Every morning he makes the frigid walk to Ashmont Station in Dorchester to pick up the bus for school, traversing the city to make his first class at West Roxbury High on time. It’s an unfamiliar life for Deron Smith, that’s for sure. But even though the Raiders newest track star is waking up before the sun, it’s a life he is appreciating. Just eight months ago, he was living in the crime-plagued ghettos of the Virgin Islands.
“Life here has been really different than back home,” said Smith. “From the people, to the economics. Every basic thing is different.”
Running track was never a future Smith had considered eight months ago -- let alone three months ago -- which makes the senior's status as one of the state’s best track athletes even more impressive. Smith’s numbers speak for themselves: 6.5 seconds in the 55-meter dash. Twenty-one feet six inches in the long jump. With numbers like that, it’s not surprising that the 18-year-old senior -- who also runs the 800-meter relay -- easily won his events at the Boston City Championships last month. He then followed up with a ninth-place finish in the long jump at MIAA All-States, with a leap of 20 feet 10.
So how exactly does one make the jump from knowing nothing about a sport to becoming one of Boston’s best? For Smith, he needed a little help from above. Well, from the stands, that is. And Arthur Dias was the one looking down.
With an overall population of around 1,300 students at West Roxbury, there are roughly 200 student-athletes whom Dias mentors as a Boston Scholar Athlete Zone Facilitator (also known as the BSA program).
“We aren’t teachers. We aren’t in the Boston Teacher’s Union,” explained the 23-year-old Dias, who is in his first year with the program. “We aren’t Boston public school employees. I want people to take advantage of what we have to offer. The kids see our program as an opportunity.”
It was just the opportunity that Smith needed when starting his life in Boston.
Dias offers guidance, advice, college help, and everything in-between for student athletes. For Smith, Dias would find him in the cafeteria and around school, and they would simply talk. About school. About sports. About grades.
He quickly could tell that Smith was passionate about basketball, but Dias wanted Smith to understand that basketball was not the first priority.
“I got the point across to him that he needed great first-term grades to play basketball come the winter time,” Dias said.
Smith worked hard to improve his grades, ultimately earning marks that made him academically eligible to play sports.
When basketball tryouts rolled around, Smith attempted to crack the team’s roster as a shooting guard. During tryouts Dias, a Brockton native and former offensive lineman at Northeastern University, noticed that Smith had blazing speed as he ran up and down the court.
“The first few days of basketball tryouts were just running. They didn’t get a basketball in their hands,” said Dias. “The coach wanted to see who had heart and who had speed.” Smith had both heart and speed, yet he ultimately got cut from the team. But all wasn’t lost for Smith.
For Dias, Smith’s talents needed to be utilized in a different way. The answer was simple: Smith needed to go out for the track team. Smith was still upset about being cut during basketball tryouts, but this didn’t stop Dias from persisting to get Smith to take his heart and speed to the track field.
“Mr. Dias begged me to do track,” Smith recalled. “After he had seen me at the tryouts, he said that it was something I needed to do. And I had dodged it for the next five weeks. I didn’t want to do it. Then one day I walked by the track and I just started running.” Smith was not only encouraged by Dias, but also the school’s basketball coach and his guidance counselor.
Dias explained, “I think the combination of us pushing him helped him find that motivation. I think it inspired him to finally get up and do something. I think he realized it, too, that without a push, you’re not going to make it.”
Even if Smith didn’t notice it, Dias saw potential in Smith. He knew he was smart. “When I told him what it was going to take, he got right in line. He jumped on board and it was easy for him to see what was possible.”
Though he didn’t spend his winter battling for rebounds as he had originally hoped, Smith has been elated with his choice to join the track team. And the school has been pleased with the decision, too. “It turned out to be a really good idea. It was something I had never thought about doing. And Mr. Dias has come out to support us at meets, too. It was just a really good choice.”
Life in Boston has been a far cry from his Virgin Islands upbringing, said Smith, who now lives with his aunt in Dorchester.
Raised as an only child in Tortola, Smith admitted that he used to get in a lot of trouble back home, as he had a penchant for getting into arguments and starting fights. Smith saw a lot growing up, he said, with his life story sounding more like a movie script than a typical upbringing.
“I saw everything,” Smith said. “I saw people getting shot. I saw my friends getting shot. I saw robberies. Everything you could see, I saw growing up.”
Smith’s parents insisted that he leave Tortola and head north to Boston to live with his aunt and get his life in order. Last summer, Smith made the move, settling in Dorchester and enrolling as a senior at West Roxbury High School. Almost immediately, Smith made significant changes in his life. He stopped getting in fights and began hitting the books instead.
As a part of the BSA program, Dias advised Smith that, “first and foremost, we worry about academics because at the end of the day, they are students first. Without the grades, they can’t play sports anyway.”
Halfway through the school year, Smith has gotten his grades up and is now beginning to look towards college. He has already applied to a few schools and is planning to apply to more.
For Smith, coming to Boston has caused immense changes in his life -- all of them for the better.
“When I came to the United States, I knew I had to improve my studies,” Smith said. “I needed to mature. Getting up early in the morning, making the trip to school, then doing track has caused me to mature. Since living in America, I’ve matured a lot, both mentally and physically.”
What’s even scarier about Smith’s talents is that he says he’s better at basketball and baseball than track. Smith has said that he’d love to continue running track on the collegiate level.
And given his rapid ascent to becoming one of the best track stars in Boston with next-to-no training, Smith would be a valuable asset to nearly any school.
Ultimately, though Smith is not sure of exactly what his promising future holds, he certainly is thankful for the new life he’s created for himself in America.
“I thank Mr. Dias so much for everything he’s done and to my parents,” Smith says. “It’s been such a great opportunity to come here and I’m really happy with what’s happened.”