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Carolina Panthers

Hometown roots run deep for Shi Smith

Shi Smith

CHARLOTTE – Shi Smith hopes to make the most of every moment he's given. He knows that nothing is guaranteed.

As he walked into Bank of America Stadium for his first career start on Sunday, Smith wore a pendant with a photo of his close childhood friend and carried the weight of his family and friends back in his hometown.

For Smith, it's about representing the Carolinas, like he has his entire life – raised in Union, attending college at the University of South Carolina, and playing professional football for the Panthers. It's about bringing happiness to his hometown. It's about showing love to the people he cares about, alive and deceased.

"It means a lot to me," Smith said. "Knowing that it can get taken from me very easily, and just going out representing the kids from my hometown, showing that it can be done."

Shi Smith

More than a decade before he met his NFL opportunity with Carolina, a young Smith shared dreams of becoming a professional athlete with his friend, Dequan Jones. The two grew up just 90 minutes from Charlotte, across the South Carolina border in Union, a town of just over 8,000 residents.

Smith and Jones bonded over a shared love of baseball. They played catch with each other and their brothers, adopting one another's families as their own.

Four years older than Smith, Jones drove the younger boys to baseball practice, ensured they kept up with schoolwork, and encouraged Smith, gifted on the diamond as a young pitcher and hitter.

Shi Smith's father, Tony Smith, would hear Jones often reminding Shi just how much he believed in him.

Shi Smith

"Man, you're going to be a star one day," Jones told him.

But after the early morning hours on August 12, 2012, Shi would never hear Jones' words again.

Dequan Jones, then 17 years old, was shot and killed in Union. Jones was just about to start his senior year of high school. Shi was 13.

Tony worked to keep Shi's head up as the young teenager grappled with his close friend's death. Shi's family and his baseball coach, Jim Gault, played critical roles in his life.

"I just didn't want him to give up," Tony said. "(I didn't want him) to feel like he'd lost everything when that happened."

Shi pressed on. He said he has kept Jones in his prayers throughout the last 10 years, which includes his pregame routine. He has felt Jones watching over him as his athletic career progressed.

Even still, he wishes Jones was by his side to see what his life has become.

Shi Smith

"When I think about him, sometimes I cry when I'm alone," Smith said. "Just thinking about him, just wishing he'd be here (and) knowing things would be a little bit different if he was here."

Shi said a shoulder injury ended his baseball career in high school, but his decision to focus on football was natural.

He was a four-star wide receiver out of Union County High School and the second-best prospect from the state of South Carolina. When scholarship offers rolled in from Clemson and Alabama, Shi chose to head down to Columbia and play for the Gamecocks from 2017-21.

USC is where Shi grew close with Panthers cornerback Jaycee Horn, a teammate from college to the pros. Horn said the two have known each other for five years and have grown close off the field.

"I know he's a real family guy," Horn said. "He treats all his friends like family, and he's from a small town where they're really connected. I've met a couple of his friends. They're really close."

Tony, a longtime Panthers fan who took Shi to training camps growing up, celebrated his son's milestones in college, always looking ahead to the future.

When Shi played his first game as a Gamecock in 2017 at Bank of America Stadium, Tony posted a photo predicting his son would eventually play there on Sundays.

Tony Smith

So when that first moment came last year, and Tony saw his son line the sideline in a No. 12 Carolina jersey, Tony said he had to excuse himself from the stands at Bank of America Stadium.

He was shaking, emotional, and deeply proud.

Shi's tight-knit hometown is right behind him, too.

"He's still close," Tony said. "Everyone is always coming up, pulling for him, rooting for him, through the good and the bad. (The town) has always been behind him, supporting him from high school, college, and especially now. It's amazing.

"Everywhere I go, someone will be like, 'There goes Shi's dad.' No one knows my name anymore. I'm Shi's dad."

Shi said he promised himself that he would have a pendant of Jones once he made it to the NFL. Now, he is frequently spotted with the piece on his chest, keeping the promise intact and the memory of his close friend alive and close to his heart.

While Shi hasn't heard Jones' voice or encouragement in over 10 years, he gets to see his friend's face each day on the pendant he was able to buy after making his NFL goals a reality.

In ways, that pendant symbolizes the realization of what he and Jones had always talked about, celebrating the strides he has taken in his athletic career and the pride he's brought back to his community in Union.

"Just knowing he's happy where I'm at," Shi said. "This has always been my dream. We talked about it. We talked about it. (With) me being here and doing what we talked about, I know he's happy."

From that memory, Shi Smith draws strength.

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