The Carolina Panthers finished training camp on Monday morning at Wofford College, and it would have been easy for everyone to sprint off the field and head home after three weeks in the dorms.
But several players stayed after to sign autographs and speak to the media. And while receiver Torrey Smith was greeting the crowd, he heard a group of young men yelling his name.
They were part of the AMIkids White Pines organization, a youth rehabilitation program whose mission is to “empower our kids through care and guidance to reach (their) potential and, as a result, (break) the cycle of failure and poverty.”
Smith, inspired by his difficult childhood, has done a lot in the community for social justice, prison reform and youth rehabilitation, including promotion of the NFL Players Coalition’s #SchoolsNotPrisons campaign.
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So Smith brought them onto the field and shared his message.
“My message to them was about not letting your past define you,” he said. “We’ve all made mistakes. None of us are perfect. (They all) are lucky that (they) have the opportunity to go out there and change it, especially while (they are) young.
“I told them the example of my mother. When you make a mistake when you’re young, it doesn’t forgive you. It’s going to hang with you when you want to get a job, when you need a loan, whatever it may be. And sometimes people don’t get it removed. So I just talked to them about not letting that hold them back. Not letting society put pressure on them or hold them back. And figuring out what success looks like for them.
“(I told them) what they have to do work-wise, discipline-wise and how to stay around the right circle and not let peer pressure get to you, which is always hard, even for adults.”
It was completely unplanned. But it meant so much to the group.
“The boys were calling his name, and he came over,” said the program’s executive director, LaQuentin Irvin. “We talked about the program and it hit his heart. He had some situations that he went through. And it went from there.
“It means a lot (for him) to give us some of his time. I know it’s the last day of practice. So to be able to come and talk to the boys, it put a smile on their faces. Even to give them a glove, his wristbands. It’s something they can remember forever.”
Smith didn’t expect to speak to them after practice. But he said he felt he would be doing them a disservice if he didn’t.
“It’s real life. Football is just something that everyone is able to see,” Smith said. “But real life, and the things that those kids are going through, the things that they live through, is (what we have in common). So I think it’s important. I’d be doing a disservice to everyone if I didn’t go out there and explain to them that the situation that they’re in, they can’t control. Whether it’s their household, the way they are living, how they’re growing up, they can’t control that (but) they can define their future.
“And that’s what I did. I learned at an early age that it didn’t matter what was going on around me. If I stuck with the books and stayed out of trouble, I stood a chance at making it out. And I did.”