Former Iowa State wrestling coach Kevin Jackson sent a text to each one of his newcomers when they first arrived to campus. He asked how they liked Iowa State and how they were adjusting.
Most of the time the responses he received were something along the lines of, “I like it, I like Iowa State.” Or: “It feels like home.”
Earl Hall, a Florida native, said he loved Iowa State even though he initially felt a little out of place. But he attributed that to being far away from home.
Quean Smith’s — pronounced KEY-on — response was much different.
“I feel safe.”
“I had never heard that before,” Jackson said. “You feel safe? I’ve never heard a student-athlete come on campus and ask them how they feel and they say they feel safe.”
Quean had a good reason for that response.
In Ames, Quean could get on a bus and not have to worry if that was his last time. He could go into a gas station and not worry about it being shot up.
“Growing up, I never felt safe,” Quean said. “There were all types of stuff going on — killings, robbings. It was terrifying. I couldn’t even walk down my own block without worrying about, ‘Is today my last day?’
“Then, when I came to Iowa State — at first I was still looking behind myself checking to see if someone was behind me. But then after awhile I’m like, ‘There’s nobody there to get me.’ I felt safe.”
No more teachers, no more school
Quean grew up in Detroit and went to school in Highland Park — a suburb just north of Detroit.
The only problem was there was no school.
There was a building, but it had no teachers. There were students, but they had no principal.
“By the time I got to 10th grade, my whole school was taken over by gangs,” Quean said.
Every time a new teacher came in, the gangs beat them up. The school had a new principal every single year Quean was there because the gangs ran them out.
The teachers were terrified to teach at a school where they couldn’t walk down the hallway because there was a gang on one side of the wall and a gang on the other side. And if they walked down that line, something was going to happen.
“Every day we either had a bomb threat or a riot or EMS come in because someone got beat up,” Quean said.
The school had metal detectors, but they didn’t work, so students started bringing guns to school.
Quean had three stable teachers from his freshman to his senior year.
He didn’t take four classes in a year until his senior year.
In between the classes Quean did have, he either sat in a classroom with one of the stable teachers, went to the wrestling room or went to the cafeteria.
He tried to stay away from the gangs. But that didn’t mean the thought never crept into his head.
Introduction to athletics
Quean’s mom, Florence Vanhorn, ran track for a junior college before she blew out her knee. She introduced Quean to athletics.
He started playing baseball, but soon after, his mom started coaching him to be a runner.
Quean, who was 5-foot-10 and 250 pounds in high school, had a perfect frame to be a thrower.
“I didn’t want to do that,” Quean said. “They put me against another big guy [in a race], and he was pretty fast, and they were like, ‘If you beat him, we’ll put you [at the 100-yard spot].’ And I did. Ever since then I was the starter in the 100-yard dash.”
With help from his mom, Quean became a dominant runner.
The worst he ever finished was third, he said. Most of the time a first-place finish for Quean was a foregone conclusion. The only time he didn’t finish first was when they raced big schools.
“People underestimated me thinking I was slow,” Quean said. “By that time I was 250 pounds — it was easy, I was able to move. That’s why it shocked everybody.”
Quean also played baseball and football — and of course, he wrestled. He played as many sports as he could for as long as he could.
Which wasn’t very long.
His high school had every sport from swimming to basketball.
“But then they started shutting them down,” Quean said. “So we lost half our sports. By the time I got to my senior year, we just had basketball and football.”
Wrestling was cut during his senior season.
Some of the members of the cut sports joined gangs.
“What else is there to do?” Quean asked. “We didn’t have teachers, so you couldn’t do anything [academically], and we didn’t have any sports, so what else could you possibly do to try to get out? Nothing.”
Quean had an opportunity to join them.
“You know, we don’t get out of the hood, so you might as well bang with us,” Quean said gang members told him.
Part of his mind said, “Ok, I’ll do that.”
“I knew I wasn’t good in school and to get into college you have to be smart,” Quean said. “I knew I was just good at sports. It was hard trying to stay focused in sports and everything else.”
The school was shut down for good the year after Quean graduated.
The other path
Quean stayed with his grandmother most nights. His cousin Wally Vanhorn stayed with them, too. That’s where Jackson went to recruit Quean.
“When I went on a recruiting visit there, I flew into Detroit,” Jackson said. “And I’m from Lansing, [Michigan], I’m from down the street of Detroit. I was like, ‘I have a GPS, I can find Quean’s house.’ And his coach was like, ‘No, coach, meet us here and we’ll take you to Quean’s house.’”
Jackson described a scene straight out of a movie.
