- Kevin Van Valkenburg, ESPN Senior Writer
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BALTIMORE -- There is a Biblical verse -- Proverbs 27:17 -- that Ravens coach John Harbaugh frequently references in team meetings. He loves the imagery of it, the larger meaning, and so he repeats it almost daily. It's a way of summarizing much of what he believes and loves about the game of football, about the devotion and fellowship a team must possess in order to be successful.
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
Repeating that line of scripture is also the easiest way for Harbaugh to explain how Torrey Smith, a quiet, sensitive, second-year wide receiver from Colonial Beach, Va., became one of most important players on a team that is stuffed with Pro Bowlers and at least two future Hall of Famers.
"We talk a lot about the cauldron of competition, and the fire that refines us, that forges us," Harbaugh said. "We talk about whether you're the type of person that will sharpen the next guy or dull the next guy, because that's how teams are made. To me, no championship team will ever be divided. And to me, Torrey is the perfect example of how the right kind of person is made of the right kind of stuff."
Smith's impact on the franchise this season goes well beyond his 31 catches for 548 yards and seven touchdowns. Though the strides he has made as a wide receiver since the Ravens drafted him in the second round out of the University of Maryland in 2011 have been significant, his emergence as a unifying force in the locker room is a big reason why Baltimore, which visits Pittsburgh on Sunday night, is on track to be the only franchise in the NFL to make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
"He's one of those rare players where there is no agenda," Harbaugh said. "He just wants to know what's expected of him, so he can do the best he possibly can. He's not trying to fool you, he's not trying to impress you, he's just trying to be himself."
Smith's journey to this point in his NFL career is a story of perseverance and loyalty, but also one of great sadness. On Sept. 23, Smith's younger brother Tevin Jones was killed in a motorcycle accident in Montross, Va., less than 24 hours before the Ravens were scheduled to host the New England Patriots. Smith left the team hotel in the middle of the night to be with his family, and the Ravens prepared to face the Patriots the next day without him.
"I got a call from our security guy at 1:30 a.m. telling me what had happened, and at that point you're like a parent," Harbaugh said. "It was just shock. I felt sad of course. But just shocked. You're trying to make heads or tails of it. Our team got wind of it in the morning, and you could just see it on their faces. The guys came in and they were almost ashen."
What happened next was as moving as it was surreal. Smith returned to the team, having slept little more than an hour. He attended the team chapel, decided his brother would have wanted him to play, and then he went out and caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a dramatic 31-30 win. When he caught his first touchdown, a leaping 25-yard catch, he pointed toward the heavens and jogged to the sideline with tears in his eyes.
"My teammates, I love them to death, and they helped me get through this," Smith said after the game.
More than a month later, Ravens players and coaches still talk about what took place that night in M&T Bank Stadium. When they talk about Smith's character, they use a tone that closely resembles awe.
"It was unbelievable," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. "I just don't even think we can imagine what that was like for him. For him to play that kind of game under those circumstances is pretty special. I don't even think I would be able to function if I were in his shoes."
"That was his way of relieving his pain for a few hours," said Ravens wide receiver LaQuan Williams, who was also a teammate of Smith's at Maryland. "Football was his outlet."
It's still a difficult subject for Smith to discuss publicly. He has asked the Ravens' media relations staff to politely decline all interview requests that focus on what happened to his brother. It's too soon, too raw. But he understands why people found his performance so inspiring.
"Football is one of those games that definitely relates to life in a lot of ways," Smith said. "Everything can be going good, and just like that, you have a turnover. Things are going south, you're going the opposite direction.
How are you going to recover from it? That's the beauty in this game. It brings a lot of people together, and you can also learn a lot of life lessons. For me, I've been through a lot before, so there is nothing that this game can throw at me that I can't handle."
Smith's wisdom and maturity were forged, at least in part, by his atypical childhood growing up in Virginia. The oldest of seven siblings, Smith spent many of his formative years changing diapers, preparing meals and getting his siblings ready for school while his mother, Monica Jenkins, worked multiple jobs and attended night school. By the time he was 7, he was practically an adult.
"He's been like the dad of his family for quite a while," said Williams.
His position coach at Maryland, Lee Hull, used to joke that after a big victory, the whole football team would be out celebrating on the College Park social scene, all except for Smith, who would be bunkered down in his dorm room, hoping to finish his homework. It's one of the reasons Smith was able graduate with a degree in criminology and criminal justice even though he left Maryland with a year of eligibility remaining.
Harbaugh says the Ravens took all that into account when they drafted Smith in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, ignoring the skeptics who thought that he was stiff getting in and out of routes, that he didn't have great hands, and that he'd never develop into a starting NFL wide receiver. He was viewed as a speed guy, but not a complete wideout. A number of Ravens fans, having been burned by wide receiver busts like Travis Taylor and Mark Clayton, were among his biggest critics, especially after Smith dropped a litany of passes in the preseason. Few people seemed to remember the lockout erased an entire offseason of organized team activities, and Smith was scrambling to digest a new style of route running and a new playbook.
"It was crazy, man," Smith said. "I guess it just comes with being a high draft pick. I was kind of behind the eight ball anyway. Everyone assumes that [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] can't draft a wide receiver. I heard that a million times before I even stepped foot in the Ravens facility."
When he failed to record a catch in the Ravens' first two games, the criticism grew loud enough that both Harbaugh and Flacco felt compelled to fire back at what they perceived as unreasonable expectations.
"Here is a guy who obviously was successful very quickly as a wide receiver. He's exceeded expectations for us," Harbaugh said. "And yet people were still calling him a bust. He couldn't have been successful any quicker than he was. That kind of shows you the expectations are pretty unrealistic."
