The good son
How Musa Smith overcame his father's connection to terrorism
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 16, 2002, issue. Subscribe today!
MUSA SMITH heard it second hand, which was fitting. It was a normal day, and on a normal day, he never looked at TV. Smith, the starting tailback at Georgia, grew up just fine without it, and never even saw a college game on the tube until his senior year in high school. Why would he be watching now? Why would Sept. 11 be different?
The story behind the story
The first question we asked in the summer of 2002: Should we even write this at all? Musa Smith was a future All-SEC running back tearing it up at Georgia. He was good. But there was a backstory that not even his Bulldog coaches and teammates were aware of. Musa's father, Kelvin, served time in federal prison in the late 1990s. It involved obstruction of justice. And terrorists. The Mag, tipped to the story by then-intern and now senior editor Ryan Hockensmith, started reporting it the year before, with former staff writer Bruce Feldman interviewing Musa on Sept. 9, 2001. Amid the shock of 9/11 and the anti-Muslim atmosphere that pervaded pockets of the country, The Magazine shelved the story. By the next year, though, we reconsidered. At some point, we knew the story would come out -- via web rumor mills or the NFL Combine. So we decided we should tell it, as responsibly as we could.
It wasn't easy. We knew Kelvin Smith was convicted of making false statements and of destroying evidence during a federal terrorism probe of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Dogged document work by Hockensmith left no doubt about the ill intent of the paramilitary trainees on Smith's farm.
What we didn't know? What an incredible family the man had raised, a brood of 10 children filled with scholars, athletes and American soldiers, one of whom later lost part of a leg at Fallujah. Smith clearly did something wrong, but he also did plenty right.
Sports and patriotism inspire great things -- an appreciation of loyalty, of sacrifice, of spectacle. But they also invite simplistic judgments and labels: Winners and losers. Us and them. Heroes and villains.
In "The Good Son," The Magazine wrestled with complex questions of character and deed and innocence and blame. It was gut-wrenching, as it should have been.
For the rest of Musa Smith's career, I rooted like hell for him. That wasn't hard at all. -- Luke Cyphers
Then someone told him. A plane had rammed the World Trade Center. Then another. Soon the towers would fall, and thousands would die. And soon it would all be connected to Muslim extremists.
And then, the worrying began all over again. About his dad. About his religion. About his government. About loyalty. About the history he thought his fluid, powerful stride had carried him far away from.
Though he'd run for 329 yards in the school's first three games and become a grits-and-gravy folk hero in Athens -- where fans roar his name, MOOOO-Saaaa, on every touch -- at that moment Musa Smith was reminded that he was not only an heir to the storied Georgia running back legacy, but an heir to the legacy of his father: a man named Kelvin Smith, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer who raised a successful bunch of kids, including two in the military.
Kelvin Smith is also a man named Abdul Muhaimin in court documents, whose farm in Pennsylvania had been a training ground for Islamic extremists plotting to assassinate world leaders and blow up New York landmarks, including the United Nations and the Lincoln Tunnel. A man a federal judge said illegally disposed of evidence. A man convicted of lying to investigators trying to stop a terror plot.
Musa had never told anyone about it, not his Georgia teammates or his coaches. "Why should I?" he asked The Magazine last Sept.9. "That's in the past." Two days later, when the towers fell, Musa called his father. Soon, the FBI would call his father too.
Like the rest of America, father and son recoiled in horror at what happened in Pennsylvania, at the Pentagon, at Ground Zero. Unlike most of America, both shuddered at what it might mean for their family. His dad remembers Musa saying, "Here we go again. It's Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 25."
THERE IS no Elm Street in New Bloomfield, Pa., but there are plenty of elms in the seat of Perry County. And oaks, and maples, and every other kind of tree that thrives in the Eastern deciduous forests. Perry County is Appalachia, full of simple folks, farm folks. White folks. They are loyal Americans who like to hunt, love the Second Amendment and loathe what the city people 30 miles away in Harrisburg might call progress. In a county that stretches across 554 square miles, there is not one traffic light, but there's a fight every time someone suggests putting one in. Perry County's population of 43,000 is 98.5% white. In 1993, Kelvin Smith, his wife, Coral, and their 10 children made up some 13% of the county's African-Americans. And probably at least as much of its Muslim community.
Yet Perry County is a good place for privacy, and for the most part, after moving there in the mid-'80s, the Smith family was left alone to commune with nature and raise animals. Turned out it was also a great place to raise a football player. The kids always played out in the fields, running and chasing each other, throwing footballs and kicking soccer balls. Kelvin was a fitness freak and a martial arts instructor, and he put his kids through running and strength drills with whatever was at hand.
