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

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 12:06 AM

The broken air conditioner in Torrey Smith's white Grand Marquis makes for a sweat-soaked two-hour drive from College Park down narrow country roads to this one-stoplight town of Montross, Va. Once at the courthouse on an early August morning, Torrey and his grandmother file into a small room. He sits in the seventh row among siblings and friends. Four dozen visitors are here to support the same woman, Torrey's mom.

The 38-year-old used to work two jobs, bleary-eyed, while Torrey - barely old enough to ride a bicycle - bathed, dressed and fed his younger siblings. She bears a scar on her chin from one of several knife fights. She once threw her 5-foot-3 frame on a young Torrey to shield him from stray gun fire.

Young mother and younger son, they helped raise each other. She is his best friend. She is also today's defendant. She sits motionless in a three-piece suit. Shackles restrict her leg movement. She sees Torrey and weeps. Training camp for his junior season at Maryland begins in four days.

Torrey leaves the courthouse briefly to buy Freon for his air conditioner so his mom can ride in comfort afterward. He is sure she will be allowed to leave with him, that she will, in five months, see him become the first male in the family to graduate from college and, five months after that, possibly see him drafted into the NFL. His mom does not share his confidence in her fate. She has been in courtrooms before. They can be sterile, unforgiving places. She needs all the support she can muster. There is a reason why Torrey's football coach, Ralph Friedgen, wrote her a 266-word character reference.

As Torrey's Maryland football teammates prepare for training camp, Torrey's mind and body is elsewhere. What occurs in this courtroom will affect his life for the foreseeable future. Judge Joseph J. Ellis is about to rule on Case No. CR10-65: the Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Monica Chante Jenkins. The moment is here, the moment Torrey will find out if his mom will spend the next 10 years in jail.

When Maryland fans look at Torrey Smith, they see a standout wide receiver with warm eyes, a wide smile and a polite disposition. They see a 6-foot-1, 205-pound 21-year-old who says he has never sipped alcohol, who is so respected and revered that Friedgen can't talk about him without saying "God created a perfect person." They see a player whose high school coach, Roger Pierce, believes he has become a better person because of his experience with Torrey. What they don't see are the two decades of hardship that shaped his character and resolve.

"I matured faster than a lot of people my age," Torrey says. "I have been through a lot of things that a lot of people have not been through."

Torrey Smith's story began in a Richmond hospital with 16-year-old Monica delivering a 5-pound, 6-ounce baby nearly three months early. Born with meningitis and jaundice, Torrey was rushed to an incubator before Monica could so much as touch him; his lungs were dangerously small. He remained in the hospital 10 weeks. He needed to learn to swallow, learn to eat. Monica feared he wouldn't survive.

Torrey's biological father, Clarence Rhodes, was a military man who was 25 when he conceived Torrey with the then-15-year-old Monica. In an effort to protect Clarence from a possible statutory rape charge, Monica did not tell Clarence or Torrey they were father and son until six years later.

She named her son after the man she had begun dating after she became pregnant, James Torrey Smith, with whom she had two of her other children and who would become the closest thing Torrey has to a father figure. While Monica was in the hospital or visited the Ronald McDonald House in Richmond, the elder Torrey, who was in the Navy, would make 90-mile drives from Norfolk to Richmond just to bottle-feed Torrey.

Monica was still a teenager with hopes of becoming a registered nurse in the military. But she carried emotional scars from growing up amid violence and abuse and, at one point, without running water. For more than three decades, her birth certificate read "Baby Girl Jones."

"My mother didn't care if I went to school," she says. "Duck school in a heartbeat. Suspended every other week. Steal bicycles. Take Vaseline and smack people in the face with it. Don't leave your keys in the car. Gone! Don't leave your bicycle not locked up. We got it! We go to the store get some spray paint. Police? Nah, you better not even think about coming up in the woods with us up there. We going to get you."

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.

Another time, Torrey and his brother sat in the back seat of the car as the husband placed a 9mm gun to Monica's head. He held it still. He pulled the trigger. When the ringing in Monica's ears stopped, she realized she was still alive and looked up to see the hole in the roof left by the bullet. The kids fled to their grandma's, while the husband held Monica hostage. Her mother called the sheriff, and a SWAT team was summoned and treated it as a kidnapping.

"When I tell you he went through a lot, he went through a lot," she says. "He don't tell a lot. I don't know if it's because he doesn't want to think about it or whether he just buries it. I can tell you some stories."

Asked recently about his emotions during those years, Torrey says: "When you see domestic abuse, there is nothing you can do as a kid. You just watch, hope, wish you were bigger so there was something you could do. There was not really anything I could do but console my mother, help her get through it."

