ATLANTA -- Too young to have been his brother's keeper, and at the wrong end of the sibling pecking order to have insulated his family from harm's way, Atlanta Falcons standout cornerback DeAngelo Hall has matured enough in age and in stature now to keep his late brother's dreams alive.
And in so doing, Hall hopes to protect kids and families from the kind of tragedy that ended the life of his older brother, Kevin Smith, a dozen years ago.
"When you lose a loved one like that, so unexpectedly and so senselessly, the normal reaction is anger and revenge, especially where I grew up," Hall said. "Your first thought is, 'OK, so how can I get even?' And knowing me, you would think that would have been my mind-set. But when my brother was killed, it was just the opposite for me. As outspoken as I am, you know, I just went into a hole. I didn't want to talk to anyone, see anyone, do anything. I lost my drive. Not my will to live, but my will to live every day fully, because I just quit caring about stuff, even stuff that was important to me.
"But slowly, I guess, you come out of it. And I'm to the point now in my life and my career where I can do something about it. Do something good, to turn a tragedy into a positive, if possible. It probably helps that I was a first-round pick, and that I made the Pro Bowl last year, because those things give you connections. I can ask for, and get, some corporate help now. But you know what? At some point in my life, no matter what I was doing, whether I was playing football or whatever, I was going to create something to honor my brother. It's part of what I'm meant to do."
What the Falcons star has created is The DeAngelo Hall Foundation, which was launched here in late March, and which will convene its first youth football camp this weekend in Chesapeake, Va., Hall's home town. There will be camps in Atlanta and Dallas, as well, later this summer.
More than just football instruction, however, the camps will present what Hall has dubbed his M.V.P. Sessions. That's short for "Message on Violence Prevention" and, hopefully, long on helping youngsters develop skills that allow them to resolve conflicts through non-violent means.
He also will introduce to the campers his Project V.I.P. (Violence awareness, Intervention and Prevention) initiative, which eventually will consist of workshops and symposiums aimed at educating young people on identifying the roots of violence.
"I can be around to help kids cope with the loss of a loved one, but I'd rather they never have to deal with it at all, and that's what my foundation is trying to accomplish."
There's no small irony in the fact that Hall, an engaging and bright player with whom there is no such thing as a short conversation, would use so much shorthand with the initiatives that he and his increasing number of associates and sponsors are developing. But all of the acronyms, the M.V.P. and V.I.P. blueprints and a grant program Hall has funded, are intended to shield others from the long years of pain he experienced.
As brash as Hall can be a times -- the Falcons' emerging shut-down cornerback is known for filibustering wide receivers throughout games -- he is also big-hearted. And when he recalls the death of his brother and the impact it had on his family, as his single mother struggled to raise her five surviving children, Hall is occasionally brokenhearted, too.
He is buoyed, though, by the long-term potential of his foundation, the seed for which was sown in memory of Smith. And Hall is determined to help children fulfill their potential, to deal with what they can be instead of what might have been.
"He is so serious about this, so invested in it, you can't believe it," said Falcons coach Jim Mora, who left the NFL owners meetings at Orlando in March two days early so that he could attend the function that officially kicked off Hall's foundation. "He wanted me there and, because it means so much to him, I was going to be there, no matter what."
There is no crystal ball that will permit anyone to know what Smith, a role model and the person who took a basketball out of Hall's hands and replaced it with a football, might have become. Walking with a group of friends one night in a neighborhood near the Norfolk (Va.) State campus, he turned a corner, and was gunned down in an unprovoked act of random violence.
Smith and Hall were closer than most siblings separated by 13 years and, while the older man never tried to be a surrogate father, he was the most overriding male influence in Hall's life. Years later, Hall still vividly can recall the late-night phone call that stirred him awake, and the wails from his mother that resulted from the message being delivered.
"[When] someone cries that way, that hard and with so much despair, well, no, you don't forget it," Hall said earlier this week, as he completed preparations for the weekend camp. "If it's your mother, well, you don't ever want to hear her cry like that again. So I guess, basically, we're trying to make sure that parents don't have to shed tears like that."
His mother, Joan Hall, a longtime educator who somehow found the time and the perseverance to earn her doctorate from Norfolk State, is prime motivation for Hall's efforts. And his wife, Jada, has become a key confidant and, essentially, Hall's first lieutenant. But what drives Hall more than anything is his belief that violence is a tragic mechanism for settling disputes.
And, make no mistake, that indirectly drives the Falcons' 2004 first-round draft choice on the field, too.
"Look," said Hall, "I'm not naïve. If my name was, like, Joe Smith, and I wasn't a football player and I didn't go to the Pro Bowl and wasn't getting some recognition, I'm sure people wouldn't pay nearly as much attention as they've been doing the last few months. But my name is going to get me in some doors, no doubt about it, and corporations I approach about donations or sponsorships will be more receptive perhaps. I'd be crazy not to take advantage of that. And I'd be letting people down if I didn't try to keep playing well, and [enhance] the size of the doors I can walk through."
Doors connote shelter, of course, and safe haven. And while Hall understands he can't get everyone off the streets, or even make the streets completely free from violence, he knows sport is a proven preoccupation to crime. He wants kids, he emphasized, to pick up a basketball or football or even a musical instrument and not a gun. Most important, Hall said, he wants children and families to comprehend that making positive decisions, relying on communication and not crime to solve issues, will save a lot of heartache.
That's the message, besides a little football instruction, that Hall and close friends such as Minnesota free safety Darren Sharper, free agent linebacker Jamie Sharper and several Atlanta teammates will deliver over the weekend at the foundation's first youth camp.
He might possess sub-4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash, but it was years of introspection and long nights of reliving his brother's death that prompted Hall to become a passionate advocate for self-empowerment and for non-violent resolution. As anyone who knows Hall understands, his passion is equaled by few and, in this case, his commitment is probably matched by even fewer.
Robbed of his mentor, Hall is determined to fill the void left in his own life by Smith's death, and to himself mature into a mentor of sorts.
"My brother's death was a 'wrong place at the wrong time' thing," Hall said. "He was a victim because of where he was, not who he was, not because he was causing a problem. Maybe those kinds of things we can never totally eliminate. But I know there's a lot of stuff we can stop. I can be around to help kids cope with the loss of a loved one, but I'd rather they never have to deal with it at all, and that's what my foundation is trying to accomplish. I just want my brother's life to mean something and I hope he'd be proud of me."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.