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Rochester man finds purpose in martial arts, despite being blind

DeVaughn Smith walked away from a life of gang violence to pursue his dream of competing in martial arts tournaments, all while being blind in both eyes.

DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith
DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith practices a new technique with owner Mario Roberto on Monday, Feb. 21, 2022, at Mario Roberto Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — DeVaughn Smith has felt the need to fight his entire life.

Even when Smith started losing his sight at 12 years old, he didn’t let that stop him from fighting, whether that was on a wrestling mat or in his everyday life.

Now 27, and with a past of gang affiliations behind him, Smith uses fighting – martial arts such as wrestling and jiu-jitsu – to give him a greater sense of purpose.
“It’s given me an outlet, a distraction from my problems,” Smith said. “When I’m on the mat training, the only thing I’m worried about is not getting taken down, what I’m doing. I’m not worried about other stuff. It’s my escape, and when I was doing sports in school, it was the only positive thing I can hold on to, something I can be proud of, and I can go and tell people about what I’m doing.”

As glaucoma made him lose sight in his left eye, Smith said his aggressive behavior and need to fight only increased, leading him to join a gang. Struggles in school soon followed, and sports such as wrestling became out of reach due to his grades.

DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith
DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith practices a new technique with owner Mario Roberto on Monday, Feb. 21, 2022, at Mario Roberto Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

The attitude, which led to constant fighting, is the reason Smith believes he lost sight in his right eye. Throughout high school, he said, he had his retina reattached three times, with each time deteriorating his eyesight even more.

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When he was 17, doctors noticed his retina was detached again while trying to remove a cataract. Smith said the surgery the doctors performed had a 50% chance of working and “you know, it didn’t work.”

Smith said losing his sight caused him to spiral, but a newly discovered relationship with religion helped him through it.

“I did not handle it good,” Smith said. “I got really depressed, suicidal, but I just kind of found a relationship with God. ... Me finding faith was what kind of gave me the strength to keep on just accomplishing whatever it is in life. I knew that I had some kind of purpose.”

This turning point in Smith’s life came shortly after becoming completely blind and almost being killed.

“I got shot at,” he said. “It wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time I was like, ‘I can’t run anymore.’”

Smith ended up transferring schools and enrolled at the Missouri School for the Blind. Despite attending the new school and leaving gang life behind, Smith’s bad attitude stayed with him — refusing to do his schoolwork, getting in arguments with teachers and still wearing his gang colors to classes.

“I still wanted to hold onto that image that I was trying to live, but really that wasn’t really the kind of kid I was,” he said.

Smith said his attitude started changing the more time he spent in the school. He was realizing he no longer needed to watch his back, or bring a weapon to school to fend off a rival gang. Instead, he was finding comfort among the students and teachers, leading to an improvement in his grades and his being able to participate in wrestling and track and field.

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“I was able to just kind of be normal and be goofy and be silly,” Smith said.

DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith
DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith listens as a new technique is demonstrated Monday, Feb. 21, 2022, at Mario Roberto Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

After graduating from the Missouri School for the Blind, Smith was unsure what his next chapter in life would be. He graduated from an automotive technical school, but his inability to get a driver’s license kept him from finding a job. In 2020, Smith enrolled at Missouri Baptist University with a full wrestling scholarship but dropped out a year later due to issues surrounding a custody battle with his ex-wife.

“I just broke down and was so frustrated,” Smith said.

With looking for a fresh start away from St. Louis, Smith turned to his cousin who lives in Rochester. He moved in with him last November with plans to attend Mario Roberto’s Jiu-Jitsu Academy. Since joining, Smith has been traveling across the region competing in tournaments, all the while attending Rochester Community Technical College, majoring in business and hoping to join the wrestling team.

Smith is currently a white belt, but owner Mario Roberto said Smith isn’t far from being promoted to a blue belt and is right where he should be in terms of his grappling and wrestling skills.

“It’s impressive, man,” Roberto said. “He gets into the locker room, gets his uniform on, gets on to the mat and has never asked for special attention, never asked for special favors and has never been asked to be treated differently and that’s how we like them. ... He’s just here to do the work.”

DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith
DeVaughn "Bam Bam" Smith practices with Dzenan Hamzagic on Monday, Feb. 21, 2022, at Mario Roberto Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

While Smith has aspirations of participating in the Paralympics, he has a larger goal in mind.

He wants to open his own gym one day called “Roughhouse Grappling,” where he can teach kids the sport that not only gave him an outlet when he was young but helped him overcome his past.

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“I want to give kids an outlet for their frustrations, a distraction from life, something positive,” Smith said. “Sports are what helped me belong because that’s one of the biggest reasons why I joined a gang — because I didn’t feel like I belonged to anybody.

“Sports made me feel a part of something.”

Related Topics: ROCHESTERPEOPLEEXCLUSIVE
Erich is a digital content producer at the Post Bulletin where he creates content for the Post Bulletin's digital platforms. Before he moved to Rochester, Erich worked as a sports reporter for Rivals.com covering the University of Illinois' athletic programs in Champaign, Illinois. Readers can reach Erich at 507-285-7681 or efisher@postbulletin.com.
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