Carolina Panthers

Panthers WR Torrey Smith's potential impact on Charlotte is much bigger than football

Carolina Panthers’ Torrey Smith discusses the NFL’s national-anthem policy

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith says the NFL has an opportunity to bring people together while talking about the league's new policy toward the national anthem.
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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith says the NFL has an opportunity to bring people together while talking about the league's new policy toward the national anthem.

Earlier this month, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith went to church with complete strangers.

He wondered on Twitter whether he could join someone in Charlotte, his new city, at church. The following Sunday, he did just that, tagging along with a young man and his family for worship.

Smith's arrival in Charlotte in March was about football. A trade brought him here, a product of the Panthers' need at wide receiver and their hesitancy to enter the inflated free agency market at the position.

But because of who Smith is, that arrival can impact the city and the Carolinas in a way that transcends football.

Smith has made it a point to invest in each city in which he lives. He has already begun contacting leaders in Charlotte, talking to teammates about getting involved in local charities, and asking through social media how he can help.

Smith is articulate and outspoken. He's also well-known for his charitable efforts in Baltimore, where he played for four years, and in Philadelphia, where last season he earned his second Super Bowl ring.

A lot can be learned from listening to him, and watching him.

Community is important to Smith. That starts with his own family, of whom he's incredibly proud.

Smith grew up without a birth father and was raised in Virginia by his mother. She held two jobs and worked fiercely to keep him safe, building an unshakeable bond between the two. Smith had to be a "father" to his younger siblings before he was even 10 years old, and used to spend his mornings feeding, bathing and getting his brothers and sisters off to school.

"You know, my mother was very hardworking," Smith said. "But there were times when we needed just a little bit of help."

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith (11) will catch touchdowns from Cam Newton on Sundays, but his impact in Charlotte can be much greater than football. Chuck Burton AP Photo

Sometimes they got that help through sports.

As his mother worked, coaches used to drive Smith back and forth from football practice and would ask him about his day.

"My coaches were kind of where my positive male role models were from, just watching how they were with their families and how they were with us," he said. "Your coaches spend so much time with you. ... They were my ride home, and I was able to talk to them about things that bothered me, about school, about whatever."

Those conversations made football into something much more emotionally important than "just a game." They showed him how people can connect to each other and come together.

The experience also showed him how he can use the sport to help children who struggle to find their way. It showed him how to give. It showed him that he can have a voice in the world that so often tells young people in tough circumstances that they cannot.

Smith wants his own two young children to always feel seen, and to have every opportunity he didn't. He wants that for the children of every community he's in. He wants them to have a voice.

And so when Smith spoke so eloquently on Tuesday afternoon about social justice and giving back, it was an important moment.

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What Smith showed in that interview is that even as a newcomer he can be a figurehead in this community.

He has a remarkable ability to raise the level of dialogue about issues that can often be mean-spirited and divisive. He can opine on these things and engage in respectful conversation, even on social media, while backing up his desire to help with action.

He'll catch touchdowns on Sundays, but that's just what he does for a living.

Who he is, well, that's something we should pay attention to.

"To whom much is given," he said during his interview on Tuesday, "much is required."

And Smith's requirement of himself is to show children how promising their future can be, even if they need a little help to get there.

He's an optimist and a giver. A clear and bright voice.

Charlotte is lucky to have him.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue