By Kevin Van Valkenburg
So much of Torrey Smith's life has been defined by his ability to stay calm in moments of chaos.
It was true when he was growing up in Colonial Beach, Va., as he helped raise his younger siblings by cooking microwave meals and changing the newborns' diapers, serving as the man of the house while his mother worked multiple jobs and went to school at night.It was true when he arrived at the University of Maryland as a lanky wide receiver who possessed Road Runner speed and was desperate to prove himself. In a sea of defenders, he could catch a pass, or return a kickoff, and accelerate toward the end zone in a blur of red and white. He would cross the goal line looking almost serene, often having left behind a trail of bodies that had been clipping at his heels.
And it remains true even this week, as Smith counts down the final hectic days before the 2011 NFL draft. He is at peace with whatever happens. A lot of college players say that on the eve of draft day, only to feel crushed when their first-round dreams don't come true. But Smith seems to truly believe it. He'll watch the draft with his extended family in Virginia, and wherever he ends up getting picked, he'll prepare to face a new set of challenges.
"I've done everything I can do," Smith said. "I'm really not worried at this point what happens, whether I go in the first round, second round, whatever. It's out of my hands now. I'm pretty relaxed."
Helped more than hurt
To say that Smith possesses an uncommon maturity for someone his age would be a bit of an understatement. He hasn't been shy in recent months when people - including NFL general mangers - have asked him to talk about what he overcame growing up in Colonial Beach as the oldest of seven kids. His mother, Monica Jenkins, worked hard to provide for her family, juggling two jobs and night school, but an abusive and violent relationship with an ex-husband (not Smith's father), and a continuous cycle of borderline poverty, made it almost impossible for Jenkins to give Smith a normal childhood. Jenkins even spent six months in jail at one point after getting into a knife fight with a family member.
"It had its ups and downs," Smith said. "I was always with my family. There were certain times when other kids would be able to go and have fun doing something, and I had responsibility. But that's something I would not take back."
Somehow Smith endured through it all, even though there were times when it wasn't easy, even after he got to college. He confided a lot in wide receivers coach Lee Hull and Kevin Glover, the Terrapins' director of character education. There were times he had to return home to Virginia for a day or more to make sure his younger siblings were OK.
"It was a tough situation, and sometimes he would have to leave just to take care of business," Hull said. "But never once during that time did he miss a practice or a class. It takes a lot of maturity to be able to deal with that kind of stuff. There are 30- and 40-year-old men who couldn't deal with all the stuff he's been through. I don't know where he gets it from, but from a very early age he understood that he was going to have to help take care of his mom and his family."
Through it all, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound receiver became one of the most electric players in Maryland Terrapins history, catching 152 passes for 2,218 yards and 19 touchdowns during his three-year career. He set Maryland's school record for all-purpose yards (5,276 yards) and finished as the ACC's career record holder for kickoff return yardage (2,983). In his final home game, against North Carolina State, Smith made a case for himself as one of the country's best receivers, catching 14 passes for 224 yards and four touchdowns.
"Everyone else was out partying, but I called him that night and he was in his room studying for a test," Hull said. "That's how you graduate in three and a half years. He's worked really hard."
At the NFL scouting combine, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds and had a 41-inch vertical jump, which has several teams eying him as someone who could be a potential big-play threat in the NFL. Some mock drafts even have the Ravens snagging Smith with the 26th pick.
"He's a great kid," Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. "Aside from the talent, he's really a great kid. It's amazing what he's overcome [and] what he's had to deal with and grow up through. I think it says a lot about the person. As a player, we all know him; we've all seen him here. He's made a lot of big plays for Maryland. He's got explosive speed. He's a big, explosive guy who has got playmaking ability for sure."
As impressive as Smith's athletic career was, he might be most proud of the fact that he graduated in December with a degree in criminal science.
"I've obviously went through a lot to be here, and it helped me a lot more than it hurt me," Smith said.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he was moved by Smith's personal story and compared it to what Michael Oher had to overcome growing up in Memphis, Tenn.
"That's really cool," Smith said when Harbaugh's comment was relayed to him. "I didn't even know the guy knew my name. It's something I hope a lot of people can learn from. I hope the story is getting out."
'A million' others
Why was Smith so open about sharing his personal story? Because, he says, he's not alone.
"For every one of me, there are a million other people in my situation," Smith said. "Like with my mom, there's a million of her, a million other women making mistakes, being in relationships they probably shouldn't be in, and there's a kid that has to help his family, [has to] make a decision whether to be positive or turn his back and go the wrong way. When you're an athlete, it gets more attention. ... There might be a kid who [hears my story] and goes a certain way."
Smith has spent the past few months in Miami, working out with other clients of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, trying to refine the nuances of his game. He has talked with Chad Ochocinco and Donte' Stallworth about route running, lifted weights with Lardarius Webb and caught passes from Detroit Lions quarterback Drew Stanton. Every morning, he would roll out of bed at 7 a.m., determined to do everything possible to prepare for the next level.
At night, when other guys would hit up South Beach, he would head back to his room to goof around on Twitter or play video games.
"It's just my way to relax and not think about anything," Smith said.
Smith said he has received a lot of positive feedback from NFL teams about his upbringing, and that general managers and coaches seem to understand his experiences are proof he can handle just about anything thrown at him, and that he won't be a headache for an organization.
"They just know I don't get caught up in any off-the-field stuff," Smith said, adding that his family is doing well these days. "I think they understand I'm not going to get in any trouble, and that's a big deal for teams these days. They don't want to have to deal with any of that."
Hortiz said Smith's back story is something teams will take into account, and almost universally look at as a positive.
"I think it creates a comfort level with him," Hortiz said. "You say 'Hey, this kid has been through a lot already.' He has maturity in a way of handling things. He may hit a bump in the road, and who knows what it will be. But he'll be the type of guy who is going to handle it well."
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