The crowd started gathering long before the guest of honor was due to arrive. They wore No. 82 jerseys, Super Bowl XLVII championship T-shirts and any other purple article of clothing they could find, turning Jimmy's Famous Seafood into a Ravens pep rally.
Torrey Smith didn't expect a turnout like this. In fact, he wondered on his way to the Holabird Avenue restaurant whether anybody would show up. The Ravens had lost to the archrival Pittsburgh Steelers a day earlier, leaving them with a losing record this late in the season for the first time since 2007.
But as the wide receiver walked through the doorway for his Monday-night radio show just after 6 p.m., he was greeted by loud applause and a packed house. Teammate Ray Rice and Orioles center fielder Adam Jones joined Smith about an hour later, to nice ovations. But it was Smith who spent the better part of two hours going table to table talking to fans, posing for pictures and accepting everything from well wishes to baby gifts.
"People are big names for different reasons," said Smith's wife, Chanel, as she surveyed the crowd Monday. "His is a lot for off-the-field [stuff], I feel like. A lot of his [popularity] comes from him being so in tune with his fans. I think that makes all the difference."
Torrey Smith's transformation from a talented but raw deep threat into the NFL's leading receiver through seven weeks has been well documented. His ascent in popularity and marketability has been every bit as rapid. Communicating through social media or his frequent community appearances, Smith, 24, has formed a connection with Ravens fans, becoming one of the faces of the organization in the post-Ray Lewis and Ed Reed era.
He doesn't have the showmanship of Lewis or the mercurial persona of Reed. He won't blurt out whatever is on his mind like rush linebacker Terrell Suggs or give off the aw-shucks vibe of quarterback Joe Flacco. Smith's appeal lies largely in his willingness to put himself out there and embrace the best, and worst, of being a public figure.
"I feel like I'm just like anyone else. I just happen to play football, and obviously with that comes responsibility, but I love that," Smith said. "I don't feel like I do anything special. Some people, they feel like they have to change and try to go out and do this or do things for the cameras. I'm myself at all times, whether I'm at a grocery store or I'm speaking to a school. I want to be as levelheaded and down to earth as possible, because that's who I am."
'It's not about him'
Over the past 13 months, Smith's profile has soared as he's dealt with personal and professional highs — and one emotional low. He hasn't shied away from the outside scrutiny each moment brought, sharing his thoughts and emotions with his more than 240,000 Twitter and 149,000 Instagram followers.
On the morning of Sept. 23, 2012, Smith announced online that his younger brother, Tevin Jones, 19, had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Smith, whose two-touchdown performance against the New England Patriots a day after Jones' death created one of the indelible moments of the season, visited his brother's grave for the first time Thursday. In a moving Instagram post of Jones' headstone, he wrote, "No tears but I do miss him."
To follow Smith on Twitter is to be afforded a rare glimpse into an athlete's mindset. His first tweet most days reads "Good morning y'all," and what follows is whatever he feels like discussing. Sometimes, it's music commentary. Other times, it's social issues or personal milestones.
Smith chronicled the lead-up to his wedding in July. He and Chanel, who met at the University of Maryland, took to Instagram last month to announce that they are expecting the birth of their first child.
"I think fans find it refreshing to see a great player who is humble and knows there's more to life than just football," said A.J. Francis, a teammate of Smith's at Maryland and a New England Patriots practice squad member. "It's not about him, him, him. It's about his team and his people in the city."
Smith regularly uses social media to meet up with fans, give away tickets and promote charitable causes. But he's dealt with the downside of it all, too. His tweets about the Trayvon Martin and Aaron Hernandez cases drew strong rebukes. A year earlier, he was taunted on Twitter after his brother's death.
"Some people think that just because you're in this position, you can't speak on certain things just because of your influence," said Smith who has been sparring lately with fantasy football owners. "I just talk just to talk. I like to see what other people think. There's some things somebody tweets me every day where I'm like, 'Wow, I never thought of this issue that way.' It starts great conversation with people who I would never get a chance to actually communicate with."
Smith and the Orioles' Jones have become good friends and, in some ways, followed a similar professional path in Baltimore. Jones used social media as a way of interacting with fans and promoting his personal brand. Despite the presence of more established teammates, Jones also stepped out and became one of the faces of the Orioles, and a constant presence in the community.
"I think people sometimes forget that Baltimore is 64 percent black," Jones said. "They just see more Caucasian people at the games and they forget that most of the city is still black and behind the poverty line. But to have African-Americans in their corner, such as myself, Torrey, Ray Rice, the reality of it is all three of us grew up in similar circumstances. We all had our challenges. You have to understand how you can get out, and we've embraced it. Torrey has embraced it."
For all the time he spends in the community, Smith does much of his work outside the public eye. He shows up at schools unannounced to speak to children. He and his wife show up at events he learned of just days earlier through chance meetings at the mall or grocery store. Chanel encourages Smith "to chill sometimes," but he concedes that he has a tough time saying no.
"That's how you get people to support you," Chanel said. "You are there for people, and people are there for you."