FLINT, Mich. — Justin Forsett and Torrey Smith helped deliver 34,560 bottles of water, $30,000 worth of adult cleaning wipes and $5,000 worth of baby wipes to this beleaguered city this week, but their most important delivery may have been themselves.
Forsett is a running back for the Ravens, and Smith is a receiver for the 49ers. They are not from Michigan. They have never played for the nearby Lions. But they were drawn to Flint, because they are the kind of NFL players who get lost behind headlines about Greg Hardy and Johnny Manziel.
They read about Flint’s water crisis and had to see for themselves. There were questions they wanted to ask and voices they wanted to hear, and a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away: How does this happen in the United States in 2016?
“You’re talking about rashes on everybody,” Forsett said Wednesday. “Hair falling out. Kids wearing wigs. That’s unheard of in America.”
In an echo of Martin Luther King Jr. (“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”), Smith said: “If it affects you, it affects all of us.”
And so there they were, at Flint’s Southwestern High School Wednesday morning and Northwestern High School after that. The kids looked at Smith and Forsett and saw two NFL stars. Smith and Forsett looked at the kids and saw themselves.
“There were times in my life growing up, I was homeless, staying in motels,” Forsett told them. “There were times we were running from the repo man. I don’t know if y’all know about turning out the lights and parking your car down the street, and walking home because you’re worried about the repo man.”
Getting a car repossessed was not even Forsett’s biggest concern. Forsett remembers his family living in room 108 of the Super Eight Motel near his hometown of Mulberry, Fla., because they couldn’t afford rent. Smith lived in a Motel 6. They got out largely because they were so desperate to get out, but part of them still lives in places like that.
They understand that hope can shatter in a thousand different ways. The government decided to connect to the Flint River as its water source, to save money, and did not properly treat the water, which was contaminated with lead. Shonda Ingram, a social worker in the Flint school system and the mother of NFL running back Mark Ingram, said “I was born and raised here and we never drank Flint River water. So I was confused.”
Forsett and Smith saw pictures of corroded pipes and heard students say their skin turns red when they wash their hands. They heard one girl say, “They’re trying to kill us,” and another kid say of the lead: “It’s already in me, so why change?”
That last question sums up the plight of too many Flint kids, who cannot envision upward mobility. As Smith and Forsett visited Flint Northwestern, I looked up at the clocks on the wall. In three different classrooms, the clocks showed three different times, and all three were wrong. It’s a little thing, but little things add up.
Many Flint residents suspected their water was contaminated almost two years ago. General Motors decided chloride levels in the water were too high for its plants in October 2014. Yet only recently did the community poisoning become a national story, and even this week, students did not know how to deal with it.
“The biggest problem we saw today was the lack of information,” Forsett said. “Everybody was kind of unsure.”
One student asked a teacher how to cleanse his body of lead. (The answer: Foods high in Vitamin C, iron and calcium.) A teacher explained that boiling water actually makes the problem worse, not better, as people might assume.
Flint Beecher basketball coach Mike Williams told them, “We are an actual joke now. People are pissed off about that. Anybody would have pride in where they’re from. We don’t want our identity to be bad water. It hurts the kids more than anything.”
Williams told the kids what a lot of people in Flint believe: “Y’all have been poisoned. Bottom line. They knew what they were doing. They did it on purpose. They don’t care.”
If Forsett and Smith accomplished anything Wednesday, it’s that they showed the kids somebody cares. They didn’t have to go to Flint. They aren’t content with only being football players. Three years ago, shortly after helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl, Smith was a congressional intern for Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings. Now he is getting his masters in business administration from the University of Miami; next year, he hopes to get a real estate license.
Forsett realizes he has a short window when people will pay attention to what he has to say, and he intends to use it. When riots broke out in Baltimore, Forsett spoke to students there.
So Smith told the kids: “Neither one of us drink or smoke. If you eliminate that, you eliminate half your trouble.” And at the end of each session, Forsett gave his version of a stump speech.
“This doesn’t have to define you, this water crisis,” he said. “I came from a town of 3,000, a small country town. Not a lot of people make it out and accomplish their dreams. The name of our city [came from] the tree we have in the center of our city. It’s called the mulberry tree. There is a tree where they used to hang slaves. …
“I know it stinks right now that you have to go pick up water with your brothers every day just so you can have water to bathe, cook and clean. It shouldn’t be like that. But the thing about this is, whenever there’s a test, there’s an opportunity for a testimony. This does not have to define you. It can refine you and make you a better person.”