On his visit this spring to Zappos, Ronnie Stanley toured the online shoe and clothing retailer's Las Vegas headquarters and met with the company's bigwigs. Among them was Jeff Espersen, the general manager of merchandising and a former college athlete himself.
Before beginning a decades-long career in retail, Espersen had played basketball at Seattle Pacific. More than most, he knew a career in sports was not everlasting. That Stanley, about to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft, already recognized as much impressed him greatly. At one point, Espersen recalled, the management-consulting major in Notre Dame's business school expressed to him an interest in entrepreneurship.
As the big-picture particulars of their unprecedented relationship began to take shape that day — Zappos later signed Stanley, a Las Vegas native, to its first-ever endorsement deal — Espersen remembers being surprised by his guest's enduring curiosity.
When they visited the company's call center, a 500-plus-employee customer-service hub that handles an average of 10,000 inquiries a day and this summer proudly (and paradoxically) celebrated a 10-hour conversation with one of its customers, Stanley commented on the size of the workforce. "Why do you have so many people in the call center?" he wondered. Espersen chuckled at the memory. At Stanley's age, he hadn't cared enough to bother with the stuff he didn't know.
"He was asking a lot of the right questions," Espersen said of Stanley. "Just really intuitive questions. He wants to know, 'OK, how does this work?' 'What do you guys do here?'"
Months later, much the same is being asked in Baltimore of Stanley, the Ravens' No. 6 overall draft pick and starting left tackle — because the answers will resonate through this season and long past it.
How does he work? With a well-manicured technique and sturdy confidence and not all that much to say.
What does he do here? Protects the franchise quarterback's blind side. Serves as a brand ambassador. Takes care of Lola. Watches Viceland. Leans on his sweet-as-sugar mother and ex-military father's life lessons.
"Just because there's not a problem doesn't mean there's not something better out there," Stanley said, explaining why he forwent a traditional shoe deal to sign with Zappos — and also espousing something of a personal mantra. "You don't have to do it the same [as others have over the years]. That's just the type of person I am. I'm always looking for something better out there, even if it's not broken."
He could not have picked a better gene pool: Ron Stanley was on the Tuskegee football team; Juli Stanley played basketball at UCLA. It is difficult to say which of his athletic attributes (6 feet 6, 320 pounds, three-sport varsity athlete) come from whom. More easily delineated is his personality.
Juli, a native of the Polynesian kingdom Tonga, is "the generous one," Ronnie Stanley said. His childhood friends loved her. Whenever they came over to his house, she would offer them anything and everything.
Ron, Stanley said, found it just as easy to say no. He has a black belt in karate and a record of military service. Discipline — and the act of disciplining — was inextricable from parenthood. In one instance, Stanley and his younger brother, Robert, found ants crawling about their home. They fetched water and began a downpour, drowning the intruders. When Dad found out, they got lectured. Then they got punished.
"Getting older, I've definitely been able to really see two different sides [of my personality]" emerge, Stanley said. It's a duality his tailor, Ge Wang, once compared to Wang's own pet, a 110-pound Rottweiler who's "kind of a teddy bear."
That became heartwarmingly apparent in June, during downtime between organized team activities. Stanley told roommate and fellow rookie lineman Alex Lewis, "I think I want to get a dog." Specifically, a rescue.
When they arrived at the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter with Stanley's girlfriend, a 6-year-old female pit bull caught their eye. She had a long, hanging belly — and an active tongue. It was love at first lick.
"He was like: 'Yeah, I can't turn this down,'" Lewis recalled. They stayed for 90 minutes anyway.
Lola's doing "great" now, Stanley said. She recently underwent a root canal on a long-infected tooth, an episode that reminded him of the overlapping responsibilities in pet care and football: Always be prepared for the worst. Housebreaking mishaps aside, she is a reliable pick-me-up during the dog days of preseason, always happy to see him come home.
"You just have to know that there's going to be downs before there's ups with dogs, for sure," he said, "because they're not going to know the rules."
Days after Stanley adopted Lola, the Ravens cut Eugene Monroe. The oft-injured left tackle had started 28 games in Baltimore over three seasons, but with Stanley's selection became expendable. Even before Monroe's release, coach John Harbaugh had said he expected Stanley to start at left tackle.
What he and the Ravens might not have foreseen was the ease with which Stanley has done so. Before he suffered a season-ending injury, veteran tight end Benjamin Watson said he already trusted Stanley to make the calls for the line's left side. Offensive line coach Juan Castillo likened his professionalism to All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda's. Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman joked that all he's done to ease the quiet rookie's transition is ask him how he's doing, because otherwise, he might not hear from him on the practice field.
"I think I've done well," said Stanley, who graded out as analytics website Pro Football Focus' top rookie tackle through three preseason games. "What I think I need to work on is just consistency in my technique, and I'm really critical of myself. I might get the job done, but I understand that if I go against the best 'D'-end in the NFL at that same technique, it's not going to work against him."
All he's protecting is the $22.1 million-a-year man behind him, Joe Flacco; the investment of a billion-dollar company in Zappos; and a reputation for seriousness he described as: "I don't want to take any [crap]."
Stanley tolerates that about as much as he does handout requests from selfish acquaintances, he said, or garbage carelessly left near a trash can. That is the buttoned-up side of Stanley, the one the Ravens signed to a four-year, $20.4 million deal.
The looser version likes movies — "Inception," especially — and cable TV. Viceland, a channel specializing in documentary and reality series, is a recent guilty pleasure.
On USA, the critically acclaimed drama "Mr. Robot" is must-see TV for Stanley, as is HBO's "The Night Of." He even had kind words for the slumping second season of "Ballers," HBO's dramedy series about NFL players and their financial managers.
"I think it's OK," he said. "Just because at least they bring the seriousness part into it."