Feb. 7, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Team Gardens #EATING is all about growing food where there is not enough, and impacting the community, particularly young people, in the neighborhoods surrounding the gardens.
At the root of former Michigan football player Vincent Smith's project is his hometown of Pahokee, Florida, located on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. It's in an isolated area that nobody just passes through. Pahokee, which translates to "Grassy Waters" in the Creek language, is known to locals as "The Muck," referring to the dark soil rich in minerals that makes it ideal to grow sugar cane, citrus fruits and corn.
"Growing up in Pahokee," said Smith, "it was all agriculture. It's known as the 'Winter Vegetable Capital of the World,' with all that rich soil. But we had no produce stores where we could get healthy food.
"So, we grew our own tangerines, mangoes, guavas and plums. Still, some kids there didn't have access to fresh produce and had health issues. But we have all these athletes from the area, and I thought we should do something super cool and positive, and mentor to the kids while growing vegetables."
The gardening gets most of the attention, but the mentoring component intertwines with it and gives Smith and others involved in the project a splendid dual purpose.
"It's both," said Smith.
They grow vegetables as well as minds and awareness. Team Gardens has had three harvests in Pahokee and this year branched out to Flint, Michigan at the urgings of his former Wolverines teammates, Thomas Rawls (Seattle Seahawks) and Justice Hayes, and is coming to Ann Arbor and nearby Chelsea and Dexter this spring. Smith, the community outreach director, and logistics director Sonya Sutherland, also a Michigan graduate, are plotting that course.
"Flint reminds me of Pahokee," said Smith, whose gardens in both cities are one-acre plots of land. He also lived in Flint briefly.
Do you remember the spoon-in-bowl eating motion Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson used to make while joyously jogging off the field after scoring a touchdown?
Well, Smith said that originated with Martavious Odoms, his Wolverines teammate and co-founder of Team Gardens in their hometown of Pahokee, a rural community of about 6,000 that has produced at least 11 NFL football players, according to databaseFootball.com.
"We asked Martavious what sparked that," said Smith. "He said, 'Eating healthy, eating well, and being successful.' Then Denard started doing it, and it spread and players at Ohio State and everywhere were doing it."
Smith rushed for 1,269 yards and caught 46 passes for 435 yards while scoring 17 touchdowns at Michigan, 2009-12.
However, the play he's most remembered for was a lost fumble after a vicious hit by South Carolina lineman Jadeveon Clowney in the 2013 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.
Clowney came through unblocked and hit Smith straight-on the instant he received a handoff from quarterback Devin Gardner. Smith's helmet popped off, his dreadlocks flew back, and the helmet rolled nine yards back from the point of impact, while Clowney scooped up the fumble.
That play from the ESPN broadcast went as viral as viral gets, and Smith said fans "most definitely" still recognize him because of it.
"People feel so bad for me getting hit," said Smith. "The first thing they say is, 'That wasn't your fault, and you got back up!' The thing that transformed me after that hit was David Goggins, an ex-Navy SEAL, came up to me and said, 'You are a tough, tough (expletive)!' Once he told me that, with his credibility, it put me in the right mindset to say, 'OK, that's nothing.' If he told me that, I'm good.
"He was on the sidelines and saw the whole process. He was scouting me during bowl practices and he worked with the team."
I asked Smith if he'd considered getting Clowney, who became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Houston Texans, involved in Team Gardens.
"Yes, I did think of that," said Smith. "That would be super cool. And we could go into his neighborhood (in Rock Hill, South Carolina) because I know it's similar to mine. Something down the line could happen."
Smith didn't play in the NFL, but plenty of Pahokee High stars such as Detroit Lions wide receiver Anquan Boldin have made it to the league.
Why have so many pro football players come from Pahokee and surrounding communities such as Belle Glade?
Rabbits have been cited as a link to the reasoning.
When the cane fields are burned, rabbits flee the smoke and fire. Young boys and men in the area chase them down, and either sell them or turn them into meals. Some theorize that it's become speed and agility training.
While clearing an area in Flint, Smith had a sudden flashback to those days.
"A rabbit was under some wood," said Smith. "I saw it, and instincts kicked in. I caught it and grabbed it."
In that instant, Pahokee and Flint were connected by a rascally rabbit as well as the gardens.
The impact Smith has seen in both cities warms his heart.
"In Pahokee, there was broken glass in the area and everything was torn down," he said. "We got all the neighborhood kids together to help and they were all super excited because they'd seen us play on TV. I invited them all out to plant banana trees and fruit trees.
"Coming up to Michigan and seeing the harvest and the produce come off the trees was the most rewarding part, just like in Pahokee. It just made me want to do more."
The Ann Arbor area is the next target for Team Gardens, and that became even more convenient for Smith when he was recently named an academic specialist in the Michigan Athletic Department working out of the Stephen M. Ross Academic Center.
Smith and Sutherland are focusing their next gardening phase on three plots of land in Ann Arbor, Chelsea and Dexter.
"We'll grow tomatoes, peppers and strawberries," said Smith. "The goal is to get it going in the spring."
They're growing bananas, oranges, mangoes, star fruit, mulberries, limes and passion fruit it Pahokee. In Flint, it's tomatoes, kale, chard, cherry tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and potatoes.
Sutherland and Smith said there is no formal produce distribution. Those living in the communities are invited to pick whatever fruit and vegetables they need whenever needed.
"Part of the mentoring comes in resolving issues in the gardens," said Sutherland. "They were fighting over the shovel because they all wanted to plant the tomatoes with Vincent. He'll talk to them about that and why they need to plan a way to share.
"They learn to take pride in their work, and that's real important."
She said Smith has a "Pied Piper quality" with kids, who enjoy following him because of his out-going, magnetic personality.
"I want to teach them about teamwork and help them learn how to interact with others," said Smith, who graduated from Michigan with a minor in sociology as well as a major in African-American Studies.
Fundraising and donations fuel Team Gardens, and much of that has come through the sale of wristbands, T-shirts, hoodies and tank tops in maize and blue. Visit www.teamgardens.org and click into donate or store for more information.
Items such as gloves, boots, shovels, seedlings, top soil, compost, wood, notebooks, water filters and rabbit fencing are needed.
Local farmers in Pahokee and near the Cottage Grove Avenue location in Flint took notice and became his mentors out of admiration for his role as an urban gardener.
"They introduce me to different seeds, plants and vegetables," Smith said. "They like that I'm doing something they do for a living."
A chain of caring has grown as surely as tomatoes and mangoes.
"That's what's beautiful about it," said Sutherland.
Smith said, "People ask me, 'Why aren't you still playing football somewhere? You run a 4.4(-second 40-yard dash).' But I'm having so much fun and getting so much joy in planting these seeds and seeing trees grow, seeing kids interact like I never thought they would.
"You need to do what you're passionate about, what you're excited about."