It is a Wednesday night in November, and Shaky Smithson is talking about his little brother. He does this often, of course, telling anyone who will listen about his swelling pride and deep love for his brother, the boy named Fish, the one who is leading all of college football in solo tackles per game as a junior safety at Kansas.
But Shaky, a former Utah star who had a brief stint with the Green Bay Packers, stops for a moment. A few days ago, he says, after another Kansas loss, this one a 23-17 gut punch at TCU, he tapped out another text message for Fish, a starter in the Jayhawks’ secondary. It said all the usual stuff. Good game. You played great. Some other football talk sprinkled in.
But when Fish finally called back, he said all the usual stuff, too.
“He always wants to talk about all the stuff he could have done better,” Shaky says. “He just wants to win.”
It is a Wednesday afternoon in August, and Fish Smithson is talking about his older brother. He does this often, of course, telling anyone who asks about his unshakeable bond and appreciation for his brother, the one who took him in and became his legal guardian more than five years ago.
Fish has told this story so many times by now, it’s almost like reciting lines from a play. The story is real, of course, and when Fish thinks about it, it’s crazy how it all played out. He talks about his childhood in Baltimore, growing up as one of eight kids in a neighborhood riddled by violence and uncertainty. He tells how his grandmother held the family together, and how his mother, Lori, worked to keep her boys on the right path. Then he tells how Shaky — emboldened by a football scholarship to Utah — pulled his younger brother from a untenable situation in Baltimore and brought him to Salt Lake City, becoming his sole guardian while finishing up his playing career.
“He thought it would be the best for me,” Fish says, “to get out of that environment.”
College kids, of course, are not supposed to raise their teenage brothers. But Shaky and Fish made it work. Shaky, a 5-foot-11 receiver, would become a fan favorite at Utah, finishing his career as one of the top returners in the country.
Fish, meanwhile, became something like a local celebrity in Utah, the brother of the Utes star. They lived in a small apartment near campus, a place big enough for a couple of kids from Baltimore. Shaky spent his evenings helping his younger brother with homework. Fish became a mainstay on the sidelines at Utes games — when he wasn’t starring at quarterback at local Highland High School. The important thing, Shaky says, was that they were together. On the night Fish led the school to the state title, Shaky was on the road with the Utes, following the game on the internet.
“My brother was like my role model,” says Fish, whose given name is Anthony. “He was pretty much everything.”
Five years later, Shaky Smithson has traded roles with his brother. Now he is the mainstay in Lawrence on game days. Now he is the one watching his brother from the sidelines. He has watched Fish claim a spot in the Jayhawks’ starting secondary. He has watched him develop into one of the most reliable tacklers in the Big 12. He has watched him rack up 100 tackles in 10 games and lead the Football Bowl Subdivision with 7.8 solo stops per game.
On a Kansas team rebuilding for the future, brick by brick, Smithson has been a light amidst the darkness.
“Everybody knew him as my little brother,” Shaky says. “But he’s made a name for himself, too.”
Kansas coach David Beaty says Fish has “unbelievable football intelligence,” a disciplined player with natural leadership skills. Shaky says his brother possesses both, but wonders if his brother’s athleticism is being overlooked.
In this way, Fish is like Shaky, and Shaky is like Fish, motivated by slights and inspired by the hard times. They are products of their environment, children of Baltimore, and bonded by a shared experience.
“I don’t want to take credit for anything,” Shaky says. “It’s all about him. But where we came from, in Baltimore, we had to grow up fast. And I guess it’s just like, you had to find your way, and it brought out the leadership skills. Fish has become his own man.”