How did Monica not break?

"You know, I ask myself that all the time," she says. "It's a wonder. I have been mentally abused, I have been physically abused, I have been sexually abused. And I'm still here. And a lot of people ask the same thing - why haven't you broke? I won't give people the pleasure. God is good. He has always made a way for me and my family."

'You talk funny'

Torrey was in elementary school in the late 1990s when Monica and her husband had their second child together (Monica's sixth overall). She hoped a new environment might quell the violence, so the family moved to Pipestone, Minn., where the husband said a family member had promised him a job. It was a social education. The manure stench hung in the air from local farms. It was not uncommon to see moms, dads and children - together - milking cows. Bars served milk and cereal.

Torrey was the only black child in his school. On the first day, when told to introduce himself, he stood and said, "What's going on, y'all?" The children stopped coloring mid-marker stroke. One girl looked up and said, "You talk funny. You said 'y'all.' "

The moment is frozen in his mind. It "tormented" him. He didn't think he fit in and spent many days wiping away tears.

Racist? No, they held out their arms with generosity. Locals gave Monica's family a van and helped furnish their house. On most weekdays, Monica took computer classes until 1, then assembled VCR covers in a factory until 11. One of her two part-time weekend jobs entailed cutting off pig testicles.

But at home, the abuse worsened, so Monica one day loaded up the car and took the kids back to Virginia. Her husband never signed the papers, but a divorce was ultimately granted.

Their three years in Minnesota were a watershed for the family. Torrey learned to adapt and feel like he can blend in with any crowd. Monica and her kids saw families gather, tell stories, care for one another. When Monica and the kids moved back to Virginia, they never forgot those images. And they tried to create their own.

'You're the man'

By the time Torrey left Minnesota, he had developed into such a strong-armed pitcher and power-hitting adolescent, he had attracted unusual interest from regional high school baseball coaches. They saw professional potential.

When it came to football, Monica didn't believe in Torrey's potential: "I used to always tell him: 'Boy, you running over top of those kids because you ain't got no competition. You wait to we get back here and the brothers are here, I'm going to see what you do then.'

"When he got back here and dominated, I put my hands up. I said, 'You're the man.' "

Torrey began focusing on football. He was a talented quarterback, defensive back and kick returner. He also learned discipline and the importance of details at Stafford High. His coach, Roger Pierce, instructed all players to enter pregame meetings with shined cleats and shoe laces overlapping to the outside. Torrey never missed a lace.

Swope, who had become a mentor, frequently drove him to Virginia Tech games in his 13-year-old maroon van, sometimes at the request of Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster. Virginia also showed interest. But the concern was Torrey's speed after he broke his leg as a junior. Virginia wanted him to run the 40-yard dash again on its campus. Maryland did not make such a request.

Another reason why he chose Maryland was to be close to home. Monica always protected him, sometimes to his chagrin. In his last high school game, Torrey was playing with a considerable limp but he wanted to keep playing, and coaches made no move to take him out. Monica did. She walked onto the field and physically pulled him off. Moved to tears he was so angry, Torrey obeyed.

No one dared challenge Monica.

'Stay strong to keep me strong'

When Torrey walked into Circuit Court in Montross, Va., on Aug. 6, he saw his mom for the first time in six months. She had been locked up at Northern Neck Regional Jail; visiting hours were only on weekdays, when he was in school.

Monica had done so much to get her life on track. She earned her associate of arts computer degree in 2000 and had a six-figure IT job. She says she had not been in a fight in 13 years before Feb. 18, when a family dispute between Monica and daughter-in-law Caprice Smith turned violent. Monica feared she could have been put away for 20 years. She had a past: several arrests, a two-month jail sentence.

After this arrest, Torrey was the stoic one, just as he had been when parenting his siblings years before.

His strength bolstered her spirit.

"Let me tell you something about Torrey," she says. "Torrey is a very strong child. He is not going to let me know that he is down. Because he knows that if I know he is down, I'm just through. So he tries to stay strong to keep me strong. And I love him to death for that."

But it weighed on Torrey. Those closest to him saw it. He didn't feel he could control much in his personal life. Without a job, he couldn't help his siblings financially. During spring practice, when stressed, he confided in Lee Hull, Maryland's wide receivers coach, Friedgen, as well as friend Chanel Williams. He drove home on weekends to help care for siblings. Just like old times, the Microwave King reporting for duty.

In a desperate attempt to get out of prison and be with her kids again, Monica pleaded guilty to felony unlawful wounding, requesting that she be spared additional jail time beyond the six months she had already served. Considering her past arrests for assault, she had no idea if the judge would accept the plea agreement.