Musa would run with a log, switching the burden from shoulder to shoulder, then hold it in front of him and toss it into a field. He'd run through tires, cones, obstacle courses. The drills started in fifth grade. "As he got older and larger and better, it just became a natural thing for him," Kelvin says. "There was something unique about his ability to run; the heels of his feet would almost come up and touch his back. He had instant acceleration, and he could maintain it for 10, 12, 15 seconds."
Musa followed in the football footsteps of his brother Talib, a grade ahead and nearly as gifted, at least until a knee injury slowed him. A QB, Talib was smart enough to get the ball to the best guy on the field -- his little brother. "People still talk about the brotherly love connection," Kelvin says, his face beaming below the bill of his Georgia football cap. "These guys were just putting hundreds of yards on the football field, touchdown after touchdown."
Even at remote West Perry High in Elliottsburg, Musa got noticed. His size and speed made rival tacklers look like toddlers grasping for dad at a family picnic. His 4,117 high school yards earned him comparisons to Harrisburg's own Ricky Watters. Recruiters came from all around -- Penn State, Wisconsin, Georgia. but one man was notable by his absence during Musa's senior season. His biggest fan, his first coach, couldn't be at his games. Kelvin Smith was 115 miles away in Loretto, behind bars at the Federal Correctional Institute.
UNDER THE best of circumstances, Musa Smith doesn't talk much. "Musa is very introverted," says a former high school coach, Kevin Zakis. "He's not someone who trusts people right away."
Wearing baggy sweats and a snug, gray Tshirt he slumps his 6'1", 226-pound body into a front-row seat in an auditorium in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, just steps from Georgia's practice fields. Last Sept. 11, he sat stunned in this same room with his teammates, watching the grim TV reports. Nearly a year later, he's just tired. Worn out from two-a-days, he's just endured Picture Day, where he grinned and cozied up to every Dawg fan in Dixie. Aside from Uga VI, Musa was the star attraction. After all, the young man whose name means Moses could lead the bulldogs to their first SEC title since 1982. (His 105 yards led the bulldogs to a 31-28 victory over Clemson in their opener).
Last year, Smith teased the faithful by rushing for 548 yards and 6 TDs as a sophomore, but a groin injury effectively stopped his season after the fifth game. So at Picture Day, he's peppered with questions about his health. Smith understands: It comes with the territory when you're the Georgia tailback. What doesn't come with the territory, in his mind, is the past. Especially not the thing with his father. Something that really has absolutely nothing to do with Musa, yet seems to have everything to do with who he's become -- a quiet, stoic standout who wants no part of standing out.
Musa was 11 when it happened. He was living a Huck Finn existence out on the farm -- shooting clay pigeons, fishing in streams, swimming in ponds. "He grew up the way any kid in Perry County grows up," says Kelvin. He starred in Pee-Wee football with his pals, acted in backyard plays with his sisters and rode bikes with his brothers. Then on June 27, 1993, TV trucks rumbled down his folks' driveway, scattering the chickens and shattering the peace. Everyone started snapping pictures and drawing conclusions. Navy divers searched for guns in the muck of the pond where the kids caught frogs. "It was so weird," says Ray Sweger, a West Perry teammate who's known Musa since the first grade. "It was like a movie."
That's when his old man, who taught Musa how to hunt and fish and pray and, above all, be proud of who he is, became a small part of history. The kind of history you don't talk about.
ISLAMIC TERRORISM announced itself in America on Feb. 26, 1993. A Ryder truck filled with fuel oil and ammonium nitrate exploded in the garage beneath the World Trade Center, killing six, injuring more than 1,000, filling Tower One with smoke and causing a half-billion dollars in damage.
The blast was the first visible sign that festering hatreds born in distant lands were taking root here. The message was sown by Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric who preached a fiery brand of Islam advocating holy war against all nonbelievers. His followers, inspired by radical Islamist rhetoric, had rushed to Afghanistan in the early '80s to drive out the Soviets. During that jihad, the blind sheik met a fellow fighter who would become a patron, a Saudi multimillionaire named Osama bin Laden. When the Afghan war ended, the sheik traveled from Pakistan to the U.S., on a visa given to him by a CIA agent. The sheik preached in mosques in Brooklyn and Jersey City, urging holy war against new enemies: the genocidal Serbs killing Muslims in Bosnia, the supporters of Israel and the infidels in the United States.
Kelvin Smith, now 48, hasn't spoken to reporters in nearly 10 years, not since New York's Daily News dubbed his home "Camp Terror" on its front page. Things are different now. He wants to talk so he can save Musa some grief. "I want to get some things off my chest," Kelvin Smith says.
