NEW ORLEANS — Anquan Boldin called it heartache.
Joe Flacco called it unbelievable.
Vontae Leach said it was “one of the greatest things I have seen someone do in football.”
But for Torrey Smith, going back and playing football less than a day after his brother was killed in a motorcycle accident was less a noble cause for him than others made it out to be, he said. It was duty.
He’s the big brother in a family of nine. Smith is the pillar, and letting his teammates down would have been commensurate to walking out on his mother, brothers and sisters in their greatest time of need.
In short, it wasn’t happening.
Tevin Chris Jones, 19, was pronounced dead at the scene last September 22 after his motorcycle ran off the right side of the road in northeast Virginia and struck a utility pole, according to police. Jones was wearing a helmet, and alcohol was not involved. It was just a fluke accident in the middle of the night.
Torrey Smith heard the news around 1 a.m. early Sunday morning and was ripped to pieces. He accompanied a Ravens team official from the team’s hotel to the hospital and met his family there. Smith slept no more than an hour, he said, that night and made the decision around 4 a.m. to play in the game that same night against the Patriots.
The decision to play that night was left by head coach John Harbaugh in Smith’s hands. That’s where so many key decisions had laid when Smith grew up the oldest of seven kids with a mother who worked multiple jobs to keep them fed and warm and protected.
Smith felt his fallen brother wanted him to be out on that field in Week Three. He got his blessing from the rest of the family. His teammates did their best to console and comfort Smith, but also maintain as much level of normalcy as possible.
“I think as an organization, we’ve tried to be as supportive as possible,” Boldin said. “We’ve tried to put our arms around him and love him, let him know that we’re there for him, whatever he needs. I think he’s done a great job.”
That night was surreal. Smith caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-30 victory over the Patriots, coming back from a 13-0 deficit. After the first score, a 25-yarder to get the Ravens on the board, Smith looked overwhelmed with emotion as he clutched the ball and looked skyward.
But Smith said he managed to keep his emotions in check and approach the game as if it was a mostly typical work affair.
“I play the same regardless,” Smith said. “Even though my brother passed, I’ve always gone out and played my heart out for my family every time I step out on the field. That’s my brothers, my sisters, even my mother and my grandmother. Those are the people that helped me get to this point and depended on me.”
The first night, there was shock. Over time, reality sunk in. Smith’s second NFL season featured a number of highs, but the emotional toll rose as time went on.
“It got harder at times,” Smith said. “I’d think about (him) a lot. But I knew I had to keep on with my business. My teammates counted on me.”
“Once the game started, I really wasn’t too worried about him that night,” Flacco said. “I was kind of more worried about him once he went home and maybe the reality of everything had kind of sunk in.”
Smith leaned on his closest friend on the team, practice-squad WR LaQuan Williams. The two had played at Maryland together, and they spent nearly every Tuesday — the players’ day off during the season — together. Williams didn’t attempt to be an armchair psychiatrist. He just tried to do what they always had done and keep their relationship static.
When Patriots fans taunted Smith about his brother’s death, he never flinched, according to Williams.
“We talked about it a little,” Williams said. “Torrey will open up to you eventually, but he does it (on his terms). It takes time. We’re close. He just needed someone there with him. I didn’t do anything too different. He’s a strong guy.”
That usually meant marathon sessions of FIFA Soccer 13, their favorite video game. They’d switch up the teams they play against each other, attempt different feats on the game and try like heck to beat each other. Smith treasures his time with Williams.
“That’s my guy right there,” Smith said. “We’re close.”
Smith is well-liked by the rest of the team, too. Boldin has adopted him as his own, so to speak.
“He’s like my little brother,” Boldin said. “He comes to me for a lot of advice on and off the field and I try to help him out as much as I can.”
But at the same time, Boldin was struck — before and after the tragedy — at Smith’s rare maturity, especially for a player who entered the NFL a year early and still is only 24 years old.
“I think Torrey’s real mature for his age,” Boldin said. “He’s pretty much the man of his house in his family, and he’s done a great job of dealing with that and playing great football at the same time.”
WR coach Jim Hostler loves the fact that the 10-year vet Boldin and the second-year Smith have grown close as competitors. Their games are quite different — Boldin is the physical split end, Smith the lean, speedy flanker — but Hostler sees a common component.
“They both consider themselves football players first, not receivers,” he said. “They work hard at their blocking. We run the ball in Baltimore. We throw it, too, but if you’re here it means you have to block and block hard. I tell people all the time how improved Torrey’s blocking has gotten. He gets after it, and you can see that fire in him. Anquan has helped bring it out a little, I think.”
“It’s true,” Boldin said. “We do have that mentality. Our games might be a little different, but we take the same approach.”
Smith’s specialty is still the deep ball, and the proof is in 16 of his 49 catches going for 20 yards or longer and a receiving average of 17.4 this season. Flacco often will look his way downfield five or six times at game, sometimes more. But Smith strives to be in the mold of Boldin in his prime and with the league’s premier receivers. That means a well-rounded game.
It has been coming along. The blocking, route-running, line releases, hands — Hostler said he has seen gradual improvement, even from September. Smith sees the same thing.
“I think I can play ball,” he said, without a hint of arrogance. “I can run all the routes, and that’s what a receiver needs to do. I can make all the catches, and I’m very confident I can do that. I’ve proved I can do that. In regards to what people think about me in terms of pre-draft, it doesn’t really matter. I’m playing well in the NFL.”
The 49ers have noticed. They know that driving the ball downfield is what Flacco loves and what revs up this Ravens offense.
“Torrey Smith is extremely fast, probably top five in the National Football League as far as pure, straight-line speed,” Niners S Donte Whitner. “And that’s (Flacco’s) deep throw. When he wants to go deep, he’s going to Torrey Smith. He can run other routes, but his specialty is going deep.”
“He’s a good receiver,” CB Carlos Rogers said. “He’s fast. He’s tall. He’s quick. He’s a guy that can take the top off the defense.
“It’s going to be a lot of work for the guys in the secondary dealing with us.”
After a slow start to his career with no catches in his first two games, Smith burst out in Week Three of his rookie season with three touchdowns at St. Louis in a shocking performance. Although Smith is fairly quiet — and Williams said the Smith we see is the same person he always his — his game has an exclamation-point quality to it.
When the Ravens needed a spark in the second half of the AFC championship, down 13-7 to the Patriots, they went no huddle and targeted Smith. And there’s a good chance they’ll have to do the same in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Smith says he’ll be ready. He’ll block out the distractions and go to work. This isn’t your typical 24-year-old. He has been the one his family has counted on since he was young, “probably since I was about five (years old),” Smith said.
Sunday is just a football game. Smith already has passed far bigger challenges, and he now gets rewarded for playing the game he loves. The bigger the game, Smith said, the more he enjoys football.
“I love pressure situations,” he said. “That’s when the best come out. (For) folks who love competition, folks who are competitors, the cream rises to the top.”
At this point, everyone in Smith’s life is counting on it.
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