When Gary Byers played high school football at Oxon Hill, his coach would tell him, "If by some miracle you wind up in the end zone with the football, just act like you've been there."
Byers is now deputy director at the Helping Up Mission shelter, where the Ravens' 23 first-year players visited Monday to meet residents and serve lunch. Even the rookies, Byers figured, are used to being asked for autographs by now.
He wanted to act like he'd been there before.
So he flipped the script: When the Ravens' bus pulled up shortly after 11 a.m., Byers and philanthropy director Kris Sharrar presented each rookie with a white apron covered in signatures of the shelter's residents. That, they figured, would make the experience worthwhile for the rookies.
The Ravens broke minicamp last week, but the first-year players remain at the facility this week for a symposium featuring strength, conditioning and development activities. Monday's event was an extension of the team's enhanced rookie orientation, which began after rookie minicamp in May.
The organization's community relations department, led by director Heather Darney, coordinated with the Helping Up Mission shelter, with which the Ravens have a pre-existing relationship. Former linebacker Bart Scott initiated the partnership by serving Thanksgiving dinner at the shelter in 2006. Since then, the Ravens have returned a couple of times a year to the building, which focuses on long-term recovery from substance abuse.
From the moment they arrived, the Ravens' rookies were engaged serving lunch in the shelter's cafeteria. Some players dished out food from behind the counter, some distributed plates to residents and some simply sat and talked with the facility's members.
Offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Alex Lewis had participated in philanthropy while playing at high-profile colleges Notre Dame and Nebraska, respectively. Stanley recalls visiting juvenile detention centers and Christmas shopping with less fortunate children, while Lewis spent time at animal shelters and helped pick up after a tornado.
But Monday was the first similar experience in Baltimore for both players.
"It almost brings you back down to reality," Lewis said afterward. "It makes you think of the simpler things, especially family. Times like these, there's a lot of people you can lean on. I know some people don't have that opportunity, so it makes you really fortunate for what you got."
While the Ravens and the guests at the shelter seem so different, Byers sees a connection. The rookies are preparing for the world after college — in football and beyond — while the Helping Up Mission residents are preparing for their next stage, too.
"Our view is that we all need counseling, we all need therapy, we all need help," Byers said. "So around here, none of us are better than anybody else. I'm in process; you're in process."
Helping Up Mission's facility has 500 beds, which are full almost every night. According to Byers, roughly 300 residents are in the shelter's 12-month substance-abuse recovery program. About 100 more have graduated from the program and continue to live at Helping Up Mission while they take college classes or look for work. The remainder are night-to-night guests or outpatients at Johns' Hopkins' Center for Addiction.
They all seemed to appreciate the Ravens being at the facility Monday. Several players — those who weren't serving food — spent time talking with the residents.
Defensive end Bronson Kaufusi visited at one table for an extended period. Lewis recalled hearing a man named Joe tell him about road trips he took with his father as a child and similar trips he hopes to take with his son when he graduates from the recovery program.
Another resident, Allen Berryain, who finished the 12-month program last September, has also met Joe Flacco and Ray Rice since he arrived at the shelter 21 months ago. He vows this will be his last rehab program, even though it isn't his first.
Jeremiah Graham, sitting next to Berryain, arrived at Helping Up Mission in late May. He's still in the initial 45-day period during which residents aren't allowed to leave the building, so the Ravens' visit brought extra excitement for him.
"It makes you feel like you're not an outcast," Graham said. "It makes you feel normal and not like you're being ostracized by society. It's really refreshing."
To Byers — or "Pastor Gary," as he's known to the residents — that's exactly the goal of having guests such as the Ravens.
"A lot of our guys have alienated themselves from their families," Byers said. "...A lot of our guys, nobody's paying attention to them, everyone's mad at them, so people like the Ravens come in … and they just don't feel alone. They feel cared about."