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September 10, 2009

Andre Smith - One Fine Catch

By: Jimmy Robertson

The lure of Tech’s bucolic surroundings helped the Hokies hook Andre Smith, and he has used his outdoor hobbies to escape from a difficult past and become a solid contributor on the field.

He might be the last person one would expect to be standing on the bank of any body of water, with a pole in his right hand and a line and hook submerged, patiently waiting while attempting to hook an aquatic vertebrate with no legs and with a brain slightly larger than a bread crumb.

After all, he stands 6-foot-5, weighs roughly 260 some pounds, comes from the city and plays the sport of football, which brings with it about as much action as you could want in a sport. And besides, as one person once said about fishing anyway, there’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking like an idiot.

But Andre Smith pays that no mind. He’ll deal with the sunburn, the cold, the wet and the mosquitoes the size of sparrows pecking at him just for a couple hours of quiet solitude, casting and angling for that bass or catfish or striper that he’ll end up charitably sparing a visit to his skillet.

Andre Smith's favorite hobby is fishing and he never wastes an opportunity to go.

In other words, Smith has bought into this sport of fishing – hook, line and sinker.

“Absolutely,” he said with a smile. “To be out there on a beautiful day or late in the evening when it’s quiet … I love it. And when a fish pulls on the end of that line, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Tech’s tight end is on the cusp of becoming an outstanding football player, given his size, strength, speed and hands. And make no mistake, he possesses a passion for that sport, too.

But Andre Smith is more than just a football player, much more. He isn’t some dolt in pads. He’s a modern-day Renaissance man, one with many interests.

Yes, he’s a football player. He’s also a swimmer. He loves to fish. Extremely bright and enviably articulate, he’s a double major in psychology and sociology, with tentative plans of joining a police force or the FBI.

He’s active in a lot of things, and wants it that way. Those educated in his difficult childhood would speculate that he does all these things to escape the circumstances of his troubled youth. And that would be correct.

The escape, though gratifying, is only fleeting. Then it’s back to the real world, a place that certainly hasn’t always been kind to him.

Andre Smith was born in Savannah, Ga., but his father, Sidney Smith, relocated his wife and three kids to Germantown, Md., a glorified suburb of Washington, D.C., for what he perceived as a better area with better opportunities. At the very least, the move afforded Andre the opportunity to meet E.J. Cochran, and the two have established an unshakable friendship to this day. They lived three streets apart, became inseparable and spent many a day raising a ruckus in Mrs. Bruce’s first-grade classroom.

Cochran became the ultimate eyewitness to the Smith family history, a bizarre series of twists and turns that ultimately lead one to wonder how Andre traverses such a straight path these days.

Not long after moving the family to Germantown, Sidney Smith decided to split. A series of disagreements with his wife, Julida, led to his departure, and as usually happens, the children became the innocent victims in this parental tug-of-war. Being the youngest, Andre, in particular, was affected. Even though Sidney Smith kept in touch, his decision robbed Andre of a desperately needed male role model, an all-too-familiar story these days.

“It was hectic,” Smith said when asked to describe his youth. “Mom and Dad didn’t get along too well. It was hectic until they separated for good.”

“I knew Andre was upset,” Cochran said. “But you have to understand Andre. He doesn’t show emotion. Because of that, I can’t say I saw a big impact on him when his dad left. But I’m sure it was there.”

His father’s departure led to him becoming a self-proclaimed momma’s boy. He was well down that road anyway because he and his mother shared the same traits – kind, strong, firm, hardworking, disciplined. And while Julida Kilafwakun immigrated to the United States from a small island in Micronesia, a chain of diminutive islands spread over a large region in the south Pacific, she certainly could be called All-American.

Andre insists his mother’s island ways rubbed off on him. That provides a palatable explanation for his affinity for the water, and in particular, swimming.

Unlike most urban adolescents, he grew up not as a football player or a basketball player or even a soccer player, but rather as a swimmer, competing in freestyle events and the individual medley.

“I started swimming when I was 8 years old and then got into competitive swimming,” he said. “Because of my mom, I think it’s natural for me to be in the water. I started hanging around the pool a lot and I saw teams coming in and practicing. I became interested, and ever since then, I’ve been swimming. I could be at the pool all day long.”

His long frame – and some subtle coercing from a few friends and coaches – led him to gravitate toward football. Backyard ball eventually gave way to organized aggression, as Smith decided to go out for the team before his freshman season of high school.

He attempted to do both, swimming and football. But swimming is practice-intensive. Besides, he started growing an affection for the game of football.

