Breaking the stereotype
MICHIGAN CITY — Playing varsity football at Michigan City High School taught Travis Harmon-Smith the importance of perseverance in overcoming adversity.
He figured if he could handle 2 hours of rigorous training in 90 degree weather, he could handle anything.
But when he came home from practice every day, it wasn’t to dream about becoming a football star.
Rather, it was to practice the craft of writing.
“Nobody knew I was a writer,” the 2008 MCHS grad said during a phone interview from Lexington, Kentucky.
“I kind of hid it on the down low. I used to get out of football practice and come home and write poetry. That transitioned into writing short stories and narratives. In 2007, I broke my leg my senior year and that’s when my writing really started to increase.”
Now Harmon-Smith, a Michigan City native and former varsity fullback, is in the midst of living what he calls his dream, being an on air reporter for an ABC affiliate station in Lexington. He covers crime, politics and features, plus national stories like the California fire.
Friends and family back home will be able to catch him live New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day when he’s part of WTVQ’s livestream coverage of the 2018 VRBO Citrus Bowl, a game pitting Penn State and the University of Kentucky in Florida.
The stream can be found online at wtvq.com from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. (EST) Monday and Tuesday.
“Growing up in Michigan City, I always wanted to be different,” Harom-Smith said on Friday.
“I developed this dream to be a TV journalist when I was in Rockford, Illinois, in 2009 attending Rock Valley College, one year removed from high school. At first I wanted to be a sports anchor or a sports reporter. I never told anybody though. I never told anyone in my home town in Michigan City because I thought people would look at me strange. I was worried about how people perceived me.”
That’s because Harmon-Smith wasn’t used to meeting black writers in the Southgate community where he grew up. He simply didn’t look like most writers he knew, even though he’d found himself drawn to the craft since age 9.
Football was a more socially acceptable hobby to brag about to friends.
Harmon-Smith said his mother worked most of the time and his biological father was serving a life sentence for murder. Most of his care was provided by his two grandmothers.
He credits his late grandmother Lillian Harmon for his good care until his sophomore year at MCHS (when health issues prevented her from continuing her duties), and grandmother Joyce Hill for raising him after that.
He said they fed him so well, he got too big to play Pop Warner, and had to wait until eighth grade to take up football. But there he excelled.
He became a defensive lineman in middle school, then transitioned to fullback in high school, making the varsity team in 2006.
“Football propelled me into being who I am,” he said. “It taught me that discipline and perseverance can overcome adversity. Those twice-a-day practices in the summer. If I can make it through that, I can do anything.”
But football is what his family and community expected of him, he said. What they didn’t know was his penchant for writing. So when he broke his fibula his senior year and found himself no longer able to play, he jumped into writing.
“I was really depressed and writing got me away from the world,” he explained.
Even when he returned to football at Rock Valley, he knew his days in the sport were numbered. He said he felt like he was trying to be someone he wasn’t. And his leg was still bothering him.
So he decided to follow his gut, and seriously pursue writing.
“I always wanted to show the black youth in my community you can be something different than what you’ve been (seen as),” he said. “There aren’t a lot of black journalists or a lot of black TV reporters from Michigan City. So I think my goal was to create an opportunity for the next black male, the next black woman to open another path for them to pursue their dream.”
While he originally pursued sports journalism, he started to become more interested in TV news and features.
He went on to graduate from Northwestern Oklahoma State University in 2016 with a bachelor’s of science degree in mass communication and journalism, then got his first gig at WSBT-TV Channel 22 in South Bend as a videographer and editor. Although he produced several online stories, he never appeared on air in a reporting capacity.
Then he was hired this July at ABC affiliate WTVQ-TV Channel 36 News in Lexington.
“I’ve always had a great presence and an inherent talent,” he said, “but never the opportunity until now.”
And he loves his work. He said covering crime and politics can be some of the most important work of a journalist, but he enjoys writing features most.
“A feature is basically an innovative or creative way to convey someone’s life or someone’s situation,” he said. “Feature stories are extremely creative in terms of how to (get a theme across). Every story has to have a theme, otherwise, why are you telling me this story? People have to find it of interest. You want people to remember them for years to come.”
He said one of the most tragic stories he’s covered was the murder of Trinity Gay, daughter of Olympic sprinter Tyson Gay. Harmon-Smith said Trinity was a track star in high school who got multiple college offers before being killed during a shootout in 2016.
He covered the trial, got to meet with the family, and the experience affected him.
“It was a very sad story,” he said. “I don’t have kids, but what if I had a daughter and this happened to me? It makes you look at life in a totally different perspective.”
Now when Harmon-Smith returns to Michigan City, he said kids are surprised to learn he’s a writer. And he hopes this inspires them.
“I want to be able to show these kids you can be anything you want to be,” he said, “not what society tells you to be. I wanted to show the Michigan City community what it means to be different.”
He credits his uncle Kevin Harmon, a local photographer, with being an important influence on his life, as well as friends Ryan Isaac, Adam Harmon and Jarrod Jones, among others, with helping to keep him going in the right direction.
“As a black man, I know how they’ve been stigmatized,” he said. “What we’ve been perceived to be. A lot of people know me and know what I’ve done… I’ve achieved my dream.”