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."
In the aftermath of the Ravens' Super Bowl victory, Smith interned for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, spending days answering phones and reading letters from concerned citizens.
"I was one of those kids that needed the support from the community," said Smith, who plans on getting an internship every offseason. "I understand exactly how it is now that I'm on the other side. Being here, this is the perfect city for me. I relate to these kids and every single thing they're going through."
Smith's coaches, past and present, have stories about his selfless nature. Former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen remembers Smith knocking at his office door and apologizing for not being a good enough leader. Smith was only a redshirt freshman at the time.
"You just don't find kids like that," Friedgen said.
Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler learned long ago in the NFL to take first impressions for what they're worth, but Smith has not disappointed.
"His star quality happens to be how he is as a person, how people are attracted to him as a human being," Hostler said. "That sticks out more now, because there are not a lot of those guys."
'Now he is the guy'
Smith's increasing popularity is evident in the crowd that turns out every week for his radio show; in the countless No. 82 jerseys in the stands at M&T Bank Stadium; in his partnerships with Baltimore-based companies such as Under Armour, Polk Audio and PointClickSwitch.com. He's also appeared in a national Pepsi print ad campaign with actress Sofia Vergara.
"His profile has certainly increased in the last couple of years with his success on field. A lot of that goes hand in hand, but what makes Torrey special is he just gets it," said Matt Mirchin, executive vice president of global sports marketing for Under Armour, which used Smith to promote its Harbor East store opening and NFL Scouting Combine Experience. "He's got an infectious smile, and he's really humble the way he handles himself in the media. It's real, and it comes across as real."
Smith has marketable qualities. His personal story is uplifting; he persevered through a rough childhood during which he took on father-figure responsibilities to his six younger siblings as only a young boy. He now has his own foundation that assists troubled kids, he doesn't drink or smoke, and he represents other local charities.
Smith also embraced a new look in April when he cut off his trademark dreadlocks. Lewis and director of player development Harry Swayne had encouraged him to ditch the dreadlocks a couple of years earlier, and eventually, Smith got bored of them. He said his decision to opt for a close-cropped look had nothing to do with wanting a cleaner-cut look for advertisers.
"He's become that face [of the team]," said Matt Saler, the director of sports marketing at IMRE, an agency that specializes in public relations and social marketing. "He brings his brand the right way — it's a mix of the stellar play on the field and his personal side off it. It's a marketing dream."
Rice and Flacco still have the best-selling Ravens jerseys, according to Matt Powell of SportsOneSource, a sporting goods research and analysis company. However, Robbie Davis Jr., the owner of the memorabilia shop Robbie's First Base, said Smith is the most asked-about player by fans who come into his Lutherville store looking to buy autographed footballs and 8-by-10-inch photos.
"Initially, when the season started, it was Joe Flacco. But right after the first and second game, [Smith] has been the most consistently asked-about Raven," he said. "It's night and day compared to last year. Torrey Smith was just a guy last year. Now he is the guy."
A normal celebrity
At his radio show Monday, Smith walked around the room greeting fans. Some of the attendees he knew by name, others by face. He asked just as many questions as he answered, quizzing kids about their schoolwork and extracurricular activities.
Watching the ease with which he moves from conversation to conversation, you'd never know there was a time not long ago when Smith was uncomfortable in these settings. Chanel, an elementary school teacher, took to grading Smith's interactions. A 'B' meant he was "a little awkward," she said
"Him and Chanel are my two biggest role models," said Dayna Groth, 16, of Taneytown. "They aren't like famous people. They are real. I just think it's cool that they are really nice to you and they don't care who you are."
Dayna's younger brother, Jacob, 11, gave Smith and his wife bracelets he had made for them. Her father, Jim, also gave a baby gift to Smith, whose baby is due in April. Jim Groth met Smith for the first time when Smith selected him through Twitter to attend his draft party.
"You get to connect with so many different people," Smith said. "This is going to be my home long after [general manager Ozzie Newsome] and them kick me out of here. I'll be living in this area. With the responsibility of being a professional athlete, I believe that it is on us to go out there and help people."
During his offseason travels, Smith was taken aback when people recognized him in airports across the country. He insists he's just a regular country boy from Virginia, albeit one with growing popularity and a much bigger platform.
"There are not a whole lot of people that have lived through and had to deal with tougher times than Torrey," Francis said. "He came out of it bigger and brighter than anybody thought he ever would. He's been a role model his whole life, so it doesn't surprise me that people look at him in that manner."
AN EVENTFUL 13 MONTHS
Torrey Smith has seen his profile grow over an up-and-down past 13 months.
Sept. 22, 2012: Smith's 19-year-old younger brother, Tevin Jones, was killed in a motorcycle accident in northeast Virginia.
Sept. 23, 2012: After mourning with his family in their Virginia home, Smith rejoined the Ravens and caught two touchdown passes in their 31-30 victory over the New England Patriots. Cameras showed Smith wiping away tears on the sideline after his first touchdown.
Jan. 12: None of the late-game heroics in the Ravens' 38-35 double-overtime victory over the heavily favored Denver Broncos in an AFC divisional-round playoff game would have been possible had Smith not beaten All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey for first-half touchdowns of 59 and 32 yards.
Feb. 3: Smith had a relatively quiet Super Bowl XLVII, catching two passes for 35 yards, but the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31. Smith had one of the most memorable postgame images, with his arms extended to the sky as confetti rained on him.
March 11: The Ravens traded veteran Anquan Boldin to the 49ers, bumping Smith into the No. 1 wide receiver role.
July 11: Smith married the former Chanel Williams, whom he started dating while both were at the University of Maryland.
Sept. 30: On Instagram, Smith and his wife announced that they are expecting their first child.
Oct. 20: In a 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Smith caught three passes for 61 yards to take over the NFL lead in receiving yards (629).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun