Ravens at Work: Heather Darney responsible for creating player-community bonds

Every week during the season, The Baltimore Sun will spotlight how a member of the Ravens organization does his or her job.

For Heather Darney, Monday is game day.

It’s the only time each week when Ravens players aren’t occupied with football activities. And for Darney, the organization’s director of community relations, that means it’s a precious window to get these busy men out in the world doing good.

One week, it might be Brandon Williams reading at a city elementary school. The next it might be Terrell Suggs handing out donuts to Baltimore County police officers on Sept. 11. The Monday before Thanksgiving might feature 10 different events with players distributing food to families in need.

This week, less than 24 hours after a bitter loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, young defensive linemen Carl Davis and Michael Pierce showed up at 10 a.m. to speak with kids from six local schools about social problem-solving skills.

It’s Darney’s job to keep all these plates spinning and to make sure the Ravens are living up to their responsibilities as a major civic institution.

That’s easier some weeks than others. Right now, for example, many people who usually love the Ravens are angry that players have kneeled before and during the national anthem to highlight persistent inequalities in our country.

“It definitely affects my job,” she said.

Though Darney doesn’t see it as her responsibility to change anyone’s mind about the anthem protests, her department’s efforts can serve as ballast during unsettled times. If fans understand the team’s long track record of supporting veterans, police and firefighters, for example, they might be less apt to see the protests as a stab at such community institutions.

“Let’s put our money where our mouth is and get out and service first responders or work with the local military and local police,” she said. “It’s just continuing to say that outside of this platform with the anthem, in the community, what can we do? What can we do to say this means something to us, and this is how we’re proving it?”

It doesn’t always work in the short term. Fans booed the Ravens when they linked arms and kneeled for a pre-anthem prayer Sunday. But Darney hopes to nurture bonds that endure past the controversy of the moment.

“It’s reminding people just through the continuing of our actions,” she said. “Sometimes you have to let people express their emotions on either side, and we’ve gotten all kinds of different responses. But I think it’s just about making sure we stay true to who we are.”

Her job is essentially an optimistic one. On a dry-erase board in her office, she’s written in purple and green marker: “BELIEVE THERE IS GOOD IN THE WORLD.”

Darney, 32, grew up in the area, graduating from Mount de Sales in Catonsville and then from Towson University with a degree in sports management. The Colts had recently fled town when she was born, so her early football fandom centered on her father’s fantasy team. But she was a proud Ravens and Orioles die-hard as a teenager.

She understands the fond memories Baltimoreans retain of former players such as Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson, who ate, drank and shopped shoulder to shoulder with fans.

“But I think times are different,” she said in her unmistakable Baltimore accent. “With technology and the platform these guys are on now, it’s not as easy just to bump into them at the corner store.”

So she must be resourceful in creating player-community bonds.

Darney runs a service operation, but her department is also a small-scale intelligence agency. The best way to get a player deeply engaged in a project is to find out what he cares the most about. That means she and her two full-time staffers research backgrounds and often park themselves in the team cafeteria so they can strike up conversations with as many guys as possible.

When cornerback Brandon Carr arrived from Dallas in the offseason, for example, Darney learned he was passionate about literacy issues. So she asked whether he might be interested in riding with the Bookmobile the Ravens started last season. Sure enough, Carr has already spent two Mondays handing out library books and reading to school groups.

Sometimes, the players approach her. Shortly after he was drafted in the first round last year, tackle Ronnie Stanley asked what he could do to support local animal shelters. That led to Stanley adopting Lola, a 6-year-old pit bull no one else seemed to want, from the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter.

The Ravens give their community efforts pride of place.

Every summer, when a new batch of rookies arrives for camp, coach John Harbaugh affords Darney time to speak with them and plant seeds for future projects. It’s not unusual for a coach to check with her on how various players are serving. And one of the first sights the Ravens glimpse when they stroll into the team’s Owings Mills headquarters is a wall of photographs celebrating community efforts. The display hangs right beside plaques honoring the team’s Pro Bowl selections from over the years.

There’s Peter Boulware playing chess with Baltimore children. There are Bart Scott and Marshal Yanda serving up Thanksgiving dinner. There’s Justin Forsett snapping a selfie with the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Joint Base Andrews.

Sometimes, players don’t want their efforts publicized.

For example, one Raven grew up without a steady home, and he remembered how much he cherished the rare days when he received a new pair of shoes. So he and Darney devised a program to buy shoes for children when they made good grades or hit school attendance marks.

Another player remembered how his family could never afford a Christmas tree. So during a recent holiday season, he was adamant about adopting a family that had no tree. Darney found the right fit.

She also fields plenty of interesting, sometimes heart-rending, calls.

“I hear from people who say their house burned down and what can the Ravens do to help? Or they’re about to be evicted and what can the Ravens do?” she said. “As a football team, that’s not necessarily our expertise, but it’s humbling the way they think about us.”

She has to give a lot of “no, but” answers. No, the Ravens can’t write a check for a new home. But perhaps they can bring a family that has lost everything to practice one day, just to provide a bright moment during otherwise awful times.

The holidays are probably her favorite time of year, because the impact of the team’s efforts is so concentrated and palpable.

Every year, just before Christmas, players accompany 75 local children to Target and help them load up on gifts. Darney, who’s nine months pregnant with her second child, said she’ll never forget the image of one little boy, who refused to use his gift card on himself and hoisted an enormous bag of dog food onto the checkout counter because he didn’t want to overlook the family pooch.

“This is why we do what we do,” she said.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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