Mourners started stepping out of the hot Florida afternoon and into the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church just after noon Saturday. For the next hour, they steadily filed in, intent on honoring late Ravens cornerback Tray Walker.
Friends and family members wore shirts with his picture and number on them. High school and college administrators came with stories about a fun yet rebellious boy who grew into a dedicated and driven NFL prospect. His NFL head coach marveled about the competitive spirit of a rookie who twice challenged potential Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. in one-on-one drills early in training camp.
“The first thing I noticed was the smile, that big Tray Walker smile,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told those in attendance. “That smile can light up a room. Tray Walker, we love you, we’re going to miss you.”
Walker died on March 18, a day after his motorbike collided with an SUV in a north Miami neighborhood near where he grew up. Hundreds gathered Saturday at the Baptist church to pay their respects. Walker, a fourth-round draft pick in 2015, was 23 and just months removed from playing eight games in his rookie season with the Ravens.
The crowd included Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Walker’s former teammate at Miami Northwestern Senior High School; DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association; and approximately 45 Ravens players, coaches and team officials, many of whom arrived from Baltimore in a plane chartered by team owner Steve Bisciotti.
About 10 minutes before the ceremony began, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome walked shoulder to shoulder down the middle aisle of the church, followed by a line of Ravens that included Smith, Kamar Aiken, Breshad Perriman, Buck Allen, Timmy Jernigan, Crockett Gilmore, Matt Elam and defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Perriman wore a T-shirt with Walker’s picture on it.
“It was a tough day,” Ravens reserve safety and special teams captain Anthony Levine said after the ceremony. “We’re mourning our brother and we’re going to miss him, but we know that he’s gone up to a better place.”
The approximately 90-minute service celebrated Walker’s journey from an often in-trouble young boy, to a lightly recruited high school player, to a raw NFL prospect who had vowed to return to Baltimore this summer and win a starting cornerback job.
Walker overcame a tough childhood and just one scholarship offer before garnering the attention of the NFL.
“His NFL career had just begun,” Bridgewater said outside the church. “He had tremendous upside, size, everything that you look for in a defensive back. But it was an outlet. Like everyone said in there, football was an outlet for us. So when he was out there on that field, football was a vacation for him. That’s how it is for a lot of us down here. So he was just scratching the surface and getting his feet wet in the NFL, and I was just excited for him, knew that he would have a tremendous career.”
Mourners entered the church to Dorothy Norwood’s “Victory is Mine” and later joined in singing Marvin Sapp’s “I made it through,” celebrating Walker's improbable rise to the NFL.
“My heart is filled with pride and joy,” said Dionne Pollock, Walker’s godmother. “Don’t cry for him. He lived his life. He beat the odds. He graduated from high school. He was going to make a difference in somebody’s life with his diploma.”
Speakers were asked to keep their message between two and three minutes, but Pollock spoke far longer, joking that her watch was broken. She spoke of the pride she felt when Walker left his college diploma on her bed, and how he ended every conversation by saying or writing, “I love you.”
Harbaugh recalled how Walker stayed late for one mandatory rookie event to hang around at-risk Baltimore kids, and how the cornerback told him in their first meeting that his primary motivation was to help out his mother.
Dr. Sheri Mitchell, a pediatrician in Houston who worked with Walker and other Texas Southern athletes, remembered Walker’s promise to help her convert written medical files into electronic ones. Four days after the draft, Walker was supposed to meet with Mitchell and complete the task. He didn’t show, not that Mitchell minded. She knew that he was on to bigger things.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care that you were drafted in the fourth round. You better have a note from John Harbaugh [if you don’t come],’” Mitchell said. “Greatest pleasure I’ve ever had in firing someone.”
There were plenty of poignant moments. Raymond Sands, the former vice principal at Miami Edison Senior High School, where Walker went before transferring to Miami Northwestern, often had to discipline Walker. After he was drafted, Walker sent Sands a text message that said, “It was because of you.”
“You talk about humbleness and humility,” Sands said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Walker's young niece, Tearria Wells, read a tribute that ended with her saying, “We have to keep telling ourselves that we will meet again.”
Rev. John White II told the gatherers that “you have my permission to cry” because “a life full of promise and potential, not just on the field but off the field, is no more.”
“Farewell Tray, you made the team,” White said.
White later announced that another member of the family, Walker’s uncle, had died Saturday. One family member, overcome with grief, was helped out of the church following the announcement.
At around 3 p.m. Saturday, Walker’s casket, decorated with his name and number, was loaded onto a chariot in front of the 93rd Street Community Baptist Church. On top of the chariot was Walker’s helmet from his time at Miami Northwestern, Texas Southern and the Ravens.
The entombment was held later at Caballero Rivero Dade North cemetery. About 1,100 miles away, flags flew half staff at the Ravens’ facility in Owings Mills.