5 core values for youth athletes from former NFL star Torrey Smith

He was a surehanded receiver for the Ravens, instrumental in carrying Baltimore to a Super Bowl title in early 2013. He later won a second NFL crown with the Eagles in February 2018.

Have you heard of Torrey Smith the baseball player?

Baseball was Smith’s best sport. He quit because it cost too much.

“I was super competitive,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports. “And then when I got to high school, once I started really understanding what dollars meant, I was like, ‘Man, you can’t keep doing this.’

‘The (baseball) teams were like, ‘Oh, no, we’ll pay for you to play.’ But endless weekends, fall and spring, where you’re on someone else’s dime … I felt embarrassed to always have to be with someone else’s parent, knowing that my folks really couldn’t help much.”

Smith’s life was at a crossroads, like those of the kids he now interacts with through Level 82, an organization he founded to empower families and community in Baltimore.

Smith chose football, which ultimately led him to a scholarship at the University of Maryland and an eight-year NFL career.

His circumstance, though, really made the choice for him.

Smith’s life in rural Virginia constantly shifted from shelters to hotels or other temporary housing situations. His mother, Monica, was in an abusive marriage, their home threatened by drug abuse and physical violence.

Sports became his outlet, a place he could go to escape. Kids not only need access to sports, they need them to be environments where they feel secure.

“I don’t think everyone really understands how important it is to just be normal,” he told an audience at the Project Play Summit earlier this month while on stage at the UA House, which serves the city’s youth.

Smith, 35, is married and a father of three school-aged kids. He is now on the other side, living in Baltimore’s suburbs. His organization, which he runs with his wife, Chanel, works to ensure hundreds of inner-city kids get chances in sports like the ones that shaped him so profoundly.

Level 82 is an acronym for Leadership, Education, Vision, Effort and Love, followed by his football number. Smith shares how those core values can serve all our kids through their participation in sports, regardless of their economic background.

(Questions and responses are edited for length and clarity.)

1. Leadership: As a parent or coach, know your kids are always watching

Smith  grew up nomadically in and around the Northern Neck area of Northeastern Virginia. Before he was 16, he estimates his family moved 20 times. The oldest of seven kids, he was the father figure in his unstable home.

To find stability, he looked to coaches and teachers, the men who drove him home from practice every day when he mom worked two jobs. He saw how they spoke to wives and didn’t use physical violence. He watched how his first Black coach, Greg Daniel, carried himself and welcomed a young boy into his family.

He took all of those cues with him into parenthood.

“Kids watch you more than they’ll ever listen to you,” Smith says.

USA TODAY: How did everything that happened you growing up shape you as a as a parent and mentor?

Torrey Smith: Most people that are parents, you have good intentions, but there’s no manual. I’ve had to learn how to adjust, even as a sports parent. We expect you to be disciplined, we expect you to be respectful, like those are our household values. So when you’re playing sports, we want to see the exact same thing. But I think the way in which we’ve gotten to that point, it’s been a lot of growth for me, learning from other parents, watching, asking a lot of questions and just trial and error, figuring out what works best. And I think our kids are at a stage now, they’re still so young, but they’re at a stage now where they’re really thriving. And I think they’re able to connect the dots from what we truly want on and off the field.

2. Education: Sports and school feed one other. You learn from mistakes at both

No matter what she was going through, Smith’s mother never let his grades slip.

‘I got a ‘C’ on a midterm one time,’ Smith said, ‘and she took me off the basketball team.’

If you’ve been an athlete, you know how your commitment to a team, and your commitment to stay on it, can drive up your grades.

Through its Project Rampart, which outfits Baltimore high school teams with sports apparel, Under Armour cites city graduation rates rising from 70% to almost 93% in when kids play a sport for four years.

Even with his young kids – sons T.J, 10, and Kameron, 7, and daughter Kori, 5 – Smith sees how sports and school performances can feed off one another.

USA TODAY: Are you involved with your kids’ sports?

TS: All of them. It’s interesting just watching the kids. All of our kids are doing really well in school. They’re doing really well in sports. You see the growth there. And we’re putting them in more challenging environments. I think a lot of parents and kids want to be comfortable. But I’ve learned through my life playing sports, growth doesn’t happen when you’re comfortable.

I treat everybody the same. If my son is not doing his job, he’ll be standing right over there by me. I don’t do ‘Daddy ball’ because it’s not about that. It’s about the understanding, ‘I have to do my job right or I’m not gonna get the opportunity.’

