Cleveland Heights four-star defensive end Tyreke Smith didn't have much to prove during Ohio State's one-day camp on Saturday, as he's already one of the most sought-after prospects in the country. In addition to holding an offer from the Buckeyes, programs such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, Texas, UCLA and USC are pulling out all the stops to get him to commit.
Smith showed up anyway, and used the camp as an opportunity to mingle with Ohio State commits — and potentially his future teammates — Emory Jones, Jaelen Gill and Dallas Gant. He also spent a significant amount of time with defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who pulled him to the side for some one-on-one instruction.
But none of that was the talk of the camp. Instead, it was Smith's shirt that grabbed everyone's attention.
“I hope I don't get killed for being black today.”
That's a powerful message from a 17-year-old kid who shouldn't even have to worry about losing his life, but that's also a reality for so many young African-Americans across the country. Smith lives in a county that saw a state-high 168 homicides last year, and he wants to use his platform as a star athlete to make a positive impact on his community.
“I decided to wear the shirt because I wanted to bring attention to the epidemic of blacks being killed at an alarming rate,” Smith said. “What we would like to do is have people talk about these issues to reduce the murder rate of African-Americans.”
Now before you rush to judgment, understand that Smith isn't just talking about the Cleveland police officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice and other examples of police brutality that seemingly dominate headline news. He's also talking about the black-on-black crime that is destroying his city brick by brick.
“The shirt was created to bring light into the every day problems that blacks face between police and black-on-black crimes,” Tyreke's older brother, Malik, said. “The shirt exemplifies a voice that we have, but may not be heard. So why not have people see it?”
Saturday's camp, with hundreds of prospects, parents and reporters in attendance, was the perfect time for that to happen. Smith knew he would be photographed and that it would create instant conversation on social media.
“He asked me if he should wear it, [and] I said, 'Absolutely, Tyreke,'” Malik said, explaining how he was the one who made the shirt. “I told him to be ready for people to want to voice their own opinion about the shirt — good or bad. I also told him to be ready to have an answer and be able to fully explain the shirt in great detail. He did just that.”
The response to Smith's actions have been overwhelmingly positive, with seven out of every 10 replies to his tweet showing support. Naturally, some are also not so kind.
“[They] are speaking negatively because they don't understand what's going on and the message behind it,” Tyreke said, noting he understands that not everyone will share his opinion.
But, then again, some people don't live in constant fear of someone taking their life. They don't have to worry about being shot for being out too late or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“To see or hear about so many senseless killings, it tends to have a negative impact on you,” Tyreke said. “You start to wonder if we should move away... but most, 'why?'”
Tyreke, with nearly 40 scholarship offers to his name, has the chance to remove himself from the situation. He'll get a world-class education and have a chance to make millions of dollars in the National Football League. But not everyone in Cleveland has the same outlet.
“I think the biggest reasons [for the crimes] are a lack of parenting, community policing and valuing education,” Tyreke said, who wisely beyond his years acknowledged his family, coaches and teachers for their influences on his life.
Smith knows the shirt — which can be purchased through direct message on Twitter — isn't going to put an end to the killing of black men and children in the inner cities. But if it brings the slightest bit of awareness, then he used his platform for good. And that's more than we should have to ask from a 17-year-old kid.
“We need to come together as a unit and stop coming after our own people,” Malik said. “We have to work together.”
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