Friedgen had written her a character reference that was acknowledged in court. It read in part: "I have never met a better character player than Torrey Smith. As a single mother, Monica has done an amazing job in raising seven children. This is a woman who has dedicated her life to her family."

During the hearing, the defense attorney asked Torrey to stand, alone, and noted that he has done well for himself as a distinguished person at a university. It was also noted that Monica and her daughter-in-law have made amends.

Ellis then concluded: "The plea agreement in this case I believe to be entirely appropriate, and I am not going to sit here and tell you that I believe that you are a bad person. Obviously a lot of people in this room think you are a very good person. You also need to know that good people do bad things."

Later, he says: "And you are very fortunate to have all these people who would come here on your behalf and stand up and testify to their belief in your good heart. Remember that when you get out."

After granting the plea, Ellis allowed Monica to hug each of her four dozen supporters. The court reporter later called it a "heart-wrenching" emotional scene. Monica, weeping, held Torrey. He flashed her a look that she only remembers seeing when he was a child. He didn't dare cry in front of his mom as an adult. But he was overwhelmed with joy.

"I wouldn't want any other mother but her," Torrey says.

'A fighter from day one'

It is midafternoon on a December Friday when Monica climbs into the passenger seat of a visitor's rental car, the 31/2-inch heels on her Baby Phat thigh-high boots jabbing at the floor mat. She snatches her cellphone from the pocket of her tight, jet-black leather jacket and calls her eldest child.

"Torrey," she says, "what's our golden rule?"

Without hesitation, Torrey says: "Tell the truth and you will work with me. Lie and get a beating."

"I told you he knows," she tells a visitor.

She calls some of his siblings to ask the same question. They stumble or hesitate before finally getting it.

Monica has been able to attend all of Torrey's home games because she receives permission from her probation officer. She is not allowed to attend road games but she was granted permission to be at RFK Stadium on Wednesday for the Military Bowl, which could be Torrey's final college game if he chooses to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft. He could be taken in the first two rounds.

Family considerations will play a large role in Torrey's decision. The contract for Monica's $109,000-per-year IT job with the Department of the Navy expired when she was in jail.

She only recently got a job that pays $12 per hour for her to leave home at 4:30 a.m. and track down debtors by telephone.

"Would I be the youngest NFL mom?" she asks later. After some debate, she concludes yes. The subject turns back to Torrey.

"I look at him sometimes," she says, the sentence cut off by a rush of emotion.

She laughs. She pauses. She reaches for a napkin and dabs her wet eyes.

"And I get emotional. I just don't think he realizes how much I really love him."

She slows her speech.

"Never in a million years would I think that he would have made it this far, but he did. God is good. He has been a fighter from day one."

'Tough for me to break'

Work often forced Monica to miss banquets or games, but Dec. 19 has been marked on her calendar for some time. On graduation day in College Park, dozens of Torrey's supporters flock to College Park: friends, coaches, neighbors and Torrey's biological dad, retired military man Clarence who lives in South Carolina. Torrey first met him at 6 years old and now talks to him on the phone occasionally.

"I could call him if I need anything now," Torrey said. "But it's nothing that I couldn't live without. They always say that a woman can't turn a boy into a man. I disagree 100 percent. My mother taught me everything that a man could. I have been through it all, and she definitely helped me develop into a man."

When Monica first spots Torrey outside, he is wearing a black dress shirt, red and black tie and a Maryland varsity jacket. "Congratulations," she says as she wraps her arms around him. She sees the bag in his hand. He had yet to put on the gown. "You're turrrrible," she says.

Torrey's father figure, the elder James Torrey Smith, is also there, posing for pictures with Torrey and Monica. This is an emotional day for him. "I am proud," he tells a visitor. "But I am more impressed than proud."

Two hours later, Torrey leans forward in his seat as the student speaker talks about growing up with a single mom. Not long after, Monica's head hurts from screaming. She nearly chokes on her gum when his degree in criminology and criminal justice is awarded: "James Torrey Smith."

"There goes my baby!" Monica yells.

She flies up from her seat, fires her right arm in the air. On stage, Torrey makes eye contact, flashes a bright smile and holds the envelope with the diploma in the air.

"Tor-rey! Mommy loves you!"

They are the last family out of Comcast Center. A modest group then joins Torrey and Monica for a low-key dinner at Pizza Hut.

Afterward, holding the bill, Monica says, "Let's do what I used to do back in the day. You all roll out of here. I'll take the check and take off."

They laugh. Those days are behind her. She raised her kids opposite.

She pays the check. Torrey holds the door for everyone. Then the Microwave King follows his best friend outside into the chilly night.

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