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FIRST PLACE: FEATURE
The little boy clutched the present for his mom on a snowy Christmas Eve. Around the Cleveland neighborhood they looked for her, the 9-year-old and the man who had given the boy a home.
They walked though the snow and knocked on doors, asking where she could be. House after house, door after door. Nobody knew.
The boy never found his mother on that Dickensian Christmas Eve more than a decade ago. Never got a chance to give her the watch he'd bought from the mall with his foster father's money.
And so the crestfallen boy gave the watch to his foster mother instead, for his real mother was lost to him. Lost in personal troubles so deep and dark that her two children were taken from her and placed in the care of others.
For the 9-year-old, it was an achingly empty December moment. And, wherever she was, it certainly was an empty time for his mom.
They will experience a drastically different December moment this Saturday night, the boy and the mom. A moment of triumph. Thanks to the boy's powers of forgiveness and compassion, and the mother's will to salvage a life gone astray, they will experience that triumphal moment together.
Troy Smith, the little boy who could not find his mother one Christmas Eve, will win the Heisman Trophy. Tracy Smith, the former lost soul, will be there to see it. "We're the best of friends now," Troy said. "I don't have a better friend."
For those who know the whole story, those who know what Troy endured around the time of the cold Christmas recollection that was passed on by Troy's foster father, Irvin White, it will be a heartwarming Heisman experience.
"That's my hero," Tracy Smith said.
Troy has had his antihero moments. Was suspended by the NCAA for two games two years ago, for taking $500 from a booster. Was arrested and ultimately convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct for an oncampus altercation, one week before the 2003 Michigan game. Was kicked off his high school basketball team – and ultimately left the school – after knocking out an opponent with a premeditated elbow to the head during a game. Was accused of lying years after the fact about the motivation behind that elbow, too: Smith told Sports Illustrated this summer that he was the target of racial slurs in the game; players and coaches on the opposing team told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that no such slurs were ever uttered.
Some rough edges there, no doubt. But ask yourself: Where would you be and who would you be if you grew up like Troy Smith?
Alive would be a fortunate place to start. A successful college athletic career would be an improbable bonus. A college degree would be all the more remarkable. An unbreakable bond with your mother, after four years of foster care, would be amazing. And now a Heisman Trophy and revered status as the poised, fearless and charismatic leader of the nation's No. 1 football team? Bordering on fiction.
"I never thought my little baby boy would do something this huge," Tracy Smith said. "This is way huge. I don't think it's going to hit me until I get off that plane in New York Saturday morning. Then it will be like, 'I can't believe this.'
"It's like I'm reading a book about somebody else. I'll be very, very proud."
Pride will pulse throughout a village of legal guardians and guardian angels who raised this child, helping him from the mean streets of Cleveland to the bright lights of Manhattan – and, ultimately, beyond. But even with all the assistance, the kid had to take the hardest, loneliest steps of this climb himself.
When you consider where Troy Smith came from to reach this point, hero fits. And heroic describes his journey. The football field was across the street from the house where Troy lived at 112th and St. Clair. That was the little boy's refuge.
"I was out at that field all day," Smith said. Troy played there with other kids in the neighborhood. But what transfixed him was the sight of the Glenville A's midget football team, which practiced on the field. Coach Irvin White once had played on this same neighborhood team in the Cleveland Muni League, and now he was back as coach of the A's, building a small dynasty.
The A's became a beacon for Troy, who watched wistfully from the perimeter.
"I just kept coming back, day after day," he said. White finally asked the boy if he wanted to join the team, but explained that he couldn't play without his parents' permission. Troy went home and told Tracy, "I've got to play football for this team."
She was unmoved.
"I was afraid he was going to get crunched up," she said.
Finally, White went with Troy to his house to lobby his mom into letting the boy play. The first night she wasn't there. The second night she was, and permission was grudgingly granted.
After Smith played a few games at tight end and running back, White moved the dynamic little athlete to quarterback. It became a harmonic convergence of ability and mentality.
"He put the football in my hand and told me that I had the ability to lead the team," Smith recalled. "That set in my mind right there, even as a little league player: if I could lead this team, I could lead the next batch of guys, and the next batch of guys, so on and so forth. I truly believed that."
