It's not until Anthony Smith returns home to his seventh-floor aerie overlooking the Los Angeles basin that he truly realizes where he has been. He sees it in the walls' mirrored tiles, which reflect his huge-screen TV, his oversized black leather couches and settees, his wealth. It's a view that should reassure a kid who, as recently as college, kept his belongings in a U-Haul storage unit. The panorama of his success still has the power to choke him up, four years into his NFL career.
But what he notices now with a kind of shock is that the Los Angeles Raider jersey he had put on clean that morning is soiled beyond the redemption of any detergent. Hundreds of tiny handprints, the grit of the projects, announce the need for a human touch in less-advantaged communities. It's a dirt he can't wash out, no matter how he tries.
"I never wanted to get involved," he says. "Didn't even want to lend a hand. Thought I'd go in, look around, make a few kids happy and get out." That was back in 1990, when he was a disabled Raider, a first-round draft pick out of Arizona with a blown right knee. It was shortly after The Spoiling News had called him the "worst decision in the first round." He was fooling around in Nickerson Gardens, a housing project in the Watts section of L.A., just shooting baskets. He was helping out Jim Brown's Amer-I-Can program, which tries to wean young gang members from a violent life and an early death. But, really, he was just killing time, hanging with the kids.
"But they wouldn't let me leave," he says. "Every time I'd go, they'd be down. I'd say, 'Why you kids crying?' And they'd say, it's because you're not coming back.' And that's how they sucked me in."
The 26-year-old Smith is not an easy man to suck in. Offensive tackles all too often fail to fool him; Smith, who at 270 pounds is not the biggest defensive end in the world, last season got 13 sacks and forced six tumbles to prove himself a comer in the league. Reading that draft evaluation from The Sporting News, which he keeps in his wallet and examines before each game, makes him fierce and desperate enough to overcome any opposing lineman's size and guile.
Even off the field, he's a difficult mark. He says that advisers, coaches and family took advantage of him until he finally seized control of his finances in 1991. Now he is almost obsessively skeptical. He hires private investigators to cheek out prospective girlfriends. He talks to only four people a day—his secretary, his business manager, his personal assistant and his accountant—and says he has admitted no more than seven adults into his home.
But these kids, did they ever get to him. "I was lonely, away from home, didn't have anybody to look after me," he says. "So maybe if I'm tired or don't feel well, I stay the night with a kid's family. Next day, I wake up, my car's washed, the wheels are clean and my laundry's done. Yeah, they sucked me in."
Smith was involved in the neighborhoods of L.A. before it got popular. Even before the riots of 1992, Smith was a big brother of sorts in the Mayor's Mentor Program, a grass-roots effort that is all one-on-one, man-to-man. Or rather, it's kid-to-kid. Because a part of Smith is trying to reclaim his childhood. "It makes my business people nervous when I talk like this," he says, "but I'm really into toys. I see stuff, and I just buy it. It's like, I couldn't have that when I was growing up, but I can afford it now." And, like the very best kids, he knows how to share.
When Smith was growing up in Elizabeth City, N.C., there wasn't much to go around. Smith never met his father, and his mother died when he was three. He was raised by a much older brother, Donald, who is now a judge in magistrate court in Elizabeth City. "He had his own life to live," says Anthony. ""But what I needed was to be a son to somebody."
That never happened, and so his short course to adulthood was without direction. Even a football career was a kind of accident. "Had no interest in the sport," he says. "Still don't." When he was finally lured onto the held as a senior at Northeastern High School, he immediately found the competition appealing. "One contestant against another," he says. It could have been boxing. Indeed, boxing remains one of his principal activities, and he trains in an L.A. gym whenever he can. While football did not appear to be his destiny, it was his ticket to Alabama and then, for his senior season, Arizona. In both places he was lonely and unhappy. He hung out with whatever friends he might meet while he worked as a bouncer in bars.
"Do you understand," he says, "how I can walk in my home now and get choked up? You don't know how happy I am. I own this furniture. I have money in the bank. When I take the kids shopping and they say, "Hey, Anthony, can we afford that?' I say, 'Yeah, and we can buy this over here too.' Man, I could live on the first floor and enjoy the view."
Now that he's a Raider and does own his furniture (of his own design, in fact), he's anxious to share himself. The idea of responsibility intrigues him. Among the books piled at one end of his couch is a copy of the Complete Indoor Gardener. Taking care of a few houseplants, scattered by the kitchen, is his idea of a starter family. "Did you ever notice that people who make things grow are warm and caring?" he asks. It's as if he means to find out whether he's up to the next logical step.
But he already has an enormous family. Now that he's a Mentor Ambassador to four housing projects in addition to Nickerson Gardens, he sometimes finds himself in charge of 500 kids. That was how many he took to Magic Mountain amusement park in April. He has enormous responsibilities. One kid has stabbed another and wonders if he should turn himself in or just forget about it. Smith makes a decision. A woman calls him to say her grandchild has stolen her car. Smith makes a decision. One boy, whom Smith has grown especially fond of, is having school troubles. Because the parents are at jobs, Smith goes to the boy's school to talk to his teachers.
Smith is awed by the dimensions of these responsibilities. "I've got to be different," he says. "I've got to have my stuff together when I step out there."
Smith does not drink, smoke or frequent clubs. He takes being a role model seriously and laughs at Charles Barkley, who says that athletes have no civic duties: Has Barkley spent a day in Nickerson Gardens?
Mostly Smith's job is just to be there. One day he took a pair of four-wheel ATVs, toys he just had to have, down to the projects and raced them around with the kids until the cops chased them. Another time he bought the kids pizzas. Another, he took them into a store and bought them hats. Another, he assembled them for a cookout and dragged them through a supermarket where, to his surprise, they bought every premium item available. How did they know about this stuff? "Grey Poupon?" he asked a little girl.
He would buy them caviar if they enjoyed it. Small price to pay. Because when he gets back to his home, he can look at himself in the mirrored walls and like what he sees: a filthy white jersey, more love than he'll ever repay.