October 18, 2021

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The wise voice of Giants’ Elerson G. Smith: How his dad’s hospital-bed lessons and George Floyd’s murder taught him to stand up for justice

Elerson G. Smith sat silently and stared at his TV. His girlfriend could tell he was nervous. He listened and waited. A few miles from his apartment, almost a year earlier, smoke hung over his family’s south Minneapolis neighborhood for days, well after the buildings stopped burning.

The smoke was gone now, on this Tuesday afternoon last month. But the tension remained. Derek Chauvin was on his TV screen, awaiting the verdict of his murder trial. Then came the word Smith had longed since last spring to hear: “Guilty.”

What happened next surprised Smith.

“It wasn’t as much of a sense of relief as I thought it was going to be,” he said. “It didn’t feel as good as I thought it was going to. I thought I was going to celebrate. But when it happened, I was like: What’s there to celebrate? One, we’re not going to get George Floyd back. But two, I was like: This was the right thing to do. Why would I celebrate justice happening?”

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Smith, an edge rusher whom the Giants just drafted in the fourth round, knows one guilty verdict — or even the three that sent Chauvin to prison — won’t end police brutality or racism.

He lived it growing up in Minneapolis — when cops arrived unannounced and his sister was placed in a foster home, because authorities incorrectly believed Smith’s dad abused him.

Robert Smith taught his son that police often mean trouble for Black people, like their family. Robert died 10 years ago, on his 57th birthday, after spending 2½ years paralyzed from the neck down, parenting from his hospital bed. But his lessons stuck — everything from music to kindness to justice.

So Elerson said he wasn’t surprised when Chauvin murdered Floyd. Or when south Minneapolis erupted in protest. Or when the Third Precinct police station — less than a mile from his high school — burned as retribution.

“It was weird, but it’s not like it was unjust,” he said of the precinct’s destruction. “People were upset, and that’s one of the ways they expressed that. What’s a life [compared] to a building that can be rebuilt with their budget? It was done as part of the moment.”

In the days after Floyd’s murder, smoke still thick in the air, Smith returned from the University of Northern Iowa and slept in his mom’s living room. They kept a baseball bat near the front door. By day, Smith cleaned up his neighborhood. He protested on the Interstate 35 bridge — and helped terrified people to safety after a tanker truck barreled through the crowd. Luckily, no one was hurt and the driver was arrested.

Almost a year later, Smith was back in that living room, watching the draft, getting a phone call from the edge-rusher-needy Giants. Now, 11 days after the Chauvin verdict, he could celebrate. He rose from the couch, exhaled, and hugged his sister, girlfriend, and mom. He thought about his dad, whose signature is tattooed on his right forearm.

It was a surreal moment for Smith, who received one scholarship offer coming out of an inner-city, melting-pot high school that almost never produces football stars, but does mold world-experienced, empathetic kids like Smith.

He arrives in New Jersey this weekend for the Giants’ rookie minicamp, ready to learn on the field and put his dad’s lessons to work as a wise voice in the community, unafraid to stand up.

“I want to be able to use this platform,” he said.

Elerson G. Smith grew up in south Minneapolis, near where George Floyd was murdered.

On a Saturday two decades ago, several cops knocked on Robert Smith’s door at 5 a.m. They had come with social workers to take his 3½-year-old daughter, August. She woke up crying, confused.

“You can take one toy, as long as you come with us now,” the social workers calmly told her.

They pulled her from Robert’s arms. He was furious. He didn’t resist. He knew how that would end.

Elerson, then 2, had broken his ankle at pre-school. The hospital treated and released him, no questions asked. But the X-ray looked suspicious, and the family was gone. Elerson and his mom — JoLene, who is white — wound up in the back of a police car, having to deny horrifying allegations at the hospital: This looks like child abuse.

As authorities investigated, August underwent a full-body X-ray and faced more questions: Do your parents hit you? She spent a week in a foster home, which had “really [crappy] food” and a dog that bit her, she said. She kept thinking: “Why are they doing this?”

Someone at the hospital had misdiagnosed Elerson’s X-ray. That’s why. Still, Robert and JoLene had to face a judge before finally being cleared.

“I honestly believe it was based on the fact that Robert was a large Black man,” JoLene said. “They were trying to tell me that he did this. That was my first real experience of racism, because I know that is why it ended up that way.”

elerson g. smith

Robert Smith attended high school in Milwaukee and was a three-sport athlete.

Robert Smith, born in Arkansas in 1954, didn’t shield his two kids from memories of the Jim Crow South. He told them about the young man who moved up North, became a dentist, and brought his white girlfriend back home to Arkansas. They hung him from a tree. Her body was never found.