But even as Troy found his calling on the football field, his family was losing its moorings off it. He and his older sister, Brittany, too often were left on their own by a young single mother with little money and big problems.
Nobody interviewed for this story wanted to discuss the details of Tracy Smith's struggles. However, Cuyahoga County court records show that a Tracy Smith was arrested on misdemeanor charges of "drug abuse" in 1993 and '94 and spent time in jail.
"I was going through a lot of personal things," she said. "Everything hit me at once, to the point where I needed to get myself together. If I couldn't take care of myself, I wouldn't be any good to my kids."
White said he recognized the signs of family problems.
"One day Troy said he didn't have a way home," White said. "He was crying. I took him home and took him to school the next day, then I called the county and told them he needed help."
White told county social workers he wanted to take Troy in. He and his wife, Diane, became certified as foster parents and were allowed to bring Troy into their home on a full-time basis, while Brittany went to live with an aunt.
White said his own mother had taken in more than 350 foster children. So adding Troy to the other four kids at home wasn't a big issue.
"To open a locked door for a kid to stay in our house was a normal thing to do," White said. "Somebody else comes in? OK, put another plate on the table."
At a time when Troy Smith desperately needed it, he became part of something. A team, and a stable family environment. The man he called "Coach" became a father figure as well.
"I want to make it clear that my foster situation was not a bad foster situation," Smith said. "I couldn't have had a better family taking care of me at that time. It's just that my mother was going through a certain situation in her life that she needed to straighten out, and she did that.
"Everything happens for a reason. When I ended up with the Whites, that happened for a reason. They taught me the morals and values I needed to have in my life, and helped me get to where I am now."
After years of parenting Troy, White began making plans to formally adopt him. Faced with the permanent loss of her children, Tracy Smith vowed to turn around her life.
The results, everyone says, have been remarkable. Once Tracy came back, she came back for good. "You talk about a miraculous recovery?" White said. "It was great. A great thing to see."
Said Tracy: "My children were the No. 1 thing that made me want to get it together. It took a lot of self reflection. A lot of praying, a lot of crying, a lot of laughing." There was no shortage of tears in the White household when it was time for Troy to move out and rejoin his mom.
"Everyone cried like somebody had died," White said.
"One of the happiest days of my life was seeing his mother come back into his life. And one of the saddest days, too. We know this is the way it has to be. Troy is still our son, but he's with his mother."
The reunion was rough.
Being together didn't automatically equate to being happy. Not after four years without his mom. Not after feeling abandoned and betrayed. Not after your mother is missing on Christmas Eve.
Scars like those don't disappear with an address change.
"It was rocky at first, because of the bitterness I had toward her," Troy Smith admitted. "I was young and I didn't understand: I was a kid who wanted his mother, and she wasn't around."
Tracy Smith did what she had to do in that situation.
She let her kids unload on her. No use justifying and rationalizing; just sit there and take it.
"The thing that was most important was to let them vent to me," she said. "I told them, 'I know you're mad at me, tell me about it.' The bottom line is, I put my life back together and I came back. A lot of mommies don't."
Said Troy: "It happened through multiple family talks, where emotions were pouring out, from myself and my sister. Through us getting back together and staying together.
It was nowhere near the best situation to stay in, but we were together as a family. That's all we had was us."
They certainly had little in the way of comfort. By this time the Smiths had moved to 71st and St. Clair, inhabiting a neighborhood rife with urban dangers. The area was brutal, but it was home.
Sports saved Troy from the troubles that ensnared countless peers. At Martin Luther King Junior High he played soccer, tennis, basketball and track. And he played football for the older version of the Glenville A's in the Cleveland Muni League.
"I go back and see the guys I grew up with," Smith said. "Some of them are incarcerated. Some of them, rest their souls, have passed away. But the ones that are still there, when I see them, their whole month or year has changed. They light up like a Christmas tree.
"These are the same guys I used to play basketball with in the middle of the street, shooting at a crate.
They're still maintaining. The only thing that's sad, though, the average young person back home can't see past Friday. They play it day by day, literally."
Troy Smith never has been shackled by a lack of vision. He could see past Friday – all the way to Saturdays and playing college football, and even to Sundays and the NFL, too. Dreaming big always has been his way, and he's had the requisite ambition and hunger to chase the dream down.
