At its heart, football's just a game. It's one we spend a lot of time discussing, debating and analyzing, but distilled to its essence, it's carrying a ball over a line. That game has massive impacts on many who play it, though, and for some, it's a way to move beyond personal tragedies and find a path out of dangerous spots. That's at least partly the case with Riders' receiver Taj Smith, who was a constant brawler growing up in New Jersey, was expelled from high school and sent to a juvenile hall, saw a friend gunned down right next to him and lost two brothers at young ages, one to murder and one to suicide. As Ian Hamilton of The Regina Leader-Post writes, football helped Smith find meaning in high school, gave him a ticket out of town and a passport to further education (at California's Bakersfield College and New York's Syracuse University) and now is helping him inspire future generations:
"(All of the strife) makes me realize that there's so much more to life and you can't take none of it for granted," says Smith, who hosted the Taj Smith Never Give Up Football Clinic in Newark last summer. "There are times when it's hard and I don't feel like doing stuff, but I realize I've got to continue to work hard.
"At the end of the day, I look at it like I got this opportunity, but another person who was in a similar situation didn't. I feel like I'm working for them now, too. I'm working to make them proud and make them feel that it's never too late."
The details of what Smith has gone through are terrible. While he was a high school junior, he and a friend were walking through an alley when a robber shot his friend. When he was playing at Bakersfield, his 22-year-old brother Al-Mutakabbir Smith was brutally murdered, perhaps over a drug deal gone wrong. While Smith was trying to make the NFL in 2009, his 30-year-old brother Fuquan Wilson slashed his brother-in-law's throat, shot him in the head, and then committed suicide. As Hamilton writes, those deaths have left their impact on Smith:
He carries a reminder of his brothers on the back of his right hand, a tattoo that says BMLS. Smith says it stands for "brothers' memories live strong."
"Those are the two I looked up to-" Smith says, his voice quavering with emotion. "It was hard to go through life these past couple of years without them, but I tried to do everything to make them proud."
[Smith's mother] Bernadine certainly saw a change in Taj.
"(The deaths of his brothers) made him a stronger person," she says. "He was so hurt, but I can see the life coming back to him. He had lost it because he had lost his brothers, just like me, but I can see it coming back.
"We love them. They're not here anymore, but their memory lives on in us. We get through it together."
Smith's story's far from unique; the CFL and NFL ranks have plenty of players who have come from similar situations. What's really impressive is how he's managed to persevere through both off-field tragedy and on-field challenges, though; it's never been a particularly easy ride for him (high school football saw him forced to play at the school he was expelled from and forced to change outside the locker room, Bakersfield saw him suspended from the team in his first year, and he bounced around the NFL (mostly on practice rosters) before signing with Saskatchewan this year. He's already made an impact, though, notching five catches for 156 yards and one touchdown since being activated two games ago, and he even made the highlight reels thanks to his awareness on this remarkable play last week:
Things have never been easy for Smith, but he's certainly made the best of them. As mentor Ian Scott told Hamilton, Smith's rough road has provided him with plenty of motivation to excel on the fieldand give back to future generations, and Scott expects to see that on display in Saskatchewan:
"He loves this game and Saskatchewan gave him that opportunity," says Scott, who exchanges daily texts with Smith. "They believed in him and now he's going to give back tenfold.
"Saskatchewan is going to see everything that this kid has to offer. They're going to see the fortitude and the strength of an individual. You can't find a better role model because you can't find a person that has been through that much and still has that much more to give."