Earlier this month, former Ravens defensive lineman Za'Darius Smith signed a four-year, $66 million deal with the Green Bay Packers, and one of the first things the 27-year-old from Greenville, Ala., did was buy his mother, Sharon, a new home.
"I just surprised her with a house, so that's why she's sitting here right now," Smith said on
Glenn Clark Radio
March 25 alongside his mother from her new house. "We had to cut the power on and the lights. I just did that for her and she started crying, man."
"I'm going to miss Baltimore, too, but we have to go where the Lord sends us to," said Sharon Smith, who had lived in the house that Za'Darius grew up in for 39 years. "Words can't express how we thank everybody in Baltimore, and how we're just waiting patiently to get to Green Bay to meet our new family there. We're just thankful."
"For me to be raised in that house and to be able to bless her with an opportunity to go out in the country ... it's big, man," Za'Darius Smith said. "And to see that smile on her face once I gave her the key, it means so much, to me and my family, also."
It was at East Mississippi that Smith met Brittany Wagner, the team's academic adviser. In Wagner, Smith found someone who could keep him on the right path, 150 miles from home in a sport he had only played for a year.
"She helped me achieve so much in my JUCO role and helped me get to Kentucky," Smith said. "It took a lot, but she was like that mom away from home trying to help us stay in school and make sure we get our work done."
After moving on to the University of Kentucky, and eventually getting drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2015, Smith continued to return to East Mississippi Community College and visit Wagner.
"I think after I went to Kentucky I went back one or two times, and then when I first got drafted I went back like twice," Smith said. "Every time I go back to her, she has that office, and every time I knocked on that door she shed a tear and I shed a tear; we got a little emotional in there."
Wagner has since moved on from East Mississippi, but the two still keep in touch.
"I did receive a phone call from Ms. Brittany the day after the news came out that I was going to Green Bay," Smith said. "She went all the way back to when I took my first visit there, and she was like, 'This kid only played one year of high school football, and look at him now.' I appreciate her a lot, too, and I can tell her thank you."
Wagner isn't the only mentor that Smith has had leading up to his big contract, however. He spent four seasons playing behind, and then alongside, former Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
With a career-high 8.5 sacks, 2018 was the first year during which Smith (who led the team) surpassed the 36-year-old Suggs. Smith said he owed a lot of his success to learning from the franchise's all-time sacks leader.
"Just learning my opponent well -- you know, just keying in on the little things about football that he taught me," Smith said. "For all that to come together, I think it all showed in year four what I learned from him, and what I can continue to do."
While he didn't buy his former teammate a house, he did find another way to pay him tribute. Smith plans on wearing number 55 -- the only number Suggs wore during his 16-year-tenure in Baltimore -- with the Green Bay Packers.
"I just appreciate him a lot, man, and just the leadership and what I've learned from him," Smith said. "I'm just happy to be able to represent that number and for the Raven Flock fans to know why I'm wearing number 55."
The Packers certainly hope Smith will emulate Suggs' production beyond simply wearing the same number. Smith's 8.5 sacks would have ranked second on the team behind outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, and the defense will have a new look after losing veteran starters Nick Perry and Clay Matthews.
"Just to be able to fill some big shoes of guys like Clay Matthews, I watched that guy for a long time, and for them to bring me in to continue to fill his role and do great things, I'm just thankful for the opportunity."