God, family and football keep Georgia’s Garrison Smith on right path

The others survived but Love, Smith’s best buddy in middle school, bled to death right there at the entrance of the sports facility. He had been the victim of a targeted shooting at a Texaco station a football field from the rec center where he drove to seek help. He was 19.

That was Sept. 13, 2010. An hour away, Smith was on the practice field with the Georgia Bulldogs. He was getting ready to play his third game as a true freshman defensive lineman when he got the phone call about “Deddric.” He was crushed, but not surprised.

“He was my friend,” Smith said of Love. “We played football together and, just like that [snaps his fingers], he’s murdered at 3 o’clock in the afternoon at the Texaco. He took a different path, big time.”

Blessed today to see from an altitude that comes with age, experience and achievement, Smith can look back on his life and see clearly where the paths of he and his friend diverged. It started back at Jean Childs Young Middle School in Southwest Atlanta, or “The Swats,” as locals call it.

At that time Smith was just starting to grow into the man-child that would eventually attract 5-star recruiting attention and land at the University of Georgia as a ballyhooed scholarship athlete. He was bigger than everybody else, so football came easy to him. So did making friends.

Before Smith could even be sure what was happening to him he was being pulled hard in another direction. It was the lure of the streets, and many of his teammates were heeding its call. Smith’s adolescent instincts were compelling him to follow.

“Most of my friends, most of the people I know, have been locked up or are in jail still or ain’t here no more. Dead,” said Smith, a senior now and No. 5 Georgia’s defensive captain for Saturday’s game against No. 8 Clemson. “I can name 10 people right now. It’s really just about making bad decisions, doing the wrong things, choosing different paths… . There has been a lot of people in my life, from family to non-family, that have helped keep me on the right track.”

Smith can pin down almost to the exact day when he came to his first crossroads. He and a large group of friends pulled the oldest trick in the book on their parents. Each kid told their parents they were spending the night at another kid’s house. Instead, they all gathered in one place, boys and girls 12 and 13 years old, for an all-night party.

Smith slept by himself on a sofa that night. But his buddy did not. Love became a father as an eighth-grader. He had six children when he died.

“That’s crazy, I know,” said Smith, who does not have children. “But seeing people pregnant in middle school and high school was normal for me. It was that prevalent. That just shows up we grew up real fast.”

Fortunately for Smith, that was about the time Carl Woods came into his life.

“He was extremely talented, extremely smart,” said Woods, Smith’s football coach and physical education teacher at Young Middle School. “Then again, when you are part of that Atlanta culture it can go either way. It really doesn’t matter what your familial background is. So he was teetering. It could have been him or any one of those young men he talks about now.”

Family wasn’t an issue. Garrison’s parents, Greg and Cynthia Smith, have been married for 30 years, and have worked full-time jobs for decades. So did Smith’s grandparents, Betty and Bernard Smith, who still live in the Collier Heights home where Greg was raised and 6:30 p.m. supper calls for the whole clan remain the standard. They’re all regulars at Hunter Hill Baptist Church.

But often, Woods says, the call of the streets can breach the strongest of family barriers. Peer pressure is powerful everywhere, but no more powerful than in The Swats. And Woods saw how Smith was being besieged.

“He was the first coach to ever talk to me seriously about football and how far it could actually take me in life,” Smith said. “He was the first person other than my father to sit me down and talk to me like a man. He told me if I really put my heart in it I could really do something.”

Said Woods, who left Atlanta Public Schools in 2007: “I’m just so proud of him it brings me to tears. During my time there I lost a lot of young kids, whether it be to the streets or to death or whatever. I’m just happy to see Garrison making the best of his opportunities.”

Woods’ messages only reinforced the strongly-worded lessons Smith was getting at home from his father. Greg Smith Sr. knows a thing or two about life and football. A recently-retired government employee, he has refereed Mideastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) games for the past 25 years. He, too, grew up in The Swats and played football at Douglass. And he went on to play college ball at Grambling and North Carolina A&T.

Garrison also has two older brothers. Gregory Jr. lettered in football and graduated from Georgia Tech as a receiver and running back. Gerald majored in industrial engineering at North Carolina A&T and now works for the Department of Defense. All of them played football at Douglass.

The father would take his sons on car rides to the seedy side of town, usually on the lookout for one of Greg Sr.’s Douglass High teammates, who the father said was “one of the best running backs to ever come out of Atlanta.”

But the former All-State high school player never made it to the next level. The Smiths would search him down to try to help however they could.

“The last time we saw him he looked real bad,” Greg Smith said. “I’d tell them about the path he took, the wrong path. I had a lot of examples of those kinds of guys. A lot of other guys I went to high school with had all the talent in the world but wound up following the wrong path.”

Armed with all that knowledge and support, Garrison Smith still almost slipped up a few times. He tells about the time early in high school when he almost caved to some old friends who wanted him to rip off some houses in another neighborhood.

“They wanted me to go out kicking in doors and stealing TVs,” Smith said. “They said, ‘hey, Big G, all you’ve gotta do is kick in the door in. You don’t even have to go in and we’ll cut you in.’”

Smith said he thought about it for a second. “Then I said, ‘nah, bro, y’all boys just handle it yourselves. Be safe.’”

They weren’t. Somebody was home and caught the boys in the act of burglary. One of Smith’s friends was shot in the back and in the hand. He survived but he’s in prison with maimed fingers on one hand.

“I thank God every day for the choices I made,” Smith said.

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