Robert’s family moved to Milwaukee, and he was the first Black letter-winning athlete at his high school, playing three sports. A hulking, 6-foot-4 defensive end who later in life would push 300 pounds, he played at Division III Wisconsin-La Crosse. Teammates called him Bubba.

He became a high school health teacher and track and field coach in Minneapolis, where his lessons for Elerson and August never stopped. Music filled his house — B.B. King and Ray Charles on the stereo. He dusted off his old saxophone and helped August practice in the basement. Elerson joined on trumpet. He introduced Elerson to football — his Green Bay Packers on TV every Sunday.

He put the kids on their bikes, strapped on his roller skates, and took them on winding rides around Minneapolis’s three main lakes. So skilled on skates he could do flips, Robert cruised along, his kids huffing to keep up. They rolled their eyes every time he stopped on a bridge along one lake, Bde Maka Ska, for long chats with former students he’d bump into.

He showed his own kids grace. He and JoLene split in 2000, when Elerson was 2, having never married. They all kept celebrating holidays together. JoLene Gapinski grew up on a dairy farm near St. Cloud, picking rocks and bailing hay. But she was a free spirit. So when the kids were born, she told Robert she wanted a piece of the last name. Gapinski-Smith sounded awkward for two mixed-race kids. So it officially became “G. Smith” — as in Elerson Taylor G. Smith.

Smith — the last name he has typically gone by — got a stepdad in 2007, when JoLene married Joe Morgan, who is white. As they walked back down the aisle, Morgan saw Robert extend his broad palm for a handshake — the first person to congratulate him.

“That’s something that will always be a part of me,” Smith said of his dad’s influence.

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Elerson G. Smith as a baby with his sister, August, and mother, JoLene Gapinski.

Smith was at a fifth-grade wrestling tournament two years later when Morgan got a call. Robert was in the hospital. Initially, they didn’t worry. Robert had driven himself there. Maybe just arthritis in his shoulder. But at the hospital, it all spiraled.

Neck aneurysm.

Emergency surgery to remove two vertebrae.

Paralyzed from the neck down.

Robert spent the rest of his life in a hospital or nursing home, often in bed. His mother moved from Milwaukee to care for him and never left his side. JoLene and the kids visited three nights a week and on weekends for family dinners. Robert’s mind remained sharp, so his lessons continued when the kids visited for a few hours — “concentrated parenting,” August said.

He even gave Elerson and August the sex-education talk from his hospital bed.

“Normally, I’d have a PowerPoint for this, but my slides are at home,” he told them.

Once, he was able to leave to see the kids’ track and field meet. They wheeled him to the shot-put area, so he could give August tips. When Elerson played quarterback, he brought a game tape to the hospital — a 6-0 win, and he scored the touchdown. He watched it with his dad. Robert smiled.

But the kids knew time was running out. They saw the signs.

A few times, “he had to be revived,” due to complications, Elerson said. Fluid regularly filled Robert’s lungs, which required a hellish trip to intensive care — intubation, tracheotomy, ventilator. This is no way to live, he thought. So he had JoLene visit.

“I’ve just made the decision I can’t keep doing this,” he told her, through tears. “It’s about the quality of life. I love you. I just want to thank you for bringing the kids up here as often as you did.”

He had about a week left. Before he let the fluid fill his lungs one last time, he wanted another family dinner — steak and beer and his favorite cake, made by August. It was a proper sendoff, “a celebratory time,” she said.

On his final night, his niece sat with him. But August’s iPod was there, as he planned, playing his favorite song — King Curtis’s “Soul Serenade,” a bouncy jazz instrumental. Perhaps the last thing Robert heard was a saxophone.

The next day, Elerson had an eighth-grade playoff football game. He wanted to play. He knew what it meant.

“It was exciting,” he said. “Because it was one of the first games he was able to actually watch me — watching in spirit.”

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Elerson G. Smith protested in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s murder.

Thousands of protestors — demanding justice for Floyd’s murder — scattered as the tanker truck roared toward them.

Smith and his mom, stepdad, and girlfriend — marching on the other side of the I-35 bridge —strained to see what happened. Protestors screamed, cried, dry-heaved. Smith and his family ran to get off the bridge. Smith pushed down a fence. He and his girlfriend — Reghan Lynch, who is white — helped protestors over.

“We thought thousands of people were dead,” Morgan said. “We drove from downtown back home and nobody said a word.”

Only later did they learn that, somehow, no one was hurt.

