OWINGS MILLS, Md. — On game day, Torrey Smith is a whirlwind of dreadlocks, speed and big-play catches.
None of this provides a hint of the hurdles he had to overcome to become the deep threat the Baltimore Ravens needed to make it to the Super Bowl.
After helping his single mother raise six other children, a chore that included working after school as a teenager, Smith accepted a scholarship to the University of Maryland. He played three seasons, scoring 22 touchdowns – including three on kickoff returns – before throwing his name into the mix for the 2011 NFL draft.
Smith was selected in the second round by Baltimore, and quickly displayed the ability to get downfield although his inexperience resulted in several costly dropped passes.
Early this season, Smith ran sharper patterns and rarely let a ball slip through his fingers. But tragedy struck less than 24 hours before the Ravens faced New England on Sept. 23: Smith’s younger brother, Tevin Jones, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Virginia.
Smith left the team to join his family, then returned to catch six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns to help Baltimore in a 31-30 victory.
“Incredible,” teammate Jacoby Jones said last week. “I’m not sure many people could perform under those circumstances, let alone play so well. I really do admire him for that.”
In the second round of the playoffs, he twice burned standout cornerback Champ Bailey for long scores in the Ravens’ 38-35 win over top-seeded Denver. Smith contributed four catches for 69 yards as Baltimore defeated New England 28-13 to advance to the Super Bowl.
Asked in New England how the Ravens won despite being decided underdogs, Smith replied, “It’s who we are. That’s what our city is, a tough city. You get knocked down, you’ve got to get back up. That’s how life is. You just can’t lay down and roll over. You’ve got to continue to fight.”
And so it is with Smith.
“We talk about the cauldron of competition and the fire that refines us,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “To me, Torrey is the perfect example of how the right kind of person is made of the right kind of stuff.”
For Smith to be at his best this season, it was important that he moved on after his brother’s death.
“That’s life. That’s so long ago,” Smith said with shrug Saturday as he packed his bags for a trip to New Orleans. “That happens to everyone. Someone has someone pass, and you’ve just got to move on. I’m just focused on playing football.”
When Smith opted to leave Maryland before his senior year, his coach at the time, Ralph Friedgen, wasn’t sure if it was the right decision. Friedgen no longer has any doubt that the 6-foot, 200-pound speedster has what it takes to be great.
“I see his hands improving and I see someone very confident in what he does,” said Friedgen, who was fired after the 2010 season. “When you can beat a guy like Champ Bailey twice, that can only help your confidence. Around the league, everyone knows that to beat the Ravens, you have to stop Torrey.”
Before Smith arrived, Harbaugh was desperate for a receiver that could get behind opposing safeties. Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton, T.J. Houshmandzahdeh, and Donte Stallworth did so on occasion, but Smith has seemingly made it a habit.
Although his 49 catches were one fewer than last season, Smith increased his yardage from 841 to 855 and had 16 catches of 20 yards or more.
“It’s definitely a process,” Smith said. “I don’t think I am surprised, because with hard work you expect to do well, and you expect to continue to get better. I never get complacent. I have a long way to go, and I’m trying to work each and every day to get there. Later, down the line, there will be some trouble.”
Friedgen has no doubt.
“Once we got him at Maryland, he hadn’t played much at wide receiver,” the former coach said. “But I thought he had the physical tools to be very good football player, and I was right. There’s a learning curve in the NFL, because defensive backs can stay with you like a shadow. But Torrey has overcome that, and I don’t think he’s finished growing yet.”