One of the nation's most sought-after high school football players showed up to an Ohio State training camp with a powerful message adorned across his chest.
The statement, worn on a T-shirt by 17-year-old defensive end Tyreke Smith, read: "I hope I don't get killed for being black today."
Smith told Ohio State sports blog Eleven Warriors that he “decided to wear the shirt because I wanted to bring attention to the epidemic of blacks being killed at an alarming rate. What we would like to do is have people talk about these issues to reduce the murder rate of African Americans.”
The Cleveland Heights phenom knows the effects of violence firsthand — the county surrounding his hometown experienced a state-high 168 homicides last year. Smith said the shirt isn't just addressing police encounters with black citizens like the Cleveland police officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, but rather brutality as a whole, including black-on-black crime.
His brother, Malik Smith, created the shirt and encouraged the football star to wear it, but the siblings knew reporters and photographers, along with fellow prospects and their parents, would be in attendance at the camp.
“I told him to be ready for people to want to voice their own opinion about the shirt — good or bad," Malik told Eleven Warriors. "I also told him to be ready to have an answer and be able to fully explain the shirt in great detail."
The star athlete ended up posting a photo of himself wearing the shirt on Twitter, where he said he encountered mostly positively feedback. But some commenters on the social network were not pleased.
“[They] are speaking negatively because they don’t understand what’s going on and the message behind it,” Smith told Eleven Warriors. “To see or hear about so many senseless killings, it tends to have a negative impact on you. You start to wonder if we should move away … but most, ‘why?’”
Barring injury or any other setbacks, Smith can address that question as prominent athletes like Colin Kapernick and LeBron James have done before him. He is almost certainly guaranteed to receive a scholarship to a top collegiate football program, with the opportunity of the NFL awaiting after.
“We need to come together as a unit and stop coming after our own people,” Smith's brother Maik said. “We have to work together.”