Growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Brick City, Taj Smith always wanted a day like Saturday, a day to learn football and life lessons while mingling with his role models.
On Saturday afternoon, the current Indianapolis Colts' wide receiver provided the hope and inspiration he once craved with his First Annual Taj Smith Enterprises Never Give Up Football Clinic held on his alma mater's turf at Weequahic High School's Untermann Field.
Nearly 400 kids from across the city stretched across the turf — almost triple the 150 campers Smith initially expected — for the free, five-hour clinic that featured football skills, free gear and lessons offered from Smith and Baltimore Ravens' Jamel McClain, Indianapolis Colts' Pierre Garcon, and former Pro Bowl wide receiver Javon Walker.
"It was important because we didn't have this when I was growing up and I wish we would have," Smith told Patch. "I've never been to a camp in my city dealing with football. Most kids need to understand that it's not about playing football and (getting) money — it's about being dedicated and being the best that you can be.
"It's not about what kind of car you drive. It's all about the determination of how you got there."
Smith traveled a circuitous path to his current NFL career, going from Weequahic to Bakersfield Community College to Syracuse University, before getting cut three straight preseasons (2008-10) by the Colts.
Eventually, he earned a roster spot and, in his first game, he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown against his childhood favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys.
His journey has inspired several youngsters around Newark, although perhaps none more than Daveon Washington, a former wide receiver at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School who will play at Hudson Valley Community College this fall. Washington considers Smith a friend; he even has Smith's cell phone number. The duo has worked out together and Washington plans to put the pro's pointers to good use in college.
"He's like a role model to me," said Washington. "I'm just trying to follow what he did and follow in his footsteps."
Standing in the shade after the clinic, Kyle Flood, a soon-to-be-sophomore wide receiver at Newark Tech, showed off the Sports Authority water bottle and Nike receiver gloves campers received, while happily talking about the advice Smith dispensed. Applebee's, ShopRite and Stop & Shop donated food and drinks to the camp.
"I liked the fact that he came back and sponsored this," said Flood. "He helped me with my stance a little bit. And he taught me to keep a diamond (with my hands in front of my body) so I catch the ball (with my hands) instead of it hitting my chest."
As with most campers, Denzel Phillips, a senior running back at Shabazz who is being recruited by the University of Massachusetts, found himself listening to Smith talk about the pro's life lessons learned and felt inspired.
"This is a good look for the city of Newark," Phillips said. "It gives us a sense that we can make it if we work hard and never give up."
Which is exactly what Smith wanted to impart to his campers as he gave them something he never got to enjoy when he was their age. Although the NFL lockout leaves his professional career unclear, he is certain he can continue to mentor kids from his city.
"I'm going to try to make it an annual thing," said Smith. "I'll try to do it each and every year so they can see that I'm doing the best that I can do. Even if I'm not in the league anymore, I'll still do this."