But a stunning event, one that drilled him harder than any linebacker ever has, practically forced him to give up a sport.

It also forced him to become a man.

Julida Kilafwakun hadn’t been feeling well, but she never whispered a word to anyone. That wasn’t her way. She kept going to work, fulfilling her duties at Montgomery College, a community college there in Germantown, while also fearlessly embracing her role as a single mother of three.

The pain, though, intensified throughout the fall of Smith’s junior year at Seneca Valley High, and she went to get things checked out. Further tests revealed that feared six-letter word.

Cancer. Leukemia, to be exact.

“She was a strong and tough woman,” Smith said. “She didn’t complain about anything. Then she started having pain. They diagnosed it as leukemia and she started undergoing chemo. It was supposed to be curable.”

She underwent a varied treatment schedule, spending several days or a whole week at the hospital, and then coming home for a week. Andre took care of her during the times she was at home.

Not that he had a choice.

Roughly at the same time as Kilafwakun’s diagnosis, his brother, Jim, and sister, Nicole, made some ill-advised choices. Both moved out of the family’s townhouse, with Jim going to live with his girlfriend and Nicole her boyfriend. They unfortunately started hanging out with some unsavory characters, and in general, became totally submerged in their own lives, inexplicably leaving the care of their violently ill mother in the hands of their 16-year-old brother in the process.

“It’s safe to say I was pretty much on my own,” Smith said. “My brother and sister were both living with their girlfriend and boyfriend [respectively]. My dad wasn’t a huge part of the picture since they [Andre’s parents] were separated.

“If I needed anything, they’d come by. Some nights, maybe they’d stay. But for the most part, it was pretty much me. I was so busy with everything that I didn’t notice. I had school all day long and then practice. Then there was homework and dinner, and then I’d go to sleep.”

“I’m not sure his brother and sister understood how serious things were,” Cochran said. “I don’t think they could believe it was happening and that [making poor choices] was how they dealt with it.

“But that was a tough time for Andre. His grades started to slip and he was tired. You could just see it on his face. His mom was his whole world.”

Smith’s world became a routine that revolved around his mother’s care. He took care of her before going to school in the morning and then went to school and football practice before rushing home to care for her in the evenings. He cleaned the vomit when she became sick from the chemo. He oversaw her medicine. He took care of the laundry and meals and all the other menial household chores.

“Whatever she needed, I did it,” he said. “If there were errands to be run, I’d do it. Or if she got sick, I’d clean up the vomit. With the chemo, you can only imagine what that was like. Even then, she wasn’t the type who’d sit around and be sick.

“It wasn’t as tough when she was home. But she didn’t worry about me. She knew I was okay. Even before she got sick, she had taught us how to take care of ourselves. She was the type … you pick up after yourself, you wash your own dishes, you did your own laundry. You did whatever needed to be done. You don’t need someone telling you to do it. You need to be able to take care of yourself.”

Of course, she spent a lot of time in the hospital, leaving Smith to fend for himself at home.

He spent many nights at home by himself, wondering what the next hour held. He was a teenager in an empty townhouse with no father and no siblings.

He was scared to death – and scared of death.

“To be honest, I’d think about things and have scary thoughts,” he said. “There were many times when I cried myself to sleep, not knowing what to do.”

His mother’s battle lasted only nine brief months. On Aug. 10, 2005, she exhaled her last breath.

“It was about 10:40 a.m.” Smith said. “It was a Wednesday. I started two-a-days that following Friday. I was in the process of summer school. If I got lower than a B, she felt like I needed to go back, so I was in summer school.

“Knowing what she expected of me, I got up the next morning and went to summer school. I ended up leaving because I broke down and my teacher didn’t want me to be there. But I went. I knew what she would expect of me.”

For the first time in his life, though, Andre Smith truly was alone.

Andre Smith caught 10 passes a year ago and hopes to double that total in 2009.
At this point, Smith became chums with this guy named Murphy. Most folks know him. He’s the man who coined the phrase about anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Though it was hard to envision anything more going wrong for Smith, with his father, brother and sister having left and his mother now in the grave.

His siblings migrated back to the fold, which on the surface, would appear to be a good thing. But one night, Smith had just left the house when he got a call from his brother.

A few of his sister’s sketchy friends had used the house as target practice. Shots were fired, and one bullet ended up going through Jim’s old bed. Had he been there, it would have killed him.

That marked Smith’s last night at his longtime home.

“I turned around that night and went and took care of everything,” Smith said. “I made sure that night was going to be the last night I slept there.”