That’s how life is. We give them chances to make mistakes. Not that they have to be perfect, but I’m big on teaching them you can’t just do what you want and expect good things to happen. You’ve gotta work. You’ve got to be disciplined. You have to do your job. And our kids thrive. It’s built through time. It’s built through relationships. It’s to the point now that our kids come, they’re excited … “Coach, I did it. I had a great day of school. I did a really good job on my test. I studied, and I worked for it.’ The wins are them understanding that the habits that you can get from sports will carry you a long way if you really buy into it.

3. Vision: Have a positive image of what you want to become

Smith sees himself on the faces of the kids he mentors in West Baltimore, the ones longing for connection. He offers his hand.

He remembers conversations with his coaches growing up about always having good character. These conversations helped unlock a vision for his own life.

USA TODAY: What are your expectations for your kids, given your athletic success?

TS: To be themselves. I don’t care; they don’t have to play sports. If you wanted to just be in a band, well, you better give the best effort you can to that band. I didn’t want them playing football right away. My wife was like “No, they need to play.” And they love it. They want to go work out. These are things that I didn’t put on them. I only played catch with my son for the first eight years. I didn’t do any drills with him. I didn’t do any anything besides coaching. There was no extra time spent. Now he wants to do that stuff. The goals and expectations on them is to be the best version of themselves, and then know that no matter how far they go, whether it’s short or long that we always have their back.

4. Effort: Don’t baby your kids. Let them face adversity.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Smith told local broadcaster Rob Long on stage at the Project Play Summit, “but raising privileged kids when you didn’t grow up privileged is a task.”

Many in the crowd laughed.

“I’m serious,” he said. “I want them to have the life lessons that I had without the trauma and the best way for them to have that is through sports and through challenging them.”

One way we can always challenge ourselves is through effort. Effort builds winners, but it also allows us to move on from losing.

USA TODAY: Greg Olson talked to us about stressing development over winning. How easy is that to execute?

TS: Winning is a byproduct of doing things the right way. So regardless of how talented your child is, or a group of kids are, if you do things the right way – they’re disciplined, they’re coachable – if they play hard, you’re going to win. I’m not gonna say you want to lose, but the idea of it is, are they getting better? Winning isn’t the only measurement of success.

Some kids in our seven-on-seven program haven’t even lost a youth game. So when they lose, they’re like, ‘Ohhhhhhh …. the world’s over.’ I’m like, “Life’s gonna happen like that. Things are gonna happen. How do you respond?’

I love adversity. I think too often, we kind of baby the kids and coddle them when they have to work through these things in order to be better players, and more importantly, to be better people.

Coach Steve: Greg Olsen offers helpful ways to navigate youth sports

5. Love: Show it to kids but let them create their own experiences, too

Emotional scars from Smith’s upbringing have remained. He wasn’t comfortable telling anyone he loved them until he met his wife. To Smith, love is an action.

We show it when we take our kids to practice or a game and, perhaps more importantly, when we don’t push too hard when that game doesn’t go the way we want.

USA TODAY: What kind of coach and a sports parent are you?

TS: I’ve learned to not talk to my kids about bad games. Good games, you pump them up. Bad games, let’s not talk about it right away. We’ll talk about it at a later time. It’s always important to remember, like, no matter who you’re coaching, when you’re coaching a child, it’s still your child.

USA TODAY: What would you say to parents raising athletes or rearing them through sports?

TS: Let them be themselves. Let them run their own race. Oftentimes, it’s parents who want to force them to speed up this force and do certain things. … It’s not going to happen. I’m not big on forcing kids to do things outside (of team activities). Once we’re out there, we’re working. I’m not gonna let you be lazy. If they’re hungry for more, continue to feed them, water their plants so they can continue to grow.

USA TODAY: Right. And not put pressure on them.

TS: No pressure. … Let the pressure come from, “I expect you to be respectful to your coaches and your teammates. I don’t expect you to go undefeated. I don’t expect you to score 20 points a game or 20 goals a game or three touchdowns a game. I just expect you to try your best.”

Editor’s note: If you can’t find a team or sports program, go to your local YMCA or rec center. There might be free-play organizations in your area like Volo Kids. You can also find organizations like Every Kid Sports and Leveling the Playing Field that cover registration fees and provide equipment for income-restricted families.

Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.

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