When Mike SmithClick Here to view this Link. makes his first tackle as a Miami Hurricane, he can point up to the sky and thank his mother.
And then he can point into the stands and thank his sister.
Without either, he wouldn't be where he is today.
Not even close.
It was mom Brenda who instilled his work ethic, working long hours over 18 years as a medical assistant. But in 2001 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after going into remission the cancer reappeared in 2003. In 2004 she passed away.
On her death bed she summoned daughter Tasheka, then a high school senior cheerleader, to her side.
"Promise me," Brenda said, "do all you can to make sure Mike makes it across the stage, goes to college and has no regrets."
Tasheka took the words to heart. Now 28, she's worked since age 16 to help the family, and she gave up her goal of graduating high school to work full-time at Wendy's and help raise Mike. But the money coming in wasn't enough.
Soon after Brenda passed away the family home went into foreclosure. Tasheka, her boyfriend and their newborn baby moved into a one-bedroom apartment. They took Mike with them.
And made sure he knew he wasn't a fourth wheel.
"I gave him the bedroom, slept in the living room on a sofa with my boyfriend and the baby," Tasheka says.
They weren't easy times for Mike, who says his father "was in and out of my life."
A carefree youngster who never caused any problems through third grade, after his mother's death he began getting into trouble at school.
"I saw the tension and stress in him, but in fifth grade he made a drastic change because he realized he wasn't alone in his walk because my mom raised us to be as one," Tasheka said.
Helping Mike cope was football. He'd taken up the sport at age 8, a year before his mother's death, and says "I took my pain and anger out on the field. I realized you can't let things hold you back even though there's things that will hold you back. You have to fight through it."
Looking back, Mike says "I didn't have everything I wanted, but I had everything I needed. It was hard growing up like that, seeing kids with everything. But I was growing up with what I needed, and it taught me not to want for anything."
Instead of mom in the stands, it was Tasheka attending every game. And Smith's grandfather helped provide clothes, shoes and rides to practices.
"It was a mental release for me to play football because it was something my mother was very into - she'd come to every game when I was 8 and supported me through everything," Smith said. "After she left I knew it was something I had to keep doing because of her.
"They have Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the NFL, and that takes me back to when my mom died from it. I play the game all-out just for her."
Mom was a Miami fan, and Mike used to watch Hurricanes games at her side. So it's only fitting he'll wear orange and green starting in 2014 as a Cane commitment.
"I'm really excited for the future, excited to see what's going to happen next," Smith said. "It's my last year as a Miami Northwestern boy, and I'm becoming a Miami Hurricane boy."
He'll always be his mother's boy, of course. And as Tasheka looks back at what Mike has overcome and what lies ahead for him, she can't help but get emotional.
"We did it together," she says. "It was a journey, but we made it. Really he's the one that kept me going, kept me from stopping. He's the one that helped me.
"He's just making me proud all the way around. A lot of days I sit and cry - he doesn't know it. It's not tears of sadness, but tears of missing my mother, her not being here to see him ... but it's also tears of joy for him."
Now things are starting to come together for the family. Mike's set to graduate high school next year and become a Hurricane. And Tasheka's son is 5 and starting kindergarten. With more free time she plans to pursue a GED.
"I'm looking to start on my dreams, a career," Tasheka says.
She'd ultimately like to be a medical assistant like her mother.
As long as she can get a few hours off each fall Saturday.
"I'll be at every Hurricanes game," she said. "Whether I have to walk or get on the bus, I'll be there."