Coming out of grade school, Keshaun Smith knew he wanted to go to Fenwick. There was just one hold up: money.
Tuition at the Oak Park school is $12,950. Smith, now a Fenwick senior and starting cornerback on the Friars football team, needed to find the missing link.
An Internet search led Smith to LINK Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that offers scholarships of up to $5,000 a year for African-American students who want to attend a private school and need assistance.
LINK doesn’t just hand out checks for tuition. Students have to prove they’re worthy.
“We did an interview and then a six-week boot camp and they put you through algebra and English programs,” Smith said. “My grade school prepared me, but it still didn’t prepare me for LINK. But I got accepted into the program and you have to maintain a 2.7 GPA to stay in it.”
“It’s a great program and a privilege to be part of it,” said Regina Smith, Keshaun’s mom. “One part is paying his tuition, but they do other things to help prepare him for college. They have a prep class for ACT and during the summer they have classes to help them for the upcoming year.”
Keshaun Smith, who is from Maywood, is the only Fenwick student from his grade school class. He struggled socially and academically early in his freshman year.
“The transition was pretty hard,” he said. “My first quarter, I had a 2.5 GPA and LINK and my mom got after me pretty hard. My mom is a student teacher now, but during freshman year we’d have late nights with her helping me study. I raised it up to a 3.0 and it’s been around there ever since.”
His mom helped him adjust to the demanding academics of Fenwick, while sports helped Smith fit in socially.
“I came to the football and basketball camps in the summer and I didn’t know anyone,” he said. “I finally just went up to people and introduced myself. Those camps made it easier when I saw those guys in school.”
Smith didn’t start playing football until seventh grade, but the 5-foot-9, 170-pound cornerback was a starter by his junior year. That was 2012, when the Friars went 8-4 under new coach Gene Nudo.
“It was a great opportunity to start,” Smith said. “We had an entirely new coaching staff and the coaches pushed us and put in a new system. We played good and had good coaches that cared and gave us what we needed to win.”
Fenwick’s state playoff run ended in disappointment. The Friars led Rockford Boylan 21-14 before the Titans returned a punt for a score with 19 seconds to play. Rockford Boylan made a two-point conversion for a 22-21 victory that has been driving Smith and his teammates ever since.
“Coach Nudo made shirts that said ‘Fenwick Football’ on the front and ‘19 seconds’ on the back,” Smith said. “If we ever wanted to slack off, we just had to look at that shirt and realize that we have to work hard and play hard all the time.”
Smith is starting again this year and is a key player on a 6-0 team. The Friars knocked off Gordon 40-7 at Lane Stadium on Saturday. They raced to a 40-0 halftime lead and the starters were pulled early. But Smith and the rest of the Friars’ defense didn’t allow Rams’ quarterback David Holiday to complete a pass in the first half as he went 0-for-10 with three interceptions.
“(Smith is) a quiet grinder who leads by example,” Nudo said. “Smaller in stature, he will challenge receivers with his quickness and leaping ability.”
Smith also puts his leaping ability to use on the basketball court. He’s expected to be a key contributor for Fenwick in the upcoming season. Smith hasn’t decided on where he’ll go to college, but he wants to stay in the Midwest and hopes to continue in sports. .
“I plan on playing sports, either basketball or football or even both,” he said. “But I want to stay in the Midwest because I have a great support system. My family comes to all the games and I love looking in the stands and seeing my mom.”