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Through two decades of hardships, Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith and his mother helped raise each other

Standout Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith says his single mother taught him "everything," including how to use a childhood filled with hardships to shape his character and resolve.

The first four of her seven children were born when she was 16, 17, 18 and 19. Her career plans were derailed, but her child-rearing plans remained clear. Using her childhood as a blueprint, Monica decided, "I just raise my children opposite."

The 'Microwave King'

In 1993, residents of the Riverwood Apartments in Colonial Beach were often awakened in the early morning hours by the thud, thud, thud of a dribbled basketball. They'd call out their doors, begging for temporary relief from the noise. That's when a 4-year-old Torrey Smith would put aside his ball, race inside his unit and assume his duties.

His routine: Line up his three younger brothers at the table. Drag a chair across the kitchen floor to the counter. Climb on top. With tiny hands, place bologna, hot dogs, ravioli or even eggs in the microwave. Using the markings Monica had etched on the manual timer, heat breakfast for his younger siblings.

Monica spent days taking nursing classes at community college. She spent nights juggling two jobs: caring for the elderly and packing bacon. Torrey saw her three hours a day, usually when she would be catching up on sleep. Monica's mother helped out whenever possible - "heaven sent," Monica says - but responsibilities often fell to Torrey, whom Monica called the "Microwave King." As she slept, she knew all four of her kids would be fed once she heard the "ding" from the kitchen.

By age 7, Torrey was obsessed with Power Rangers and insects. He kept crickets in his room and stored ventilated jars of bees in the refrigerator.

But unlike most 7-year-olds, he changed diapers, did loads of laundry and dressed three younger brothers. He ran bath water and hollered, "You'd better get in that tub!" He tucked his brothers in for a 9 o'clock bedtime then he curled up to sleep with a baseball, basketball or football - depending on the season.

"I was running the show," Torrey says. "When it comes to running a household, the only thing I didn't do was physically work. I know everything about being a parent."

Money was scarce, but they found a way. On the same day Monica came home to an eviction notice taped to the door, she found a $302 child-support check in the mailbox. When she had $10 to her name, she hunted down a supermarket special. And when Torrey wanted to attend a sports camp, Monica's former physical education teacher, Steve Swope, a venerable Colonial Beach coaching figure, stepped forward to pay for it because he saw a mom and son struggling to stay afloat. Through school or sports, Torrey always told his mom he would find a way to earn a college scholarship.

"I wouldn't change anything in my childhood for the better," Torrey says. "I like every struggle I have been through. I have learned from it. It helped make me a better person. It is tough for me to break mentally."

'Scared to leave'

Torrey was never far from violence, and much of it could be found in his home. When Torrey was 6, Monica married a man who was in and out of jail. Husband and wife fought with fists and weapons. Monica would be left battered. Her husband felt her wrath, as well, finding himself in the hospital a time or three.

But her fear was real. Maintenance workers turned a fire extinguisher on him to stop him from pummeling them. On occasion, she would be forced to drop the children at her mother's and flee on foot, running into darkness to find an unlocked car where she would huddle up and sleep for the night, until the sun rose and danger temporarily subsided.

"I was scared to leave him," she says.

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