ATHENS, Ga. - The conversation took place about three weeks ago.
Jermaine Smith was back in Augusta, visiting family, when he got to talking one weekend afternoon with his uncle, Joseph Ratliff.
They talked about Smith's senior season at the University of Georgia, which starts today with a home game against Southern Mississippi. They reminisced about Smith's remarkable career path, which in the span of three years has seen him go from Laney High School dropout to major college defensive lineman and NFL prospect.
And they went back even further, to Smith's troubled and painful early youth. Ratliff didn't say much during this part of the three-hour conversation. The ordained minister just listened. And consoled. He couldn't believe what he was hearing.
The beatings came often and with little warning. Young Jermaine might stay out a little too long playing ball with his friends. Or he might say the wrong thing. And then his parents would fly into action and teach the 5-year-old a lesson.
Matt Ratliff, Jermaine's father, had played football for A.R. Johnson High School in the late '60s. He came from a large, supportive family. But then he "got off in the fast lane," as Joseph Ratliff says, and his life spun out of control.
Matt Ratliff died in 1977, but not before he and his wife, Beverly Smith, saddled their son with a lifetime's worth of bad memories. Christmases and birthdays that passed with no acknowledgement. Malnutrition. Cruel insults and shouting matches. The beatings.
Jermaine hasn't seen his mother in at least a decade.
"It was abuse," says Joseph Ratliff, whose mother assumed responsibility for Smith after his father's death. "Physical and mental abuse. But Jermaine held it inside all these years. He kept things to himself because he was too scared to tell anyone."
PERHAPS JERMAINE Smith, 24, finally chose to unburden himself because he knows he's finally out of danger. Since arriving at Georgia in the summer of 1995, he has distinguished himself athletically and academically.
At 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds, he saw action in all 12 games for the Bulldogs. He enters his senior season as a rock-solid starter at defensive tackle, where he plays side-by-side with his roommate and best friend, Jason Ferguson.
"Jermaine's got a great work ethic and he seems to be headed in the right direction," says Joe Kines, Georgia's defensive coordinator. "He seems to have a focus about him. I think he has a little sense of what he could do."
In the classroom, things have gone even better for Smith. Historically a poor student, he has buckled down and is on course to graduate next spring with a degree in Child and Family Development. Last spring he made the dean's list.
What's made the difference?
"Going to class every day," Smith says. "Well, not every day, but almost. That, and paying attention and talking to my teachers and making sure they understand that I do want to graduate."
He smiles at this talk of his progress. He is understandably proud of his accomplishments.
"Nobody," he says, "has ever seen this part of me."
Bernice Ratliff, his grandmother, says she isn't surprised. She always knew Jermaine had something to offer, had gifts deep inside. They just needed a chance to come out.
"Determination," says the 74-year-old, whose arthritis keeps her from attending Smith's games but not from watching them on her daughter's large-screen TV. "He's got determination."
THAT'S WHAT IT took to get through two years at Georgia Military College, where Smith initially balked at the idea of wearing crisp uniforms and rising before dawn. But he wanted to play football, wanted to develop his gift, so he decided to stick it out.
It took determination just to make it as far as GMC. Three years ago Smith was stuck in a thankless job, loading and stocking for Sam's Club, putting up with the steady jibes of a cowboy manager named Todd. Smith worked a graveyard shift from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. - "living like a vampire," he says - and made just $6 an hour for his trouble.
Then came the capper. Todd told him his production had slipped. Next came the pink slip.
"It hurt me real bad," Smith says. "I felt like I was trying hard to do my best. I was pretty upset when I left there. I felt like I didn't have nothing but my car."
He climbed back into his red '77 Chevy Nova and drove around for hours, tears in his eyes. A luckless future flashed before his eyes. He saw himself working at a fast-food restaurant, wearing those stupid hats, heading nowhere.
Then came the turning point. The next day's mail included the results of his second General Equivalency Degree attempt. He passed. Two days later Smith was enrolled at GMC. He was a college football player.
IT WAS NO accident that Smith chose to share his harrowing tale with his Uncle Joseph. For the past two decades, it was Ratliff who served as Smith's surrogate father. He dispensed the wisdom and the discipline. He kept talking about the future instead of lamenting the past.
"He's been a big part of my life," Smith says. "He taught me how to be a man."
For 25 years, Ratliff has held the same job as a mechanic at President Baking Co. (formerly Murray Biscuit Co.) on Marvin Griffin Road. Sometimes he works 60-70 hours in a week, but he always tries to make time for his three children. And Jermaine, too.
"I tried to store the good things in him, the bright things," says Ratliff, 42. "When somebody treats you wrong, try to show love to them. Don't try to do rail for rail. It's not an equal world. We're going to be stepped on some way or another in life. But like I told Jermaine, we have to try to turn the other cheek."
Smith has done this, resisting a life of anger and crime. His uncle marvels at this as well. An abused child and classroom outcast would have every excuse to end up on some daytime talk show. Or worse. But Smith hasn't.
Ferguson, his teammate and roommate, is inspired by Smith's story as well.
"He's proved that he can beat the hard times," says Ferguson, a fellow senior from Nettleton, Miss. "I know Jermaine had a tough time in high school but he's here now and can do as well as he wants to do. He's had a long road but he's ready to play."
Smith is predicting big things on the field for himself. He says with a straight face that he's shooting for 15 sacks this season. If he even comes close to that number, the pro scouts will surely notice.
And if they do, he'll be that much closer to fulfilling a longtime promise to his grandmother.
"He's always reminding me that he's going to get somewhere in life," Bernice Ratliff says. "He has goals and he wants to achieve them. I hope he does. We all do. Everybody's pulling for him. So far, so good."
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