The dream led Smith to parochial power St. Edward High School in Lakewood, where Troy awkwardly stood out in a predominantly white, largely affluent student body. He wound up sharing the quarterback position with Shaun Carney, who went on to be a three-year starting QB at the Air Force Academy. Smith often was shuttled to wide receiver to make room for Carney at quarterback.
That was unsatisfying for a kid who'd run every team since that day on the field at 112th and St. Clair when Irv White put the ball in his hands. Smith's stay at the school ended during his junior year, shortly after his elbow knocked out Toledo St. John's player John Floyd.
He wound up back in the neighborhood, at Glenville High. The coach was Ted Ginn Sr., who would take the male role-model baton from Irvin White.
Smith joined a team that featured receiver/defensive back Ted Ginn Jr., who was a national-caliber recruit. But Ted Jr. had a learning disability and Troy was now considered damaged goods – a fractious child of uncertain collegiate value.
"Him and Ted were basically throwaways," Ginn Sr. said.
By the time Smith got to Glenville, his rebuilt relationship with his mom had started deteriorating again. Ginn stepped in and set up counseling – even attended the first session with the two of them.
"They needed that," Ginn said. "Troy didn't understand his mom and the issues she went through. He was taken from his mother. That's major, to be taken as a little kid from your mom. He had to learn how to trust his mother."
He had to learn how to trust everyone.
"He had a chip on his shoulder," said Glenville High campus administrator Jacqueline Bell, a veteran of 32 years in Cleveland public schools. "Didn't trust anyone, didn't confide in anyone. It took coach Ginn to get him to trust us."
Said Ginn: "It took work to break into that fence."
Once inside, the Ginns became family to Smith.
"I think only a man can teach a man how to be a man," Troy said. "He did just that. He didn't do it in a discipline- oriented way, it was more of a mentoring way.
"We talked all the time. I would talk to Ginn Senior like he was one of my best friends. As a peer. I felt comfortable with him like that. I can talk to him about any and everything, and I still do."
Today Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., are on the short list of the most lethal pass-and-catch combinations in America. They're teammates on a 12-0 Buckeyes team that will play Florida Jan. 8 for the national title.
But only one of the two was a blue-chip recruit for the Buckeyes, and it wasn't Smith. He accepted the final scholarship offer in the 2002 recruiting class and was labeled an "athlete" by the school on its official release. That's code for "we're not sure where to play him, but quarterback is a long shot."
Troy Smith had to move on – and prove on – once again.
Last month. Columbus. Cataclysmic game against unbeaten archrival Michigan is five days away. Troy Smith is sitting behind a microphone, facing a semicircle of reporters from all over the nation.
"There was a certain point in time," he said, smiling, "where nobody cared who I was."
Smith easily could have been talking about his life in general, but that particular comment referred to his value as a college quarterback upon arriving in Columbus. He had none for two years.
Smith spent his first season redshirting, serving as practice-squad meat for a Buckeyes team that went on to win the national title. The next year he was a special teams utility player, running back kicks and getting some cameo duty at running back.
"I was working for scraps, taking anything I could get," Smith said.
After that he finally got his shot at quarterback, and his growth rate has been flatly astounding.
Smith backed up Justin Zwick for seven games in 2003 before injury gave him a shot at the starting job. By season's end he'd blown up on Michigan, running for 145 yards and throwing a 68-yard touchdown on the fifth play of the game to key a major Buckeyes' upset.
Then came the payola scandal and subsequent twogame suspension, which took Smith out of the 2004 Alamo Bowl and the first game of 2005. Coach Jim Tressel brought Smith off the bench in Ohio State's second game, a massive showdown against Texas, and that decision not to start him helped cost the Buckeyes the game and scuttled OSU's championship hopes.
Smith was in charge thereafter, and Ohio State went 9-1. Smith closed with brilliant games against Michigan and Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, setting the stage for runs at the Heisman and national title this fall.
The 2006 season has worked out beyond even the most optimistic master plan. Ohio State is unbeaten, Smith is unchallenged for the award, and he's proven to NFL scouts and skeptics than he's more than just a great athlete playing quarterback.
He's become the very embodiment of a field general.
