Smith traveled tough route

Maryland star ready for his shot

Torrey Smith was described as a ‘perfect person’ by coach Ralph Friedgen. Torrey Smith was described as a ‘perfect person’ by coach Ralph Friedgen. (File/Jonathan Wiggs/Boston Globe)
By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / April 25, 2011

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The story is almost becoming cliché. A player from the University of Maryland wows National Football League scouts and teams go wild.

Some have had success, such as tight end Vernon Davis (2006), cornerback Domonique Foxworth (’05), and linebacker Shawne Merriman (’05).

Some haven’t, such as tackle Bruce Campbell (’10) and wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (’09).

It’s that last name that really stands out. After a nondescript college career, Heyward-Bey enticed teams when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds.

That was enough for Raiders owner Al Davis, who always has been enamored with speed. To most everyone’s surprise, Davis selected Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick.

He has 35 catches and two touchdowns in his two NFL seasons — far below the production expected from a top-10 pick.

So when another Terrapins receiver, Torrey Smith, entered this year’s draft process with the reputation for being one of the fastest college players, many personnel people thought he was just another Heyward-Bey.

But once they delved deeper into Smith’s background, they found it was no ordinary story. It was the type movies are made of.

Born to a 16-year-old mother in Richmond, Smith was forced to be the man of the house by the age of 4. While his mother worked two jobs, and with no father around, Smith would make breakfast for his siblings. It wasn’t long before he was doing the laundry, changing diapers, bathing his brothers and sisters (who would number six at one point), and putting them to bed.

That was actually the good part. Smith grew up in a violent neighborhood and was witness to domestic abuse, including a gun being held to his mother’s head.

“It had its ups and downs,’’ Smith said of his childhood, which also included a move to Minnesota. “I was always with my family. There were certain times when other kids would be able to go and have fun doing something, and I had responsibility. But that’s something I would not take back.’’

Smith’s mother, Monica, was troubled as a youth but earned an associate of arts computer degree in 2000.

Smith, meanwhile, excelled on the athletic field and landed a scholarship at Maryland, where his production was outstanding.

As a redshirt junior, he earned his criminal justice degree last December while also becoming the ACC’s all-time kickoff return leader and second all-time in all-purpose yardage to Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, who was a first-round pick of the Bills last year.

Off the field, Smith found himself back in the familiar role of family leader. His mother was arrested after a fight with her daughter-in-law. Because of Monica Smith’s struggles as a youth, she sat in jail for six months before Torrey’s final season. Any free time Smith had last year, he traveled to Colonial Beach, Va., to tend to his siblings.

Former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has said of Smith, “God created a perfect person.’’

“It definitely helped me a lot,’’ Smith said of watching his mother’s struggles. “Seeing her mistakes, I was able to go out and not make those mistakes myself as I got older. I knew what I had to do to stay focused on my goals.

“It’s another blessing to be here. I obviously went through a lot to be here and it helped me a lot more than it hurt me. I’m just happy to be here.’’

The road Smith has traveled has not gone unnoticed by NFL teams.

“There’s some great stories in college football and the National Football League about what guys have overcome, what players have done to get to this point,’’ said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “Torrey Smith is one of those stories. So, I think it’s worth people taking a look into. There are a lot of role models in football right now.’’

Smith was a bit stunned to hear Harbaugh’s comments.

“That’s really cool,’’ Smith said. “I didn’t even know the guy knew my name.’’

Now NFL teams are trying to determine if Smith will be a success on the field with the tougher coverages in the pros.

Smith did not run as well at the combine as he had hoped, but his time of 4.41 seconds still placed sixth among receivers. His vertical jump (41 inches) was tied for second.

That type of athletic ability — not to mention Smith’s intangibles — certainly could be useful to the Patriots, who are seeking a vertical threat in their high-powered, precision passing offense.

Smith had 152 receptions for 2,215 yards and 19 touchdowns at Maryland, including a school-record 12 this past season.

“You can watch on film and five or six of my touchdowns are against press coverage,’’ Smith said. “So when I know a corner is going to press me in college I know I can beat it. That doesn’t bother me at all.’’

Scouts worry that he’s too much of a straight-line, vertical-type receiver, which is what Heyward-Bey was coming out of Maryland.

Smith doesn’t like being compared with his former teammate.

“I feel like Darrius is going to be fine,’’ Smith said. “I feel like it’s ignorant for people to compare two completely different people, too. Just because we went to the same school doesn’t mean anything. If he didn’t go to Maryland or I didn’t go to Maryland, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. At the end of the day, we’re two completely different people. I went on a completely different path than he did.’’

Not many have traveled down the road Smith has to be so close to an NFL career.

It’s hard not to root for his story to have a fantastic ending.

“For every one of me, there are a million other people in my situation,’’ Smith said. “Like with my mom, there’s a million of her, a million other women making mistakes, being in relationships they probably shouldn’t be in, and there’s a kid that has to help his family — make a decision whether to be positive or turn his back and go the wrong way.

“When you’re an athlete, it gets more attention. But if it gets more attention . . . there might be a kid who reads that article and goes a certain way.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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