Born in Brooklyn and reared in rural New Jersey, Kelvin fell in love with nature and made his living off it. He joined the Youth Conservation Corps, majored in environmental science at a New Jersey college and took a job as one of the nation's first black federal wildlife officers. In 1980, he found Islam. "It came closest to the truth for me," he says. Five years later, he moved his family from Harrisburg to rural Perry County -- "to Redneckville," he says. Yet despite some early prejudice, the community mostly came to accept him. "We're not this isolated group of people sitting back in the woods chanting, 'Down With America.' We're a part of the community. We are an open family."
He opened up his farm on weekends, giving lessons to Boy Scout troops, hunters and law-enforcement agents in starting fires, tracking game and navigating the woods. In the early '90s, when the call came to Muslims to save their Bosnian brothers from the Balkan genocide, Smith advertised his courses in mosques in New York and New Jersey. In late 1992, a group of mostly Arab Muslims from that area -- with connections to the blind sheik, Rahman -- found their way to Smith's farm in Perry County. They returned for four weekends in January and early February.
Seven months later, according to court documents, six of those trainees and one of their leaders were arrested and later convicted on charges related to the "seditious conspiracy" of plotting to blow up the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the U.N. and several other targets. Four of those men were arrested as they mixed explosive ingredients for bombs in a Queens, N.Y., safe house. In his guilty plea, one of the plotters, Siddig Ibrahim Siddig Ali, stated: "In late 1992-93, training was conducted at a camp near Harrisburg, Pa., for operations and assassinations in the United States and overseas."
Had he known of their anti-American plans, Smith says, "I would have personally broke them up into little pieces and put them into a body bag myself." but he says they gave him no reason for suspicion. They looked to him like a gang that couldn't shoot straight, answering the call to arms in Hush Puppies and polyester slacks. "They preferred to stay in the house and drink tea and eat cream cheese sandwiches," Smith says. "They enjoyed that. But 10 push-ups or sit-ups, or run a quarter-mile and expose them to snowy conditions and they couldn't deal."
Still, the FBI had them under surveillance, and on Feb. 18, 1993 -- eight days before the Trade Center bombing -- the Bureau contacted Smith to tell him the trainees were suspected anti-American terrorists. As Smith's indictment and other court papers show, his actions in the following 21 months landed him in prison. According to the indictment, Smith used money from the trainees to purchase ammunition and weapons, including assault rifles, used on his property. He also purchased rappelling equipment for the trainees using his federal wildlife officer discount.
When the FBI first contacted him, Smith falsely told them that all the weapons on the property were his own, and that he provided all the weapons used by the trainees. Smith ultimately admitted to disposing of four SKS assault rifles by throwing them off a bridge into the Delaware River. FbI divers made 16 dives in 34 days in the treacherous currents but never found the guns. Says David Barasch, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Smith's case, "It's apparent from the record that Smith began a pattern of behavior not consistent with what you'd expect from a federal law-enforcement officer."
During that first meeting, according to court papers, Smith told the agents he had no way to contact the trainees, but then used his government-issued secured phone line to alert one of them. In another interview, the indictment says, "although Smith acknowledges he was a federal law-enforcement officer, he stated he was a Muslim first and his cooperation would be based on those facts." A month after the Trade Center explosion, Smith delivered the rappelling equipment to one of the trainees in Brooklyn.
In 1999, after pleading guilty to three counts of making false statements and one of destroying evidence, Smith was sentenced to a year and a day in federal custody. He admits he did wrong. "I panicked," he says. "I made a mistake in not giving them the weapons." Yet he defends his motives, if not his actions. He points to the FBI's search of his property just as the indictments of the terror conspiracy were announced, which brought the media to his farm and generated headlines loaded with words like "compound" and "raid" and "radicals," and says he feared for his family.
"This was not long after Ruby Ridge and Waco," Smith says (citing federal raids on white separatists in 1992 and religious cultists in 1993 that led to deaths of innocent women and children). "I was afraid there would be a government shoot-out with my family there." He says the FBI wanted him to lure the trainees back to his property but couldn't guarantee his family's safety. And he feared other friends of the sheik might come after him. So he balked at cooperating and says he dumped the guns where no one could find them.
Smith's attorney, Joshua Lock, still stews over the investigation: "Make sure you understand this: Kelvin never once was accused by anyone of having anything to do with the Trade Center bombing or the conspiracy. The whole thing was about those guns, so some U.S. attorney in New York could hold one up as a prop during the [trainees'] trial."
Whatever Smith's motive, in the end his children remained safe. "I'll take the butt-whipping," he says. "I can handle it." But the government never bought the argument. "Although Smith claims he was motivated by the safety of his family, in reality it was the safety of the public that was jeopardized by his obstructive acts," the U.S. attorney's office wrote in its sentencing memorandum. "Smith's tactics succeeded in frustrating and prolonging the FBI's investigation of these dangerous individuals by several months, if not years."