"When you think of Troy, the first thing that comes to my mind is leadership, probably the second thing is competitiveness, and maybe the third thing that jumps up to me about Troy is his hunger to be in command of what's going on," Tressel said.
The former scrambler became almost an obstinate pocket passer, spending the first half of the season nearly anchored in the backfield. After proving his point, Smith once again began using his scampering ability to make plays.
His growth as a quarterback has dovetailed with his growth as a collegian. Rather implausibly, Smith has inhaled Tressel's tenets and become his star pupil. The two would appear to have little beyond football in common, but Smith has become an extension of his conservative, white, middle-aged coach.
Smith is remarkably composed and impeccably mannered – removing his hat indoors for an interview for this story, holding open doors, looking people in the eye at all times. He never fails to default into "teamspeak" when the subject matter turns to individual achievement. He gushes on all things scarlet and gray.
"Tress, in essence, to me, is just like Ginn," Smith said. "They both value you as a man first. Football things will come, because the things you instill on the football field are some of the things you instill off the field." Smith earned his communication degree in four years. Perhaps more importantly, a guy who once cynically scammed the system by taking booster money has become downright sentimental about the student-athlete experience.
"I didn't understand it coming in," Smith said. "Through countless days of school here, countless days of training, playing in games, it became an acquired taste. Anytime you have to represent something, you appreciate it."
Saturday night will be an appreciation. An appreciation of a heroic journey.
Troy Smith will stand behind the Heisman Trophy and in front of the nation, and he will thank the village that has raised him to this point. He'll do it without notes.
"I think anything and everything you're going to say has to come from your heart," Smith said. "I think if you write it down – yeah, it comes from your heart, but you're going to rehearse it. I don't think that's a rehearsal thing. You don't practice something like that, you know what I mean?"
Still, some prespeech thinking will be necessary. For one thing, Troy must decide what – if anything – he will say about Kenneth Delaney, his father.
When asked about his father, Smith's response is sharp.
"My father or my dad?" he said. "Your father is biological, and your dad is who raised you. ... My father, I can't really speak for him, because I don't talk to him a lot. He's doing OK. He's my father figure but he's not my dad figure."
Smith said he talked to his father about seven months ago. Delaney's attempts to reconnect with Troy were met rather brusquely.
"I don't buy into that," Smith said. "I've been a man for a while now, making decisions on my own, things like that. I've said it before: it takes a man to teach a man how to be a man. Other men have taught me that. I don't hold it against him. I just don't think there's anything he can instill in me right now that would be beneficial. But I do love him, because he played a part in my birth. He knows exactly how I feel."
The male role models in attendance with Smith Saturday night in Manhattan will be Tressel, quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels and Ted Ginn Sr.
"The perception of kids that come out of the inner city of Cleveland is that they cannot achieve," Ginn said. "Troy is proving that you can."
At home in the gritty part of Cleveland, Glenville administrator Bell will be watching on television.
"Someone that literally sat in this office with me, that I've hugged, is going to win the Heisman," she said, wonderment audible in her voice. "It's like, wow. Is this really happening?
"These kids come in here with so many issues. If an authority figure doesn't take the time to listen and to work with them and teach them, they're not going to be all they can be. It's amazing to me, despite the odds, to see that Troy has held fast to his teachings."
Irvin and Diane White will be watching back home, too.
"We'll be boo-hooing," Irvin said, watching the boy he took into his home. "I'm not even going to try to hide it." But the relationship most rewarded Saturday night will be between mother and son. It has survived a pain most of us could only imagine, thanks to a son's compassion and a mother's willingness to change. This time, Tracy Smith will be there to receive a December gift from her son.
"I guess some of the things she's had to endure in her life, this is an extremely positive thing," Troy Smith said. "Why not let her just live it up? She deserves it. She deserves everything that's coming to her."
And Troy Smith deserves what's coming to him Saturday night. The Heisman Trophy, and a mother to share it with.
Comment of the judge, Corky Simpson: This is a beautifully written story about what gets into a guy who wins the Heisman Trophy. In Troy Smith's case, it was toughness, survival, overcoming personal mistakes and dealing with the pain of one very cold Christmas Eve.
• Second place: Kyle Ringo, Boulder Daily Camera
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