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Torrey Smith And Baltimore: A Deep Connection

April 17, 2017
Ten days after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in March, former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith met with a group of Baltimore media members at Royal Farms Arena prior to The Torrey Smith Family Fund Charity Basketball Game.

When Smith, who played the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, was asked if there had been a chance of him returning to the Ravens, he replied, "There's always a possibility of everything, but things didn't work out. … No hard feelings."

It was a diplomatic answer, but as he continued talking about being in Baltimore for the sixth annual charity event that bears his name, it was clear Smith did not leave his heart in San Francisco. He may no longer wear purple, but Smith's love for Baltimore and its people has never wavered.

"I became a man here," said Smith, who was drafted by the Ravens out of Maryland in 2011, played four seasons in Baltimore and helped the 2012 team win Super Bowl XLVII. "Both my kids were born here. It's going to be home for my family when I'm done playing."

Smith, who was born in Colonial Beach, Va., and graduated from Stafford High School in Fredericksburg, Va., sold his house in Baltimore last summer but said he still gets treated like a hometown hero whenever he comes back.

"Sometimes I can't even tell that I've been gone," Smith, 28, said with a smile. "Everyone always shows a lot of love, and I appreciate it. I meet people here, and I feel like their nephew or grandson or something. The love shown for my family has always been amazing, and it's home for us."

While with the Ravens from 2011-15, Smith caught 233 passes for 4,005 yards and 34 touchdowns, including the playoffs. Playing on a losing team in San Francisco the last two seasons, Smith's production dropped, but he should improve with Philadelphia, a team that many observers feel can be a playoff contender with more help at wide receiver. However, Smith's contributions have always transcended the numbers on a stat sheet.

Regardless of whether Smith's home stadium is on the West Coast or a couple hours from M&T Bank Stadium up I-95, the majority of his considerable charitable endeavors -- including the basketball game that features his former teammates and local celebrities -- remains in Charm City. 

"When I left the Ravens, I said that our commitment to the city will still be the same," said Smith, whose charitable organization provides support for at-risk youth. "Our roles in the community are bigger than football." 

Another example of Smith's commitment to the city occurred last October when he spent his bye week with the 49ers back in Baltimore co-hosting "Conversations For Change" at Dunbar High School. A panel that included Smith and his wife, Chanel, discussed issues facing young, black males in Baltimore during an interactive forum. 

"Torrey realizes he can't fix the entire world, so he's going to have an impact where he knows he can have an impact," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations. "As he lived here in Baltimore and settled here as a Raven, he saw a real need and saw that he can have an impact."

Smith's main message that day at Dunbar was: "Regardless of where you're from, what your situation is at home doesn't define you."

"When I talk to kids about some of the things I've been through, they relate," he said. "They find out we're more alike than we are different. The more people realize that, you're able to communicate more and open up."

Issue 232: Torrey Smith at 2017 Charity Basketball Game (interview)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox
 
A Mother's Best Friend

The hardships Smith faced growing up are well-documented. The eldest of seven children, he was born to a 16-year-old single mother. Monica Jenkins graduated high school as a mother of two, and she had two more kids before her 20th birthday. Jenkins was going to school and working two or three jobs, so at 4 years old, Smith became the man of the house.  

"Torrey grew up helping me raise my children, so he was my best friend," Jenkins said. "He would go to school all day, do his sports, come home, make sure the kids were good and everybody's homework was done. A lot of times, I would leave the food in the refrigerator. He would come home, put the food in the oven, and he would set the timers and make sure they ate.

"Then I got married and had an abusive husband. Torrey grew up seeing abuse. So he matured a lot faster than a lot of kids."

One of young Smith's duties was fixing breakfast for his three siblings while his mother caught up on sleep. Jenkins nicknamed him "The Microwave King" for his microwave mastery.

"He fixed everything in that microwave," she said. "I had a black magic marker, and I wrote on the food what to set the timer on. Several times, I woke up and he had fixed eggs. I said, 'Boy, how'd you cook the eggs?' He said, 'In the microwave.'"

Rather than being resentful of his situation or using it as a justification to engage in antisocial behavior, Smith proved wise beyond his years.

