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Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins wants to be a conversation starter — in the NFL, and in Spanish

Two days before Ravens training camp opened last week, running back J.K. Dobbins stood on the Under Armour Performance Center’s indoor practice field, his cellphone camera aimed at three banners. In the middle, a towering photo of the Lombardi Trophy. On either side, a Super Bowl commemoration: “CHAMPIONS 2000” on the left, “CHAMPIONS 2012” on the right.

“Yo necesito uno,” Dobbins captioned the photo, which he shared to his Instagram story. I need one.

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There was little lost in translation last year. After a record-breaking Ohio State career, Dobbins led all NFL running backs in yards per carry (6.0) and set a Ravens rookie record with nine touchdowns. “The bar is set high,” coach John Harbaugh said last week, and yet Dobbins has seemed to clear it this camp with the spring-loaded grace of his June touchdown catch over former Buckeyes teammate Malik Harrison.

Even after a season in which his hands caused heartburn, Dobbins has caught seemingly everything thrown his way. Even in a camp that makes running highlights sparse, he’s sparked joy with open-field jukes and bursts. He told reporters Thursday that he wants to be “one of the greatest” in the NFL, up there with Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey, and every practice Dobbins seems to inch a little closer to the elite.

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Maybe his most revealing offseason upgrade, though, happened away from football. Dobbins wanted to speak Spanish. So, in his downtime, he learned how to speak Spanish. For five months he balanced vacations with vocabulary, bench presses with verb tenses, Super Bowl dreams with Spanish-language Netflix programming. Asked about his new second language Thursday, Dobbins looked around at a huddle of reporters, shook his head and joked: “Tu no hablas español.”

He looked almost disappointed. You don’t speak Spanish.

“Spanish is my thing,” he said in an interview Monday, this one also in English. “Once I feel like I can get further along and far enough in Spanish, I’ll try to learn something else.”

This passion had an unlikely spark. During a Zoom news conference in July 2020, Dobbins took a question from Ximena Lugo Latorre, a reporter and producer for 87.7 WDCN-FM, a Washington Spanish-language radio station that broadcasts Ravens games. “Hola,” Dobbins said, before Lugo Latorre asked him about finally meeting his teammates after a canceled offseason program.

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In September, Lugo Latorre got in two questions for Dobbins. The first: “¿Cómo estás?” Dobbins cackled, composed himself, then answered: “Muy bien.”

Five months later, Dobbins still found himself thinking about that bilingual blip. He’d always found foreign languages interesting, even if he’d last taken a Spanish class in high school. Back home in La Grange, Texas, where the 2010 census found over a third of the city’s population to be Hispanic or Latino, Dobbins had a handful of friends who spoke the language. He thought it was cool.

“I was like, ‘You know what? That’s going to be my offseason hobby,’ " he recalled thinking. “Because, you know, the offseason’s long. So I’m going to find a hobby, and that was my hobby.”

In February, on her way back from the Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida, Lugo Latorre checked her messages on Twitter. Dobbins had reached out. He was interested in learning Spanish, he told her. How did biweekly sessions sound?

Lugo Latorre has taught Spanish long enough to know that not every student will see their lessons through. But with Dobbins, she said, “it was different.” He already had a plan and a willingness to do more. “He really put in heart and time into the classes,” she said.

Ximena Lugo Latorre, right, a reporter and producer for 87.7 WDCN-FM, with colleague Gustavo Salazar at M&T Bank Stadium in 2020.
Ximena Lugo Latorre, right, a reporter and producer for 87.7 WDCN-FM, with colleague Gustavo Salazar at M&T Bank Stadium in 2020. (Ximena Lugo Latorre/Handout)

Over hour-long Zoom calls, they started with the basics: numbers and letters. “He didn’t know too much Spanish at the time,” Lugo Latorre said, so Dobbins threw himself into the language like it was a new playbook — listening to it, reading it, writing it, speaking it.

There were practical benefits to his Spanish immersion. Dobbins and the Ravens’ running backs had planned an offseason vacation to Costa Rica, but no one spoke Spanish. Dobbins resolved to be their intermediary. By the time his group arrived, he knew enough to get them around the country, order food and avoid exorbitant markups.

The more of the language Dobbins learned, the more he wanted to know. During a rookie season warped by the coronavirus pandemic, especially when he struggled to get carries, Dobbins had felt unsettled at times. It was important to have focus. Mental clarity gave him mental strength. The lessons, he said, started to feel like meditation.

Some weeks, Lugo Latorre said, they met for as many as six hours, fitting in lessons around workout sessions. There were language barriers, of course. Dobbins struggled at first with how to conjugate the verb “to be” in Spanish; rather than say, “I am from Texas,” he might say what amounted to, “I am currently from Texas.” In later lessons, they labored through tricky tenses like the present progressive and immediate future.

Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins acknowledges the fans as they cheer his arrival on the field at M&T Bank Stadium.
Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins acknowledges the fans as they cheer his arrival on the field at M&T Bank Stadium. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

But by late last month, when Dobbins reported to Owings Mills for camp, he was not only conversational in Spanish but had also absorbed some Hispanic culture. At Lugo Latorre’s urging, he’d watched the popular Netflix series “¿Quién mató a Sara?” (“Who Killed Sara?”) and “La casa de papel” (“Money Heist”) — and he’d done so, he said, with only a little help from English subtitles.

Dobbins’ greatest discovery, Lugo Latorre said, might have been reggaeton, a style of popular music of Caribbean origin that combines reggae rhythms with hip-hop influences. To keep classes interesting, Lugo Latorre had introduced karaoke to the curriculum. She wanted him to hear the classics — salsa, pop, oldies. He was more interested in more modern music. When the Ravens asked players this offseason about their favorite musical artist, Dobbins’ answer wasn’t Drake or DaBaby. It was Bad Bunny, a Grammy Award winner for Best Latin Pop or Urban Album.

“As a Spanish teacher, sometimes you have to tell people, ‘Hey, let’s learn this,’ " Lugo Latorre said. “And people, they want to learn, but they don’t put their heart in it. And it’s more the teacher who’s pushing the person to love the language. But with J.K., it’s another thing. It’s like it motivates you to continue to teach him because he really wants to learn. He’s putting his heart in that.”

When their virtual sessions ended last month, Lugo Latorre said it felt like the end of a school year, even though they’ve never met in person. Dobbins said Lugo Latorre is “like my best friend this offseason” and called her “such a great help.”

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Around the Ravens’ facility, he’s found ways to put their lessons to use. Dobbins mutters Spanish phrases to himself, and sometimes to teammates. Offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who’s fluent in four languages, has become a resource during training sessions. At the team cafeteria, Dobbins might place an order for eggs (“Yo quiero cinco huevos”) and ask how the kitchen staff is doing in Spanish.

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“He wants to go to another level,” Lugo Latorre said, but she knows that’s the case in football, too. When he told her they’d have to suspend lessons until next offseason, she understood. They both had to focus on the season ahead. “OK, yeah,” she recalled telling him. “you need to get that Super Bowl.”

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