. He pointed it at my mom and shot her in the back, and the second time he tried to shoot her in the back I jumped in the way," Smith explained.
He remembers this moment like it was yesterday, but the lights went out for him immediately after hearing the gun blast.
Smith awoke in the hospital two days later. Rolling over, he fell onto the floor and was unable to get up, waiting dazed and confused. Some minutes later, a doctor picked him up and explained why he was there.
She was unsure if he'd ever walk again.
"They told me what happened, and after that I just thought about killing myself," Smith said. "My mom, she had gotten better. She was on the floor below us in the emergency room. She just told me, 'God's going to bless you', and I just started praying."
Years went by, and Smith gradually learned to walk again, but what he really wanted was to play football. This goal sustained his work ethic, and by the sixth grade, Smith was able to run and begin his football career.
Smith may have been awfully young, but he was already realizing what football could mean to his life beyond his formative years.
"It was a way to get away from home, basically. I didn't like where I was living, so I felt like if I had stayed in Miami, things would be a lot worse than they are now. Football was a way to get out of the house," he explained.
His relationship with Travis Turner, now an offensive lineman at WMU, played a major role in Smith's growth as a person and a football player. The two met in the third grade and have been close, almost inseparable, ever since. Smith recalls now that he related to Turner so well because Turner's mother was paralyzed from the waist down in a severe car accident in 2000, and the difficult background for the two made them like brothers.
Throughout grade school and middle school, Smith would wear some of Turner's oversized clothes. There was perhaps a measure of embarrassment in Smith's voice even recalling this. In a sense, though strange to say, it was a blessing, as people took notice of his tough home life.
As Turner and Smith graduated middle school and headed to North Miami Beach High School, one of those who took notice was the head coach of the football program, Jeff Bertani.
Bertani is the long time head coach of the program-- he's beginning his 16th season at the helm this fall-- and he's earned a reputation for running a disciplined program. The reason for that discipline, and the overreaching aim of his program, is to get his players out of their often bleak situations, and into better ones.
"His goal was just getting us out of the area we were in," Smith recalled. "The first year I started playing football, he said, 'I'm going to make something out of your life one day.'"
As for Smith, there wasn't a much more bleak situation to be found. Bertani, though, saw something in him upon meeting.
"He is a kid that's easy to like, big smile, even bigger heart," he explained. "You could just tell he hadn't gotten the guidance that he needed. You could tell that if you gave him a little bit extra of your time, that he would give it back."
Smith wasn't so sure just yet. In fact, he was not willing to place trust in anyone, particularly in an older man after his father had pointed the muzzle of a gun in his face some ten years earlier.
Bertani worked with Smith over the next few years, but things didn't go so easily. Smith's situation caught up to him going into his junior year of high school, as the situations in poor America have a tendency to do.
Between the lack of trust and the rough and tumble, crime ridden streets of his neighborhood, Smith felt a need to protect himself.
"I didn't want to be the one kid that got shot or robbed for no reason," he explained.
On the streets of North Miami Beach, police are always on the lookout for illegal activity. Though Smith wasn't getting into any trouble from his perspective, he carried a gun in his backpack for protection every day.
Walking home from practice one night, he was caught off guard by a policeman's strobe light directly in his face. It wasn't long before the illegal gun was found.
"I got locked up going into my junior year of high school. At that point I didn't feel like anybody was caring about me anyway, but when I found out that [Bertani] actually cared. He came to see me the first day I was in jail, and two days went by and he came back again, and kept coming back. Then I saw him as a father figure ever since then," Smith explained.
The coach's visits may stand to this day as the exact point that Smith's life began to turn around. There was still a lot of work to be done, but Bertani spoke with pride about what Smith has become, and looked back to those days as the reason.
"He made a mistake, but he told me that he didn't want it to define him, didn't want that to be his legacy," Bertani said. "I knew the type of kid he was, in no way was he perfect, but he was a kid. Kids make mistakes and I saw that he knew that and wanted to learn from this one."
Smith, with some help from his mother and Bertani, was given a chance to attend school and football practices during the week. His weekends were spent in a jail cell, but he was determined still to get out of his situation.
With Smith out of jail and back on the football field for his senior year, Bertani turned his attention to getting him into college, but this was a challenge. Smith's football ability wasn't the issue; coaches around the country were impressed by his explosiveness and athleticism. But interest would turn more lukewarm when they found out about his background.
This led Bertani to turn to an old, trusted friend in WMU head football coach Bill Cubit. Cubit has coached eleven North Miami Beach products, and he's one of a handful of coaches around the country that Bertani has trust in and tries to steer his players towards.
At the end of Cubit's recruiting trip to Florida in early 2011, he was sitting in Bertani's office and Cleveland Smith, previously unknown to Cubit, was next to his coach's desk.
"Jeff was just saying, 'Why don't you take Cleve?'," Cubit said. "So I went back and watched tape and was wondering why we wouldn't take him. We called him up that Monday and offered him a scholarship, and he said he didn't even have to visit."
When Smith arrived on campus, Cubit was still not aware of his story. When Cubit found out, Smith's concern was only being allowed to play football.
"When he got up here the trainer came up to me and said 'I don't know if you know, but he's got a bullet hole.' So I went up and asked why he didn't tell me, and he just said, 'Don't worry about it, I'm okay.' I said, 'it has nothing to do with football,' so he told me the story. The kid's as grateful as anyone I've ever recruited. Absolutely fantastic kid," Cubit maintains.
Smith's new family
As Smith works his way into the Broncos' rotation at defensive line, he never forgets where he came from. The opportunity he has at WMU is something that people in his neighborhood back home simply don't have access to, and he is more than aware of this. The different atmosphere from his hometown has helped Smith to avoid getting into any trouble, even when the responsibility sometimes feels so large.
"I like it up here," he said of Kalamazoo. "It's a lot calmer, there isn't that much pain. This is like my family, since I don't get a chance to see my family that much. This is all I've got right here. I never had white friends growing up, when I came here I actually bonded with people from different backgrounds, I see them like my brothers."
This new perspective on life blends with a fresh memory of his life back home. Smith explained that he rarely returns home to Miami, but when he does he sees people "in the streets selling drugs just trying to eat", something he has no desire to go back to.
Football is not only his way to avoid that life, but it means everything to his mother, brother and sister back home.
"Everybody I see that's playing college football is playing to make somebody else's life better, or make their life better," he said. "You love this sport, but you're supporting somebody with it. This is your responsibility. If I give up football, my mom doesn't have anything to live for. If I go back home to Florida, there's nothing to be proud of, because she knows right now her son's in college."
Smith's scar is a searing reminder every day of the struggle he went through to get where he is, but he's a different person today. When he takes the field once again on Saturday, he'll take a moment to pray and remember why he's here today, and then it's back to business, back to making a new future for himself and his family back home.
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