In high school, police never directly harassed Smith. But his darker-skinned friends told him police were “more hostile” to them, he said. His dad talked to him about police, and about August’s week in foster care. It all resonated with Smith when he first saw video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck outside the Cup Foods grocery store Smith had visited many times.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Smith said. “It was something that was inevitable with the way we were going, just the history of police brutality and what they mean to our community. I understand the relationship between who I am and what the police are. I always had to be cognizant of that. My dad made us very aware of the systematic oppression of Black people.”

Smith attended Minneapolis South High — about a one-third white and Black (with a large Somali Muslim population), 17% Latino, and 6% Native American, among more than 1,700 students.

“Like New York City in a very small environment,” said South football coach Rodney Lossow, an assistant when Smith played.

Smith’s freshman year, students walked out to support their Native American peers who felt underrepresented in school issues. Students walked out to protest police brutality multiple times during Smith’s four years.

Some of Smith’s high school friends helped lead protests after Floyd’s murder, “which was really cool to see,” he said. He always admired bold voices, like Muhammad Ali, whose image was his cell phone background in college. Smith wants an Ali tattoo, to join Robert’s signature.

Smith doesn’t pretend to have the answers for fixing police brutality. Trust the experts, he said. But he knows something must change.

“I feel like we can reimagine what the police is and what policing is,” he said. “I think people are really attached to the idea of our police system. But I think people need to realize that it is a construct. And that construct isn’t fair right now, and isn’t working toward saving a lot of our lives. It’s putting a lot of our lives in danger. It is a fixable thing. Police isn’t set in stone.”

Elerson Smith

Elerson G. Smith became an NFL prospect at Northern Iowa. AP

One summer morning before Smith’s senior year, his stepdad drove him south out of Minneapolis. They passed through the rural Iowa towns where, years later, Smith felt uncomfortable lingering for food or gas stops. Too many awkward looks when he got out of his car with Lynch, his blonde-haired college girlfriend.

Smith wound up at Northern Iowa, molding himself into an NFL player, because of that trip there with Morgan, for a football camp. Smith — 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds — wowed coach Mark Farley with a 10-foot, 4-inch broad jump. Farley had no idea who Smith was. He had to check his roster sheet to learn his name. Smith got a scholarship offer the next day.

But Smith failed to gain enough strength in his first two seasons, 2016 and 2017, so he didn’t play. Maybe this skinny defensive end — the first Division I player from his high school in 33 years — couldn’t stick at this level after all. Farley wondered: “Is he really going to buy in?”

Smith did — 7.5 sacks in 2018, 14 in 2019 (before the coronavirus pandemic wiped out Northern Iowa’s 2020 fall season). But Smith — now 262 pounds — really began to look and act like a pro in mid-October of 2019, after being benched for a game. He had blown off film study yet again. His position coach, former NFL All-Pro Bryce Paup, was sick of him coasting.

Smith glared at Paup during the Sunday position group meeting. Then he unloaded: “This is not fair. I was supposed to start.” Paup wasn’t offended. He was thrilled, because Smith “finally figured it out,” he said. From then on, Smith committed to film study. Paup, who had 75 sacks in 11 NFL seasons, envisions a long Giants career for Smith — with one caveat.

“It depends,” Paup said, “on where he gets satisfied.”

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Elerson G. Smith with his mother, JoLene Gapinski, and sister, August.

A year had passed.

JoLene wished she could talk to Robert. She still remembered the summer night they first met in 1990, dancing at Bunker’s bar downtown.

So JoLene opened his online obituary guest book and started typing.

August is doing so well in school and working through the challenges of becoming a young woman. I know you are proud of her. Elerson is almost 6′3″ and although I never watched you play football, I know I am seeing a part of you every time he gets into his stance as a defensive end. He is finally getting the hang of the academic side of school also. I miss you daily and I hope that I am staying true to our joint efforts as parents. Love you and miss you. JoLene

Pieces of Robert remain with JoLene and her kids. Elerson mirrors Robert’s empathy in the smallest moments, like when Lynch returns an item to the grocery store shelves a few aisles out of place. Now the people working here have to go put that back, he’ll tell her.

In south Minneapolis, as the neighborhood rebuilds, JoLene’s house is filled with memories of Robert. Photos of him hang on the walls. She still has his old roller skates — and the urn filled with his ashes.

Robert had a plan for them. So on just the right day, JoLene and the kids will head across town and find the bridge that runs along the lake. They’ll carry the urn to the spot where Robert roller-skated for long chats, his two exhausted kids fidgeting nearby.

Before they let him float away, they’ll take a few moments, just like he did all those afternoons. He’d stand there for what felt like forever — relaxing, talking, wearing his sunglasses — and look out across the water.

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