By Sam Farmer Los Angeles Times
NEW ORLEANS — The most impressive game of Torrey Smith’s NFL career was also the most emotionally wrenching.
Less than 24 hours after learning his younger brother had been killed in a motorcycle accident, the Baltimore Ravens receiver braved his way through a home game against New England, catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-30 victory in Week 3.
That’s the kind of strength the Ravens have come to expect from Smith, a second-year standout from the University of Maryland who overcame a tumultuous childhood — one in which he had to take on a parental role — to emerge as one of the Ravens’ most respected leaders.
For the Ravens, Smith is an offensive cornerstone, a receiver who can stretch defenses to a snapping point. He’s surely a focal point of the San Francisco 49ers, who struggled to contain Atlanta’s Julio Jones in the NFC championship game, the Falcons’ receiver catching 11 balls for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith had 49 catches for 855 yards and eight touchdowns this season, and has added nine for 198 yards and two touchdowns during the playoffs.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said Smith “is becoming better and better in every single route that we have. He’s just really developing and becoming really confident. Some of it is the fact that we really trust him, and we’re allowing him to show what he can do.”
Smith, who wraps his hands around passes with grace and ease, is still trying to wrap his head around a season so filled with high points and heartbreak.
“I’ve never really won,” he said in a phone interview from Baltimore. The Ravens arrive in New Orleans today. “I’ve been part of an average team, or a slightly-above-average team, but I’ve never been a part of anything like this.
“At the same time, I’ve never had to deal with death at all, especially in my immediate family. This is as high as I’ve been in sports, but also as low as I’ve been in my life.”
He doesn’t dwell too long in discussing his younger brother Tevin Chris Jones, who was killed Sept. 22 in an accident in northeast Virginia. The emotional wounds are too raw.
“My brother’s death happened; it was an accident,” said Smith, who was awakened in the middle of the night at the team hotel and informed of the news. “You learn from it to appreciate life, to understand that it can be taken from you at any second. I draw strength from other people around me.”
Typical of Smith, one of seven children, his focus is far broader than just himself.
“It’s not like I’m the only person in the world who’s lost someone in an accident,” he said. “It happens every day. Every day someone’s getting that phone call.”
Raised by a single mother, Monica Jenkins, Smith watched over his siblings from the time he was barely more than a toddler. The first four of Jenkins’ seven children were born when she was 16, 17, 18 and 19.
There were many days when Smith, at age 4, would be home alone with his three younger siblings and would be responsible for making them breakfast.
“I was the oldest, so I was always caring for everyone,” he said. “My mom worked two jobs. My grandma, we stayed close, so when I was young I just started understanding that I was the oldest and I had to take care of them. That was just my responsibility.
“It sounds kind of funny now, me making them a meal. My sister talks about it. I could make anything in that microwave, from eggs to hot dogs. Whatever you needed, I could make it in the microwave.”
His mother was in and out of abusive relationships, including one in which her boyfriend held her hostage in a car, at gunpoint, with Torrey and his brother in the back seat. The man held the gun to her head, then fired a shot through the roof.
“It’s something I think about often,” Smith said of the incident. “Because for everything that happened to my mother, there’s a million other people out there in the same situation. My mom was in an abusive relationship, and domestic violence is a problem in our country as a whole. I just happened to be one of those guys whose family happened to fit that mold.
“It was tough. We were in a lot of difficult situations that probably could have been avoided … but going through those situations I learned how to respect women, and I figured out how I wanted to be as a man.
“I don’t regret anything that’s happened, good or bad, because I learned how to deal with things.”
Determined to make a better life for her children, Jenkins took computer classes at a community college and worked her way up to a job at the Department of the Navy that paid $109,000 per year. But in 2010, a dispute with her daughter-in-law turned violent, and Jenkins — who had previous arrests and a two-month jail stint on her record – went back to jail for six months.
Jenkins hadn’t been in a fight in 13 years, and by all accounts had gotten her life on track. But the setback cost her the job with the Navy. Smith is still close to his mother, who now works at a restaurant in Maryland, but for the moment has asked her not to speak with reporters during the run-up to the Super Bowl.
Ralph Friedgen, Maryland’s football coach at the time, wrote a character reference for Jenkins that was acknowledged in court. In part crediting Smith’s mother, the coach wrote: “I have never met a better character player than Torrey Smith.”
For Smith, his mother and her troubles is a constant reminder that there’s a real and sometimes cruel world outside the NFL.
“I’m doing fine, and everyone’s happy for me,” he said. “But I watch my mom, and she was at the top. Now she’s at the bottom. That’s how life is. To see that, I’m humbled every day.
“I help my family. My mom, she’ll never fall on her face as long as I can help it. But you have to be smart. There’s only so much you can do before you hurt yourself. Rather than being another statistic, I just kind of learned from everybody else’s mistakes.”—