Andre Smith may be lithe on the gridiron, but on Thursday the Chicago Bears tight end found himself cornered by middle schoolers at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.
“Will you sign my shirt? Will you sign my shoe? Will you sign my poster?”
Graciously, Smith signed backs of shirts, cell phone covers, a purple Chuck Taylor, pant legs and posters from students eager for autographs.
After all, he once was an MLK panther, just like them.
Andre Smith, 23, was invited to speak at his old middle school Thursday, where he talked about his life and encouraged students to take education seriously.
“When I met him, I was so much in awe of his story,” said Principal Dana Davison.
Davison said Smith attended MLK from 2000-02. She said excitement had been brewing among students all morning.
"They were talking as they were getting out the cars and buses saying, can you tell him to come to my class? We need to see him. We know him," Davison told Patch.
Davison said she met Smith through English teacher Daryl Young, who coaches several sports and keeps in touch with former athletes.
“He was one of my sixth graders,” Young said. Smith was visiting Germantown and agreed to talk with MLK students before heading back to the Windy City on Sunday for training.
“He’s got a story that would tear most kids down, but he got out of it,” Young said.
In high school, Smith played football for Seneca Valley. He was physically ready to move up to varsity when he was a sophomore but his 1.85 GPA rendered him ineligible.
In 2005, the death of his “hero” — his mother Julida Kilafwakun — inspired him to turn his life around. His mother was diagnosed with leukemia. She succumbed at the start of his senior year at Seneca Valley.
“I started to realize how important school was to me,” Smith said. “I was good at being an athlete, but I wasn't a really good student. I just made the decision that if I wanted to be somebody, if I wanted to be successful, I had to take school seriously.”
Smith worked on his grades as hard as he worked on his athletics — lifting his GPA past the 3.0 mark and earning a scholarship to Virginia Tech. He was picked up by the Chicago Bears last year.
“I think the most important thing for me is the platform I have and the ability to come back,” Smith said.
And what message does Smith hope to leave?
“I've been through these very hallways and these classrooms,” Smith said. “I came from almost nothing to being in the NFL now. Forget all the NFL stuff, but the story of life, to push through even when things don't work out as you expect them."