Liquor store on the corner.
Grass up to his waist.
The windows of houses were boarded up.
And prostitutes on the corner.
But this wasn’t a movie. His grandmother lived here. His mother lived in the projects.
“My father left, so I didn’t have that support. I was raised by my grandmother and my mother,” Quean said. “Other than that I was raised with the streets. That’s all I knew.”
Wally was already in a gang, and Quean thought about joining him.
“We’re family. I’ll ride with you,” Quean told him.
“No, this is not it,” Wally responded. “The only reason I’m doing it is because I can’t play sports and I’m not good at school. But you’re good at sports, and when you put your mind to it, you can do something in school.”
Wally convinced Quean to stay out of the gang life for good.
Quean may have thought about joining a gang a couple of times, but he never had the urge to fully commit to it.
“There was always something behind me telling me this isn’t the life you’re going to take. You’re going to take the other path,” Quean said.
So he eventually committed to wrestle at Iowa State.
A new family
Jackson was told Quean wouldn’t make it a semester. He had dyslexia and read at a third-grade level.
He was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
“You think everything is out to get you,” Quean said. “Junior year in high school, I lost my favorite coach. He taught me everything I know. He taught me everything from baseball to football and wrestling. And he passed away [from a heart attack]. A few weeks later, my favorite teacher passed away. It was so hard to work through it myself that I started losing my mind.”
He saw his former coach’s face when he wasn’t there. He thought people were following him when they weren’t. He could hear voices when no one else was around.
Soon, Quean was hospitalized.
“I was in there for seven days, and it was tough,” Quean said. “I was breaking. I didn’t know what was going on — I was still a kid.”
When he got to Iowa State, people like Jackson and former Assistant Athletic Director David Harris, who is currently the athletic director at Northern Iowa, knew about Quean’s diagnosis.
Harris and Jackson put the proper people in place to make sure Quean was successful.
“Kevin, working in conjunction with our student services staff, working in conjunction with our team doctors and then people who are on campus who are trained mental health specialists that we could put together a team that would provide Quean the support that he would need,” Harris said.
But Quean still had a hard time opening up to people.
He described himself as the world’s friendliest person. Quean can hold a conversation for well over an hour.
He just didn’t know how to talk about something like this.
“I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I wouldn’t open up because I was afraid,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do, and I had people that would probably judge me. That’s when I really didn’t know what to do at Iowa State because I’m here on my own. I had never left the nest before, but I came to a new state and I didn’t know what to do. I was scared.”
It was Robin Jackson, Kevin's wife, who finally got through to him. She’s a psychiatric nurse at Mary Greely Medical Center in Ames, and she could see something was wrong with him.
“Before I told her what I was diagnosed with, I just told her what was going on,” Quean said. “When I started talking with her, she already knew. She busted it out before I even said it. When she knew, I took a deep breath. ‘Ok, now I can tell you.’”
The Jacksons became Quean’s surrogate parents in Ames. His real mom was 10 hours away, and he never had a dad.
The Jacksons embraced him.
Anytime Quean was having a bad day, Kevin told him to come up to his office or his house. Or if Quean needed to blow off some steam, Kevin was there to help with that, too.
Quean made it a semester with Jackson's help. And more.
“Like I said, I came here with no knowledge,” Quean said. “I had no teachers so I had no knowledge. I took the ACT seven times and the SAT three times and I didn’t have the knowledge.
“When I was coming here and taking classes, I just told myself I’m going to fail all of these classes because it was easy. It’s easy to fail. But then I had people over at Hixson telling me I could do it. When they were telling me that I was like, all right I’ll try harder. Then I talked with Travis [Paulson] one day and I told him, ‘I’m trying to do this work.’ And he said, ‘Only losers try. You can do it.’ So I did.”
The amount of work Quean put into his classes at Iowa State was something the people at Hixson-Lied had never seen before. He was there for at least 10 hours a week.
Masse Poetting, an academic coordinator at Hixson, said the average time spent in Hixson for an athlete is 6 to 8 hours a week.
If Quean wasn’t in practice or in class, he was at Hixson.
Every time he enrolled in a new class, he brought it over to Hixson, and they developed a plan for his success.
The plans worked. Quean graduated with a degree in liberal arts in December.
Five years ago, people told him he’d be back in Detroit in a month. Now he’s a college graduate.
“He went and he earned it because at any time he could’ve fell off and ended up back in Detroit becoming ineligible,” Jackson said. “We’re really hoping he can finish this off the right way."
Watching Quean work out in the weight room and on the mat is a sight to behold, senior wrestler Earl Hall said.
