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HILLSVILLE –– Each of us has our own parallel universe. We never see it, and we never know what goes on there. It’s easily-imagined (There but for the grace of God go I), but it can be real enough.
It’s the place we would be, individually, had we made a different choice here or made a different friend there, had we turned left at the light instead of right. Or if fate hadn’t intervened.
Chris Smoot, a senior wideout-defensive back at Carroll County, is one of the few people who know what that parallel universe is like.
He used to live there.
Chris and his older brother Wes were born in Columbus, Ohio, home to one of the highest violent-crime rates in the nation and rated among the bottom 2 percent of the nation’s safest places to live. Wes was born while his mother was in jail and was placed with an aunt and uncle. Chris, born a year later, was placed with his paternal grandparents. The two were united while still toddlers and lived with their mother for a while, but returned to their grandparents when Chris was 8.
“We lived with my grandma because things with my mom, drug situations and everything, it wasn’t working out,” Chris said. “It wasn’t supposed to be for that long, just a few months, but it turned out that she got permanent custody of us.”
Russell Smoot said the boys were exposed to the whole nine yards – dealers, crack, the works. Their uncle, Russell is also from Columbus. Now 44, he lost his father when he was 20, but a friend of his father’s, from some place called Fries, Va., asked him to help build a house there. Holding a degree in construction management, he agreed. Frequent trips to Lowe’s always seemed to result in working with the same employee, who would eventually become his wife, Michelle. Rather than uproot a country girl to relocate to Columbus, the Smoots settled in Carroll County. Russell got his teaching degree at Radford, later adding a special ed certification, and began teaching in Carroll.
The boys were still a world away.
“Most of my friends were in the same situation as me, living in bad homes with drugs and everything,” said Chris. “Those were the guys I hung out with.”
Trouble, though nothing serious as gang or drug activity, was easy to find. Chris and his friends did their share of backtalking teachers and fighting peers. Russell was concerned about his nephews finishing school, particularly Chris.
“He was kind of a wild thing when he younger,” said Russell, “and I was worried that without somebody on him constantly, he wasn’t going to make it.”
Prospects aren’t good for high school dropouts in Columbus.
Then, a little more than two years ago, Russell’s mother, the boys’ custodial grandmother, died unexpectedly at age 67.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Chris said. “We thought that we might get split up.”
Russell had talked to his mother about Chris and Wes coming to live with him, but hadn’t forced the issue. He doesn’t think that raising the boys contributed to her early passing, but he still regrets not pushing the idea. Russell and Michelle, already with a then-12-year-old and 4-year-old twins in the home, took them in.
“[Michelle] was more than willing,” Russell said. “We didn’t want them to be separated, and I wanted to be sure they graduated from high school… I wanted them to come down here and get a fair shot and have a chance in life.”
Chris just wanted to be with his brother, and both were ready to escape their environment. When they moved to Hillsville, it doubled the black population of the CCHS student body. Wes warned his younger brother to be ready for problems. Chris shrugged it off.
“Nah, I’ll be fine,” he thought.
His first day at CCHS, he was called the N-word to his face.
“I didn’t go off or anything but I was so mad,” he said. “Is this dude serious? But every day it gets better and better. I was a bad kid and I knew I probably wouldn’t graduate. My attitude was bad, my grades were bad, I cared more about my friends and having fun than I did about activities and grades and going to college. But now, the majority of people I had problems with in the past, I’m buddies with them now. The more they got to know me the more they liked me, and the more I got to know them, the more I liked them.”
Though he had never played football, Chris was asked by Russell, a JV coach, if he would play, and Chris agreed despite fears of getting hurt.
“Coming from Columbus to Hillsville, there was a bit of culture shock for him,” Carroll coach Tom Hale said. “He was eager to fit in but he had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. Once he realized that we were all there for him and that we would back him up if there was any kind of trouble, he has become a fine asset to our program.”
More at home on a basketball court, he was a varsity starter four games into his sophomore football season.
“That was really the first organized sport that he had been in, followed by basketball,” said Hale. “He had success in both, and I think he realized he needed to mature in his actions toward adults.”
“I wanted everybody to know I’m not from here, I want to be the top dog,” Chris said. “I had that attitude for a while. It just hit me that I’m not in Ohio anymore and I just need to be myself. I’m a respectful guy. You respect me and I’ll respect you. Everybody here, the teachers and the faculty, are really respectful, and I needed to treat them with respect.”
Last year he was fifth on the team in tackles and was Carroll’s second-leading receiver.
Both Chris and Wes also started taking their studies seriously. Russell saw to that.
“I was all in their business the first year,” he said. “But last year, Chris took it all on himself. I don’t even worry about it because he wants to go to college. He’s got the grades to go to college.”
Wes graduated from Carroll this spring and is enrolled at Wytheville, playing hoops there. Chris plans to study physical therapy in college.
“I can’t commend Russell enough for the example he has set for those two boys,” said Hale.
“Chris was street smart, but he never put it into academics,” Russell said. “But now he’s become responsible because he has something that he wants after school. He knows for him to go to college he has to get the grades. I don’t have to check.”
Chris’ two worlds merged one day last fall, resulting in a suspension form school and football. Wes fell unconscious in the hall at school, and believing an ambulance was on its way, Chris lost his cool when he learned otherwise.
“He could be sitting here dying in the two or three minutes that went by, that’s what set me off. I didn’t want to lose my brother.”
Chris had been there before. He and Wes didn’t think much of the thump they heard in the house two years earlier, but they were soon called by their grandfather, who they found administering CPR to their grandma, who had suffered a heart attack.
“He told me to go outside and wait for the ambulance,” Chris said. “Three or four minutes went by and then they came. At first it wasn’t a big deal but after she died we were looking for something to blame it on, and we were like, if the ambulance had gotten there quicker…
“That’s what was going through my mind when Wes was lying on the floor.”
Chris was suspended and missed a game. Wes, it was discovered, had slipped in the shower that morning and hit his head, which led to the episode at school.
Otherwise, Hillsville Chris and Columbus Chris seem worlds apart, and one’s future is as bright as the other’s was bleak.
“I don’t know I’d be doing drugs because that whole situation was bad, from watching my mom,” he said. “But I would probably not be in school, just being with my friends doing something I shouldn’t be doing.”
Russell and Michelle Smoot directly changed two lives when they took in their nephews. But that number can grow exponentially. With the very course of their lives changed, enriched are the lives of children who haven’t yet been born, should Chris and Wes down the road become fathers.
Fortunately for those yet-unborn children, they’ll never know first-hand what their other world would be like.