Raising each other

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010

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.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company