Adds Barasch, "Once we knew semi-automatic weapons had been purchased by people with links to terrorism, the guns were a high priority. Our failure to find them to this day remains a concern."
SOMETIMES LOYALTY crops up where history wouldn't seem to allow it. In Perry County, it grew slowly for the Smith family. "We were the only black family, because all the others had moved away," Musa says. "There was a lot of racism at first. but then people got to know us."
They were known as the family who moved into the old general store. The family that would use its tractor to pull your car from a ditch. The family whose front yard was the place to find a football game. Musa was a skinny 10-year-old back then, and so fast that his buddies pushed to get him into youth league football. His folks wanted to wait two more years. "But man, you should see this guy play," his friends lobbied.
Musa and his siblings starred in sports and excelled in school -- sister Kalimah graduated magna cum laude from Temple and is now a lawyer; another sister, Fermele, attended college on an Army ROTC scholarship; his brother Michael is in the Marines; and brother Talib played college football at Millersville (Pa.) U.
"Kelvin's kids have always been put in hard situations and always flourished," says Sweger, Musa's old teammate. "I mean there's racism here -- tons of racism -- but none of them ever said a word about anything. They were just humble and grateful to everyone around them."
In return, says Musa, "the people in Perry County grew to love my family." Even when Kelvin got in trouble. Zakis and another West Perry coach, Jim Miller, took Musa aside during his freshman year and talked to him about his father. "We said, 'We don't know if anything's true, so don't read into it, but if anything does come out, we know you're just a kid, so don't worry about anything coming between us. Don't hesitate to come to us.' And we told Kelvin and Coral the same thing."
The coaches brought Musa along slowly; the most carries he ever had in a game as a freshman was eight (and he scored five TDs). But after a 3-7 sophomore season in 1998, Musa thought about quitting football. He approached Zakis, an ex-Marine, about joining the Corps. The coach sat him down. "Musa," he said, "you have the talent to do something special. Football can take you somewhere." Zakis and Miller drove Musa and Talib to the campus at West Virginia. They toured the weight room and the stadium, and Zakis told Musa, "You can get here from Perry County if you work."
The coaches watched a so-so student hit the books and earn a 3.5 average in his final two years. They sent highlights to schools that had no idea where Perry County was (Georgia bent its rule against recruiting north of Virginia after watching two plays). "When I first eyeballed him," says former Georgia coach Greg Williams, "I said to myself, 'Jim Brown. This is Jim Brown.' He had those thick forearms and shoulders. Oh, man alive."
"I don't think he realized how good he was until our junior year," says Sweger. "People started telling him he was going to go pro, and began asking for his autograph. But even though he was a superstar, he was never arrogant. He knew the names and said hi to every lowly 10th-grader."
When Kelvin went away to prison after Musa's junior season, the coaches stepped in, helping Musa sort his mail, driving him to his campus visits. They gave advice, but mostly they listened. They even said it was okay when Musa rejected Penn State. Joe Paterno had wanted Musa on defense, and Musa wanted the ball. After all, he'd rushed for 2,041 yards and scored 32 TDs as a senior. The news clippings of his son's heroics and Musa's voice on the phone helped Kelvin endure prison. "It made the time go," he says softly. "Musa inspired me."
Musa settled on Georgia, just ahead of Wisconsin. "I was looking for something different," he says, "and the South was very different from the North. I'd say it's more friendly." Perhaps. but his white Perry County friends stayed true to the only black kid in the class. No one breathed a word about Kelvin's troubles before Musa made his commitment to Georgia. And even then, bulldog coaches were spared the details. "We didn't think it had any bearing on who Musa was," Zakis says.
FOR A while after Musa's signing, Smith family life almost approached normal. Kelvin started a poultry business. He was on the road a lot but still made it to many of Musa's games, 10 hours away, in Athens. He worried about his kids, sure. Michael, now a drill instructor at Parris Island, had been defending the U.S. embassy in Italy and doing peacekeeping in Bosnia. Musa's biggest problem was staying healthy and getting the ball.
And then came Sept. 11. "I got on the phone immediately," Kelvin says. "I have a nephew on Wall Street, a sister on Wall Street. I was petrified." Lines were jammed and he couldn't get through. "I mean this was 'Oh my god!' It was beyond human comprehension." He thought back to his days as a wildlife inspector in New York in the early 1980s. "I actually worked in 6 World Trade Center back then."
Within days, Kelvin was asked to come speak with the FBI. He met them in the same federal office building in Harrisburg that had banned him in 1993 as a security risk. "Despite that," says his lawyer, Lock, "when Kelvin was asked to cooperate with them, he went there twice to talk to them. They knew he didn't know anything about this, but they asked, and he cooperated fully."
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