If you asked Quean to do 10 backflips, he’d do 10 backflips.
If you asked Quean to race you, he’d beat you — at least for the first 10 yards.
When the team is in the weight room, no one is able to match what Quean can do.
One day, the whole team was doing a technically sound power-clean, laboring over the weight.
Quean was doing reverse curls with 215 pounds.
“When Quean power-cleans, he just flips his arms up,” Hall said. “It’s so effortless. It’s not fair.”
Quean’s response to his unmatched strength is a simple one: “If it looks light, I’ll lift it.” A lot of things look light to Quean.
“When I first got here I threw six plates on the squat rack and I did it without any problems," Quean said.
That’s six 45-pound plates on each side of the 45-pound bar — 585 pounds when it’s all added together.
The most Quean ever bench-pressed was 445 pounds.
“I just lift whatever the coaches put on,” Quean said. “I never tell them it’s too heavy. I just lift it.”
The last one
While Quean’s physical strength is seemingly endless, it hasn’t always translated to the mat.
The four-year starter at heavyweight has never qualified for the NCAA Championships. He was in position last season, but he got a phone call from back home.
His cousin Wally died. He was shot and killed due to gang violence. The man who steered Quean in the right direction in high school died Feb. 4.
To this day, Quean hasn’t gotten a phone call from a family member from back home with good news.
Jackson said he couldn’t remember a year at Iowa State when Quean didn’t have someone close to him die.
Quean might not be a paranoid schizophrenic anymore, but the doctor’s did diagnose him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I started having PTSD because I started losing everybody,” Smith said. “I grew up with a lot of good friends. They might have been in gangs, but they were good guys to me. We didn’t have fathers, so we grew up together knowing the same thing. I grew up with those guys, and now — I’m the last one.”
Quean said something that’s been broken as many times as he has couldn’t be fixed anymore.
So he’s turned his life into a life of helping kids with physical and mental disabilities.
Quean always worked at the Iowa State wrestling camps over the summers. He worked with kids ranging from 6 to 15 years old.
“He’s really been patient with kids [with learning disabilities],” Jackson said. “He’s really taken those kids under his wing. Parents send their kids back specifically to work with Quean. That’s just who he is.”
When kids worked with Quean, they wouldn’t just get lessons on the wrestling mat — they’d get life lessons. He got permission from their parents to tell their kids stories, and he didn’t sugarcoat anything.
“I opened up to the kids and I talked to them about, ‘No matter how life is, you can do it,’” Quean said. “If I was able to make it out of the projects, the worst projects in the world, you can make it out of anywhere. I had a couple kids get emotional with me and want to hug. And I was fine with that because I love kids.”
Every year, the kids came back. Quean exchanged phone numbers with them in case they needed anything.
But this last summer was hard for everybody. It was Quean’s last time working a camp.
Some of the kids at the camp were getting into trouble or skipping classes, so Quean told them stories about kids he knew who were always getting into trouble.
He doesn’t want to leave his kids with a sad story — he wants to leave them with a success story.
His own story.
“A lot of them asked, ‘Would you come back just for camp?’ And I would come back for camp,” Quean said. “I would come back one more year for camp because I created a bond with a lot of those kids, I stayed in a dorm with them, we talked, we had meetings. They don’t want me to leave yet, so I told them I’d come back one more year for them and see them.
“My story this year will be that I graduated college and I’m going to move on with my life.”
When Quean told his mom and grandma that he graduated, they cried tears of joy. It hasn't fully hit him yet, but it will soon enough, and when it does, he'll cry along with them, he said.
Quean has a job lined up with a company called Family First in Santa Barbara, California.
He’ll be working full-time with kids who have disabilities. He’s taken multiple sign language classes at Iowa State to ensure he’ll be able to work with every child he can.
“By me having a disability and not having any help growing up, I feel like I should be the one to help kids,” Quean said. “I’m going to go out there and help kids and do my best with any problems [the kids might have]. I’m a patient person and I don’t rush anything. I think going into that field will be really good for me. It’s just something that I really want to do.”
Quean has the potential to impact the lives of kids in California, but it wouldn’t be possible without the help he got at Iowa State.
“For us, me and my wife, we feel like we saved a life,” Jackson said.
Quean agreed. Without wrestling and without Jackson, Quean said he probably wouldn’t be here anymore.
“That’s one thing I can say about Iowa State,” Quean said. “I will always have people that say, ‘We have your back, and we have your back to the end.’ Everybody here that I have worked with has my back since I walked on this campus, and I can do nothing but thank everybody here.”