Rob Keeler and his wife, Temeka, some-times stay up at night, listening for the jingling of Chris Smith's key chain, which always signaled his arrival home.
Smith, their oldest son, always carried the same set of keys, attached to an Army dog tag and a New York Yankees emblem. There was no telling where he might be coming from. Though his family had settled into this transient community barely three years ago, Smith had already made strong connections and developed friendships at every Columbia County high school.
Smith, a Greenbrier football player, drowned in July while swimming with three friends at Thurmond Lake. He will be remembered tonight in a ceremony before the team's 7:30 game against Lakeside, though his reputation as an outgoing teenager who brought happiness to family and friends stretches beyond one game or one night.
"Honestly, i'm about to lose it right now," Rob Keeler said.
Keeler had been talking about Smith for more than three hours, without once checking his watch. Most of the lunch tables at the Gordon Club had turned over several times.
Keeler, a signal officer specializing in communications at Fort Gordon, is still having trouble reconciling his son's drowning, because Smith could swim and never seemed like a daredevil. Smith had passed swimming classes at his old school in upstate New York. Earlier in the summer his family took vacations to Myrtle Beach and Disney's Typhoon Lagoon Water Park, where they swam in 12-foot water. He resisted taking chances, the type who refused to ride some roller coasters and drove with both hands clamped to the steering wheel.
Smith had asked for permission to go to the lake the day he died, and Keeler thought nothing of saying yes as he took two of Smith's younger siblings to a professional wrestling show in Aiken. He received the devastating news over the phone.
"My best friend was taken from me," Keeler said. "My family, right now we're empty....Normal will never be the same."
Keeler met Temeka, Chris' mother, when Chris was 4 years old. He was stationed at Fort Pierce in southern Florida, and the waitress at a restaurant called the Heat Wave had caught his eye. Their first date was over breakfast. They got married Valentine's Day 1998.
Keeler imagined it difficult becoming the white father figure to a black child, but it wasn't long before the two had grown close enough to take an 18-hour road trip to a car show in Las Vegas. They mostly bonded over sports, dissecting football games and memorizing the entire starting lineup of the 1998 Yankees, in their opinion the best baseball team of all-time.
"(Smith) always talked about (Keeler)," said Tevin Nelson, an Evans senior wide receiver who was friends with Smith. "Mr. Rob and (Smith) were like best friends."
The Keelers gather as a family at least three times a week for dinner. Each of the six members -- Smith had three younger siblings -- takes turns describing their day. Keeler and Smith would often act as moderators of the discussion, a goofball act based around one of their favorite TV shows: ESPN's Pardon the Interruption.
"He was (host Michael) Wilbon and I was (Tony) Kornheiser," Keeler said. "It sounds corny ... but my family is tight."
INJURIES FOLLOWED SMITH across fields and courts. He fractured his femur during a youth baseball game when Keeler was stationed in Italy. He cracked his tibia when he tried to show classmates he could dunk on his first day at Greenbrier. He snapped his left wrist last year and played just four games at defensive back for Greenbrier.
Smith became motivated for his senior year of football after he was cut from the school's baseball team last winter, figuring he would make the team on his sterling athletic reputation. He sent Keeler a text message the day he got cut: "I guess football season begins today."
His off-season work improved his frame to 6-foot-1, 170 pounds and his 40-yard dash time improved to 4.51 seconds. Keeler said Smith impressed coaches looking for wide receivers at camps at Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina. Greenbrier was prepared for him to star on both sides of the ball.
"We were ready to feature him, there was no doubt," Greenbrier coach Brian Smith said. "He had a great summer and stood out everywhere we went."
News of Smith's death rippled through the county, and other teams lined up wondering how they could honor him. Evans players wore their jerseys to his funeral. Grovetown quarterback Xavier Crain, whose family had grown close with Smith's family since they met in 2001 at Fort Polk in Louisiana, let Smith's younger brother wear his away jersey during Grovetown's first home game last week.
"There was never a time I talked to (Smith) and he wasn't looking me in the eye," said Louis Crain, Xavier's father. "He could talk to anyone."
Smith was buried with a football in his casket, tossed in by his brother, Dakota. A final one-handed catch, his family likes to remember. They chose a burial spot in an upper corner of the cemetery. Weighed against the rest of the plot, it looked like the corner of the end zone, a place for Smith to forever catch touchdown passes.
"If you wanted a blueprint for how a kid should live 17 years, it would be how Chris Smith (lived)," Keeler said. "He was just a dynamite kid."
Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or email@example.com.