There wasn’t much time for thoughtful reflection when Desire’e Salazar gave birth to her first child, Dontae Smith. She had just turned 17. She was a high-school junior.
“The only thing I was thinking at that time was, ‘Lord, how am I going to take care of a baby?’” Salazar said.
With the help of family, Salazar managed. Living with her boyfriend, she held a job at a gas station, stayed in school and cared for Dontae. She graduated from Spring Hill High with her class, she recalls, with a 3.4 GPA. Looking back, she isn’t sure how she managed – she and her boyfriend had a second son two years later, and after they split she later had a third – but knows she was motivated by wanting to do better.
“Just wanting to do right by Dontae,” said Salazar, now 35. “Just make sure that he had what he needed and that kind of thing.”
Supported by family, Salazar has negotiated the challenge of life as a young single mother of three. Her eldest is now a freshman at Georgia Tech, a graduate of the same high school as her mother, a promising A-back with an opportunity to earn a degree from a school ranked in the top 40 nationally.
Her devotion has not escaped him. Last month, the two sat next to each other at the kitchen table of their apartment in Spring Hill, a rapidly growing city on the southern edge of the Nashville metropolitan area. Smith was asked what motivated him. Without hesitation, he pointed at his mother.
“Seeing how proud all this makes her and everything, how good I do, that motivates me to keep on doing it, stay on the right path,” he said.
The two talk in a way that is not like the usual mother-son interaction. At 35 and 18, they can sound and act more like older sister/younger brother.
“We basically grew up together,” said Salazar, a manager at a veterinary hospital. “It was like, a lot of things that he was experiencing or feeling, or just being upset or frustrated or whatever, I could relate a little bit more because I was younger when I had him and still was going through those types of feelings and frustrations. We’re pretty close.”
The outcomes for children of teen mothers can be grim. According to research, they’re more likely than children of older parents to repeat grades, become incarcerated and themselves become teenage parents. But with the support of family, Salazar and her three boys (Dontae’s two younger brothers are Desmond Smith, a rising junior and himself a promising football player, and Seneca Caldwell, 10) have managed.
“That kid never gets in trouble,” said Riley Howard, Smith’s trainer. “He says, ‘Yes, sir/No, sir, Yes, ma’am/No ma’am.’ His mom really raised him well.”
Smith’s father (Donel Smith) is involved in his life – he has attended his games and was part of the contingent that brought him to Tech on Tuesday to check in and begin his freshman year. But Smith’s mother carries the load.
“Very nurturing, caring,” said Salazar’s mother, Anatecia Salazar, who lives in Newnan. “She works really hard for those boys.”
For his football, that has included training with Howard and also having him play on a travel seven-on-seven team. Smith credits Howard for developing the speed and agility that won him a scholarship offer from Tech last summer that he quickly accepted. At a Tech camp, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds (or 4.3, depending on whom you ask), a performance so stunning that coach Paul Johnson came over to time Smith himself to make sure.
At Spring Hill, he ran for more than 4,200 yards and 45 touchdowns over his final two seasons and was a finalist for the Class 4A Mr. Football award as a senior. Inside linebackers coach Andy McCollum, who recruited Smith, likened his game video to a video game.
Howard, who trains high-school, college and pro players in his Elite 3 program, predicts that Smith will leave Tech “in the history books.”
“You’ve got a kid who, his body has not even developed all the way, and with his grit and want-to and determination just to work hard, he’s going to put on more muscle, he’s going to get faster,” Howard said.
Smith hopes that playing and studying at Tech will lead to a better life, both for him and his mother.
“Because I want to see her happy and not working,” Smith said. “And the only way I can do that is I stay on the right path, go to college, maybe go to the NFL or graduate from college and get a good job.”
“He cares for her a lot,” Anatecia Salazar said. “He worries about her – single mom. He’s pretty much the man of the house, so he really looks up to her and looks after her and wants to make sure everything’s OK.”
A couple of weeks ago, Smith got a tattoo of his mother’s name on his left forearm, which was flattering, but she’s still his mother.
“I’m like, Oh, gosh, that’s big, but thanks,” Salazar said.
On Tuesday, as a small army of Smith’s family checked him in at Tech, Salazar allowed herself a moment of satisfaction and a sigh of relief.
“It’s just a feeling of, you just hope that they take everything with them that you taught them and they keep those values and listen,” Salazar said. “But, yeah, it’s definitely a good feeling, because that’s a big accomplishment on both ends, on my end and his.”
The third in a series of profiles of members of Tech’s incoming freshman class.
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