FLINT, Mich. -- Vincent Smith is building momentum. He takes two short strides, sinking his hips like a retracting pinball plunger, and then launches himself clear over an 8-foot swath of freshly tilled and seeded earth. Smith gathers the five-gallon bucket of winter rye seeds next to his landing spot and moves on to the next patch of dirt.
It's late October in Michigan, and Smith is doing what he can to prep his garden-in-progress for the cold months ahead. The vacant lot he is trying to repurpose sits two blocks from the infamous Flint River, which in recent years delivered lead-tainted waters to the citizens of one of the Rust Belt's most down-on-its-luck cities. The rest of the street is lined by houses that range from worn but loved to dilapidated. The house that once stood on Smith's lot caught fire, and the city ordered its demolition several years earlier. He and a band of helpers spent weeks picking pieces of the old house and other garbage out of the ground when they decided last year that it was a good candidate to be turned into a community garden.
The rye is an ideal winter ground cover to keep the soil in place and in good shape to grow food when it's warm again. Smith scoops a handful from the bucket and scatters them on the dirt. He rakes seed into soil as his long, black dreadlocks bob and bounce against his back.
The last time college football fans saw those dreads flying through the air, they had been unceremoniously unleashed from beneath Smith's Michigan helmet by Jadeveon Clowney in the 2013 Outback Bowl. Smith ran for 1,269 yards and 10 touchdowns as an undersized running back for the Wolverines, but he will probably always be best remembered outside of Ann Arbor for being on the wrong end of a viral highlight in his final college game. It took a split second for Smith to go from moving forward at full speed to moving backward at full speed (sans headgear) when Clowney sliced through the line of scrimmage and reached the ball just as Smith was taking a handoff.
Away from the football field, Smith is finding, momentum doesn't change quite as fast.
An hour after planting the winter rye, Smith is riding shotgun in the Pontiac Vibe of his co-director, Sonya Sutherland, on their way to take care of some minor piece of business at the Genesee County Land Bank in downtown Flint. The trip is a regular part of the routine as they try to plow through the endless layers of bureaucracy for their latest project. Together Smith and Sutherland started a non-profit company called Team Gardens, which aims to provide a source of healthy food for neighborhoods that need it most while also engaging at-risk kids and building a sense of community.
"He's got the football player and community outreach part down, and I'm a hippie, so I've got that part," says Sutherland, a fellow Michigan grad who along with her blond dreads and brimming optimism runs their logistics and makes sure Smith and his big plans are kept to some kind of a schedule. She makes sure the trains run on time.
Their first gardens were planted in the fertile soil of Pahokee, Florida, Smith's hometown. Pahokee is known for its soil ("the muck") that produces bountiful citrus and sugar cane yields. And it's known for the rabbit-chasing pastime that creates an unusually large crop of football players for a small town in central Florida. Starfruits and greens came easily for Smith with those gardens. In Flint, known for producing General Motors' vehicles, growing food requires more patience.
"And paperwork," Smith says. "Man, lots and lots of paperwork."
The Flint garden has moved forward in stops and starts for much of the past year. It's on pause for the moment after Smith and Sutherland learned that the water bill to keep their half-acre plot running at full speed would be several thousand dollars a month -- another side effect of Flint trying to get its public water situation back under control.
The largest obstacle in completing these types of socially responsible endeavors is burnout, according to Greg Hoffman, a 12-year veteran of navigating the thickets of red tape that often exhaust the best intentions of would-be do-gooders.
"A lot of people get fed up," Hoffman said. "One of the first things you learn as a community organizer is people will ardently defend the status quo even if a change will help them."
Hoffman is the community relations director for the Detroit-based Wolverine Human Services, an organization that helps foster children and other kids in need through a variety of programs throughout Michigan. Hoffman, a double Michigan grad and season-ticket holder, learned about Smith's project through an alumni magazine and connected with him this winter as the Flint project was hitting another road block.
Over lunch at Zingerman's Deli in February they decided Smith and Sutherland would be a perfect fit for one of Hoffman's latest projects. The duo spends a few days each week now on Wolverine Human Services properties tending the 5,300 Honeycrisp apple trees they planted with the help of a small crew during a long, breezy day in late April. The majority of them make up an orchard on the edge of a maximum-security facility for foster children in nearby Saginaw.
The plan is for the orchard to serve as a place to engage and teach the children at the facility, a way to connect with the larger community and a source of funding from the 250,000 pounds of apples they are expected to produce annually when the trees reach maturity.
"That's the whole idea. We try to get the kids together in the community excited about fruits and vegetables, get them active and learning from each other."Former Michigan RB Vincent Smith
Smith has set up his former gardens in a similar way to try to help in as many ways as possible. The food is available to any nearby families that want to come pick it. In Flint, for example, he tried to plant as many leafy greens as possible, which research shows can help flush lead from a child's digestive system. Smith posts videos to his websites on how to turn their plants into healthy meals. They've worked to set up deals with work-release programs or former convicts who are trying to start over with a therapeutic gardening job.
At the Wolverine Human Services headquarters in a largely vacant neighborhood on Detroit's east side, the hope is to eventually add another orchard for the children in that area. Smith spends about a day per week at that facility making plans and hanging out with the kids. He splits his remaining time among Saginaw, Flint and Ann Arbor -- where he works as a part-time academic specialist for Michigan's football team. Hoffman says Smith has been a "home run hire" because of his role-model status as a former Wolverine and his ease at connecting with just about anyone, especially young people.
"At the end of the day, that's the goal," Smith said. "That's the whole idea. We try to get the kids together in the community excited about fruits and vegetables, get them active and learning from each other."
That's been the objective wherever Smith and Sutherland have set up shop. Back at the garden in Flint in October, a local farmer stops by to help till a new garden bed and explain some of the properties of winter rye. A neighbor swings through to convince Smith he should join a local rugby team. When he sees the grass on Smith's lot is growing a little long he swings by a half hour later on his rider mower and gives it a trim. Another neighbor stops by to pick a few resilient veggies and gossip for as long as her new friends are willing to listen.
Then Smith and Sutherland are back in the Pontiac Vibe to sort through some other stack of paperwork or slog through another civic entity. They drive down Flint's main drag underneath the wrought iron archways that span from one sidewalk of the four-lane road to the other, a reminder of a time when the city was booming and the General Motors plant down the street was a source of pride. Vehicle City, it says in iron at the center of the arches. Sutherland has a dream that one day they and the other activists trying to breathe new life into Flint will get to hang a new nickname from the iron arches: Vegetable City.
"That would be awesome," Smith says with a smile. "We've got a lot of work to do before then, though."
They are trying to build a community. To build communities, they're trying to build gardens. Before then, they need to build momentum. Smith is finding that might be harder to come by in community activism than in football, but it feels a lot better when it happens.