"Why learn the hard way?" he said. "I had people in my family who made mistakes, including my mom, so that told me to do the opposite. I understood that at an early age."

Jenkins beams with pride when talking about the man her son has become and the positive influence he has had on others, including her.

"Torrey has really inspired me to change my life for the better," she said. "He inspired me to face all the inner stuff I had bound up in me that I just held in for years and years. He had just as much built up in him, but just watching him do what he does made me want to bring it out the way he's bringing it out.

"I worked my butt off until he went into the NFL, and then he said, 'I don't want you working like this anymore. I'm going to take care of you,' and that's what he did. He bought the house, bought my car. Now I'm a real estate agent, and I mentor single females who have gone through a lot of what I've gone through."

Giving Back

Jenkins said Smith "always had a kind heart." Having benefited from the generosity of others growing up, he began paying it forward when he was in middle school, volunteering in activities such as feeding the homeless.

"My family needed and received help, so I knew if I was ever in that position, it's something that I would do," he said. 

Ralph Friedgen, Smith's coach at Maryland, said he recognized when he was recruiting Smith there was something special about him beyond his football skills.

"The character of the individual is surely what sold him on me," said Friedgen, who still keeps in touch with Smith. "I'm not surprised at what he's doing in the community. I could see that happening back when he was in high school."

While attending Maryland, Smith met Chanel, who was a member of the Terps' track team. They quickly learned they had more in common than just an ability to run fast.

"The more we got to know each other, we realized we had that connection of giving back," Chanel Smith said. "Both of us did things in the community throughout college, and we planned on doing so going forward. It wasn't too far into our relationship that we realized we both had this passion for giving back."

As they neared graduation, the couple created their nonprofit organization.

"When we first started the nonprofit, we kind of just did what we were told to do," said Chanel Smith, who has a joint degree in elementary education and sociology and worked as a teacher in Baltimore County while Torrey began his career with the Ravens. "We did back-to-school drives and holiday stuff, and we would show up and it would be great, and we would smile and give out gifts, but we always left feeling incomplete. We realized the one-off events that we were doing were cool, but they weren't really impactful, so we went back to the drawing board.

"About a year-and-a-half ago, we re-evaluated everything that we were doing. We shifted our focus so that now we're developing actual programs that really impact the community for more than one day. We are super hands-on."

One of those programs is the "L.E.V.E.L. (Leadership, Education, Vision, Effort, Love) Teen Summit," the first of which was held last summer. Torrey Smith welcomed 31 at-risk, inner-city Baltimore high school boys to the Maryland campus in College Park for a weekend retreat that focused on character-building, decision-making, goal-setting, etiquette and overcoming adversity.

"We wanted to get them onto a college campus and be able to see what it's like to stay in a dorm, to walk around campus and have that feel, while also talking with them and having meetings and speakers talking about things that they have to overcome," Torrey Smith said.

When speaking to the teens at the summit, Smith stressed the importance of values and education. He told them his goal always was to go to college and he wasn't going to let anything distract him from achieving that goal, regardless of what may have been going on around him. He said he dreamed of playing in the NFL, but he also was determined to get his college degree.

"Torrey had the opportunity to come out of college early and go to the draft," Jenkins said. "I'll never forget the day he called me about it. I said, 'Get your education.' And he said, 'That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to get my education first before I play pro football because that's what I came to college to do.'" 

Smith graduated from Maryland with a degree in criminology and criminal justice. In 2015, he and Chanel enrolled in the University of Miami's executive masters of business administration program and are two classes short of completing it.

Enhancing literacy skills is another component of The Torrey Smith Family Fund. With the "Reading Oasis" program, the organization and its partners have created reading rooms in several Baltimore schools.

"Torrey Smith and his wife came to our school and created the Torrey Smith Reading Room, where they took an old room, repainted it for the kids, put a beautiful mural up on the wall and filled the room with books for the students to read," said Anthony Brooks, the principal at Gardenville Elementary School. "It has computers, nice seating. It's just an awesome place."

What touched Brooks even more than the Smiths' generosity was how down to earth and accessible they were.

"His wife actually got down on the floor and scrubbed the floor to make the room clean for the kids," Brooks said. "They also had an assembly for all the children. He saw every kid in our school. He shook all their hands and talked to them about making the right choices and the importance of reading and school. It's more than giving material things. He's giving the children the wealth of wisdom."