“We had already been pushing him to come and move in with us,” Cochran said. “We kept telling him that, and after that incident, we knew he had to move in with us. There was never a question about that.”

The Cochrans’ overwhelming generosity probably saved his life. In a stable home, he focused on his grades and became quite the desirable football prospect.

His senior season at Seneca Valley High, he caught 18 passes, including six for touchdowns, as a tight end, and also had 44 tackles and five sacks as a defensive end despite missing three games with an ankle injury.

“After his mom died, we did everything we could to bring him under our wing,” Seneca Valley High coach Fred Kim said. “We made sure he was well taken care of. Life was difficult for him, but to his credit, he stayed focused. He showed his strength of character. He knew that was what his mother would want him to do and he did it well.”

College recruiters took residence in Kim’s office, offering Smith that escape from the complications of his past. He had already taken an official visit to Maryland when then Tech assistant Tony Ball encouraged him to come to Blacksburg for a weekend.

“The reason why I took the visit to Maryland was because if everything went well with my mom, she wanted me to be closer,” he said. “When I came here [Blacksburg] … despite everything, I’m a calm person and I like the mountainous area. I like the scenery. I like this environment. One of the things that sold me was how gorgeous the campus was, just to see the building structures and everything about the campus. Once I got the chance to come up here and look around, I committed right away.

“The only reason I feel like I made it here to school was because I knew that my mom wanted me to make it here and make it big. I ended up finishing with the highest GPA I’d ever had my last year of high school and it was because I knew that she wanted more than anything for me to make it to college.”

He has trudged on despite life’s hardships, becoming the student his mother wanted, working toward becoming the football player he had always envisioned of himself, and maturing into a man who has refused to become a victim of his past.

Sure, life still delivers its stinging blows. On Aug. 12, one of his dear friends, fellow Tech student Emily Dao, passed away from stage IV colon cancer. She was 20 years old and had a 3.9 grade-point average in accounting and information systems, and Smith never flinched when it came to a decision about going to her funeral in Fairfax on one of his rare off days. He knew the feelings that Dao’s parents and boyfriend and friends were feeling. He had been there.

The situation with his brother has improved, as Jim moved back to Savannah to live with some of his mother’s family. And Smith still keeps in contact with his father, though they are far from having a deep father-son relationship.

Smith’s sister remains in Maryland in a situation that remains fluid. He tries to keep in touch with his siblings, and in particular, Nicole, for one main reason – her 3-year-old son named Quentin. Smith’s eyes light up when he talks about his nephew, but he sighs when talking about the child’s father and the eyes cloud with concern.

“His father really isn’t in his life,” he said.

He knows that feeling. He’s been there, too.

“Even now, after everything that’s happened, Andre is still the one putting out the majority of the effort to keep in contact with the family,” Cochran said. “I’m in awe of him. There are people who have gone through less and not accomplished as much as he has. Being a student, that’s enough, but to do what he’s done … that’s just a testament to how strong of a person he really is.”

“Andre comes back all the time and I’m happy that he does,” Kim said. “I want him to talk to our kids here. He’s mentally tough and you just don’t see that in kids this age. A lot of them turn to drugs and other quick fixes. He decided not to go that route. He’s just an excellent young man. We’re so proud of him.”

Smith, of course, would deflect the praise. After all, he knows exactly the source of his strength – his mother.

“She knew I was going to have to make it big to take care and provide for my family,” he said. “She knew it would turn out this way. They’ve [his family] put me in a bind a few times. I’m just trying to keep them in line the best I can from here.”

“Andre doesn’t say much about it, but he knows we’re here if he needs to talk,” said Ed Wang, one of Smith’s best friends on the team. “He’s handled everything well and turned out great.”

For Smith, the story isn’t over. There’s the not-so-small matter of getting his degree – “I’d like to get into law enforcement. I have no set plan, but I have an idea. Maybe work for the DEA or FBI.” – but first is helping this year’s Tech team reach its lofty goals.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be here and be part of back-to-back ACC championships,” said Smith, who hopes to double his 16 career catches this season. “This year, we’re looking for bigger things and this is the most anticipated year for me personally, as well.”

When he needs an escape from the rush of life, he knows where to go. He hops in his car, drives to the nearest pond, grabs his pole and attaches his lure.

It’s time to practice the art of drowning worms.

He chuckles at that remark. He’s not going to take the bait.

His hobby provides him with an escape, an escape from family, from football, from school.

It provides an escape from life. And he’ll be the first to tell you, it also provides a deeper immersion into it.