The chorus of doubters, however, started to sing his praises, especially after the third game of Smith's NFL career, a game against the St. Louis Rams.
"I remember we had a hitch called, and the guy came up to press him and he changed to a nine route [a go route], just like he was supposed to do," said Flacco.
Flacco launched a perfect pass that hit Smith in stride for his first NFL catch, and by the time he stopped running it was a 74-yard touchdown. Minutes later, Smith caught another touchdown from Flacco on a deep post route. A few minutes after that, Smith caught his third touchdown -- all of this in the first quarter -- when Flacco audibled out of a run near the goal line and lofted a perfect fade to the corner of the end zone.
"It was a great opportunity for him to get in and gain some confidence," Flacco said. "Those plays can be so important for a guy's confidence -- really for the rest of his career. We live in such a now, now, now world, you have to kind of leave a good first impression, and for him to be able to do that on that stage was pretty important for him."
Smith's progression from there was much more gradual, but by studying the footwork and work ethic of veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin with religious devotion, he gradually became a consistent route runner.
"Last year he was considered just a one-route guy," said Ravens running back Ray Rice. "But we knew what we had as a player in Torrey. He had the perfect example [to follow] in Anquan, the ultimate pro and the ultimate leader. He already had a high motor. I remember a coach saying 'This guy will fall down on the field before he comes out of the game.'"
The Ravens, unlike teams that use a West Coast passing attack, don't want their receivers making sharp, 90-degree breaks when they come out of their routes. Baltimore's Air Coryell offense asks its receivers to instead bend their routes while running full speed, a change that might seem subtle, but one that -- to a wide receiver -- is like trying to learn to write left-handed after spending your entire life as a righty.
"I was taught in college to break down," Smith said. "There are other teams in the league that run it like we did in college. But the way we do it, we round everything off because it's faster. You're still making sharp cuts, but it requires a brand-new technique, and we didn't have an offseason to work on it."
In Week 9, in a crucial road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith played a game that might as well have been a microcosm of his entire rookie season. He dropped four passes, including a beautifully thrown ball by Flacco that looked like it could have been the game winner. But in the game's closing seconds, Flacco gave him yet another chance, and he responded by making a dramatic, tumbling, one-handed grab behind Steelers cornerback William Gay that secured a 23-20 victory.
Harbaugh was so excited, he dashed into his postgame news conference -- still soaking from a Gatorade bath he received on the sideline -- and quoted Teddy Roosevelt's famous "It's not the critic who counts ..." speech when asked about the past struggles of Flacco and Smith.
"We all have our issues and we all struggle," Harbaugh said. "So I'm not judging anybody. But to get criticized for overreacting to a win like that? Like you shouldn't get excited? Look, if you can't get excited about the success of a friend or someone that you coach or teach, if you can't do that, what is life even worth? You can't get excited about anything. I don't want your life. I was just so thrilled for Torrey."
This season, the feeling was different. The Ravens knew they had a burgeoning star in Smith, a quiet leader people in the locker room would gravitate toward. "He's been one of those very few players that you can say 'He's a Raven,'" said linebacker Terrell Suggs. "You go throughout the history of the organization there are very few players you can say, 'They are a Raven.' I think Torrey is shaping up to become one of them."
Tevin Jones, 19, idolized his oldest brother. He was the starting quarterback at King George High School his senior year. According to Virginia State Police, on the night of Sept. 22, Jones was riding his motorcycle on Route 672 in Westmoreland County in northeast Virginia when he ran off the right side of the road and hit a utility pole. He was pronounced dead at the scene, police said. He was wearing a helmet, and alcohol was not a factor. The next day, Smith posted about Tevin on his Twitter account: "I can't believe my little brother is gone ... be thankful for your loved ones and tell them you love them ... this is the hardest thing ever."
On the day his brother died, no one on the team wanted to make Smith feel like he was obligated to play against the Patriots. Yes, it was an important game, a rematch of the AFC Championship Game, but this was much bigger than that. One after another, Ravens players and coaches walked up to offer him a hug, or their condolences. Harbaugh wanted Smith to understand his extended family would be there for him no matter what he decided to do.
Hours before the game, Smith still hadn't made up his mind about whether he wanted to play. But he did decide he wanted to attend the Ravens' team chapel, a Bible study that's held in the team hotel before every game. When he walked in, the players, a few coaches and team chaplain Rod Hairston stood up and formed a circle. They spent several minutes in prayer, arms draped around him.
"It was just a handful of guys standing there, but it was really powerful," said Ravens assistant coach Craig Ver Steeg. "We were asking the Lord to give him the strength to get through this tough time. It was a faith-filled family moment. You could just feel Torrey get strength from that. It was an illustration of how a football team sure can be a family."
Like iron sharpening iron, each man tried to give Smith a piece of himself in that moment. When he walked out of the room, he saw Harbaugh and quietly told him he wanted to play. The Ravens held a moment of silence before the game for Tevin, and not that much later, Smith was standing in the end zone with the ball in his hands, pointing to the sky.
"Let's be honest, this thing we do, it's a diversion," Harbaugh said. "But it pushes fathers and sons together, or husbands and wives or buddies. It gives you something simple to talk about. If someone is going to associate themselves with our team, I want them to be proud of it. And that, to me, was a shining moment where character was revealed in all of our guys, most especially Torrey. It's like OK, if you're a fan of the Ravens, you can say, 'Hey it's worth it. I'm attached to this thing, and it's a good thing. It's better than just me. It's bigger than just me.'"
Kevin Van Valkenburg is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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