'The Brightest Light'

When the Ravens selected Smith in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, they believed the speedy receiver would be the deep threat the team had been lacking. What they knew for certain was they were getting a high-character individual.

"You want to fill your roster with special people like Torrey," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "He worked hard to be the best player he could be, and he produced in a big way for the Ravens. He cared about his teammates on and off the field."

Byrne saw the latter quality exhibited on Smith's very first day as a Raven. At a news conference with the team's top two draft picks that year -- Jimmy Smith and Torrey Smith -- media members began peppering the cornerback from Colorado with questions about his stock in the draft having dropped due to the baggage he brought with him. Torrey Smith, a model citizen who doesn't smoke or drink alcohol, was quick to have his new teammate's back.

"All of a sudden, Torrey interrupts the press conference and says, 'Hey, I've spent some time with this guy. We were roommates at an all-star game. He's a good guy. You guys are all going to find this out, but I know this already,'" Byrne said. "I remember running up to the draft room and telling John Harbaugh, 'Torrey Smith is going to be one of the great leaders in our franchise. It was bold the way he put himself out there.'"

Byrne also has been impressed by how involved Torrey Smith is with his charitable organization. 

"He's not someone who sponsors from afar or who has ideas and hopes others follow through," Byrne said. "He shows up and does the hard work."

Smith -- a three-time nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which recognizes players who make a significant positive impact on their community -- quickly became one of the Ravens' go-to guys when a player was needed to make an appearance at a community event.

"When it was important to do something in the community and we wanted the brightest light out there, he was the guy we wanted, and he always said yes," Byrne said. "There was one assistant coach who wondered if Torrey was doing too much. He said, 'I keep seeing the clips, and he seems to be somewhere almost every day. And on his day off, he's doing multiple things.' It's just who he is. He really is sincere, and he's got great energy. He can't sit still, but with that energy he's doing something good. You are blessed to know Torrey Smith."

Honoring His Brother

It's obvious Smith takes his philanthropy and responsibility as a role model seriously, but there's a fun side to him as well. At his charity basketball game -- which he refers to as a "fun-raiser," pun intended -- Smith flashed his infectious smile often that Sunday afternoon while shooting hoops and joking around with the likes of former Ravens teammates Ed Reed, Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones and Tyrod Taylor.

Issue 232: Torrey Smith 2017 Charity Basketball Game
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Smith said he's humbled by his friends donating their time.

"They could be anywhere," he said. "They could be on the beach somewhere or working out, but they're here giving their time to the community and the kids love it."

Reed said all it took to get him to travel from Georgia to Baltimore to play in the game was a simple phone call from Smith asking him to come. Reed joked he even played hurt.

"When Torrey called me, I was looking forward to it," Reed said. "And then Friday I was playing in the backyard with my son, I sprained my ankle, and I called Torrey on Saturday and said, 'Hey man, I broke my foot. I'm not going to make it.' Eight hours later, I'm walking on it, so I'm like, 'OK, it's all right.' This is what it's about. I get to see my brothers and be back in the Baltimore community."

For Smith, the most special part of the event takes place at halftime, when he awards college scholarships in his late brother Tevin Jones' name to four high school seniors.

Jones was 19 when he was killed in a motorcycle accident Sept. 22, 2012. Less than 24 hours later, Smith was thrust into the national spotlight when he caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Ravens to an emotional, 31-30 victory against the New England Patriots in a Sunday night game.

"The way the city helped my family respond to his death helped us ease our pain through the love and support they showed here, so it's fitting that we continue to give that love here," Smith said.

Jones had been planning to attend Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, Va., in January 2013.

"This is Torrey's way of keeping his brother alive," Jenkins said. "Being able to help somebody else's child go to college because his brother didn't get to."

Smith, who remains the most productive homegrown Ravens wide receiver, may never catch another pass in a Ravens uniform, but he undoubtedly will continue to make his presence felt in Baltimore for years to come.

"He cares about this community, and he keeps coming back to make it better," Harbaugh said. "When it comes to being a great, giving person, he talks the talk and walks the walk."

Issue 232: April 2017