How his small-town upbringing shaped Roquan Smith into a player who changes so much for the Ravens

Published on: November 19, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 21, 2022 7:04 AM EST

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - NOVEMBER 07: Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints is tackled by Roquan Smith of the Baltimore Ravens during the second quarter at Caesars Superdome on November 07, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, after watching Roquan Smith dash all over the field in every direction during his Ravens debut, but 10 years ago he was ready to quit football altogether. Stuck at defensive end and center, he yearned for the ability to run and make things happen. He thought he might focus on basketball.

Then a new high school coach convinced him that he could find what he needed in football, and it stuck. Now, the intense linebacker is hoping to show that he can be the player his new team needed as it attempts to get to another Super Bowl.

Less than three weeks after the Ravens acquired him in an unexpected, headline-making trade, Smith is set to make his M&T Bank Stadium debut against the Panthers on Sunday. If he’s nervous, it doesn’t show.

“Everything’s been all good,” he said earlier this week from the locker room at the Ravens’ headquarters in Owings Mills.

He knows there’s bound to be pressure on him here, playing a position spotlighted in this town for obvious Ray Lewis-related reasons. But he’s mostly been caught up in the details of his move so far: He had to find a place to live, and learn a new playbook in two days. He’s finally feeling more settled now.

“The guys have been very welcoming,” Smith said of his new teammates. “It’s been a great transition.”

Importantly, he’s enjoying a change of scenery too, following the messy end of an incredibly productive (and at times bumpy) nearly five-year run with the Chicago Bears. The Bears drafted the former University of Georgia star eighth overall in 2018 — and dealt him away on Halloween, despite his status as the NFL’s leading tackler.

“Life happens,” said Smith, 25, upon introduction to the Baltimore media a few days later. “I got traded. Initially, I was shocked, but I’m excited to be here. It’s a good group of guys that are contending for a title, and that’s what I’m in the game for. I’m all about that.”

The Bears dealt Smith, at least in part, because contract extension negotiations this preseason ended without a deal and he requested a trade. Smith has no agent and represents himself, but he has a group of trusted advisers. (The Ravens are familiar with this arrangement, as Lamar Jackson has operated the same way.)

Whether the Ravens want or can afford to keep Smith, a prototypical 6-foot-1, 235-pound speedy linebacker entering his prime who will be a free agent this offseason, remains to be seen. He has worked to acclimate quickly, though.

“I already like how he’s fitting himself into the culture,” Ravens veteran defensive back Marlon Humphrey said this week. “He’s a cool guy. Any time you’ve got a humble guy like that, it’s going to be pretty easy to rock out with him.”

But that attitude belies a playful side, and a burning passion for winning football games that comes alive on game days. In a mic’d-up video from his time with the Bears, he shared one of his favorite sayings: Cooking with grease.

“Have you ever touched hot grease?” he said. “When grease is popping, it’s hot and it’s ready to go, you can put anything in there and it will get it fried up. That’s how I live.”

The Ravens defense did look more dynamic and energetic during Smith’s recent debut in New Orleans. Playing alongside another former first-round pick, Patrick Queen, he was all over the place.

Though that’s not anything new.

One of Smith’s teenage nicknames was “Mama, there goes that man.” He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at the NFL rookie combine in 2018. And he welcomes contact: He’s made a league-best 83 stops this year, and has 607 tackles on his pro career. Another high school-age nickname was the “Montezuma Missile,” referencing Smith’s small hometown and his ability to seek out ball carriers.

There’s no doubt, in just one game, Smith helped the Ravens defense put together what was probably its best performance of the season. In a 27-13 win against the Saints, he had five tackles, and often tracked New Orleans’ top offensive threat — running back Alvin Kamara — across the Superdome turf, relegating the star to footnote status. Smith also stuffed Kamara on a key third-and-one in the first quarter that made for an instant highlight.

At this point, the only things left for him to do to get past the welcome-to-Baltimore stage of his life is to have his first taste of authentic Maryland crabs — and show his skills while wearing a purple jersey at M&T Bank Stadium.

He’ll do both this weekend. That’s the plan, at least.

As the Ravens (6-3) get back to action after a bye week, Smith should be in the starting lineup when they face the visiting Carolina Panthers (3-7), and afterward, he’s planning on finding some good crabs for dinner.

“I’m waiting to check that out,” he said with a big smile. “I think I’m going to wait until after Sunday.”

Not unlike Jackson, Smith is something of an enigma to NFL fans despite being one of the game’s most talented players. He said he wants to bring energy to the field, but is more low-key off of it.

“You should expect me going 100 miles an hour all game,” he says, “regardless of the weather or who we’re playing. That’s going to be me. I’m always going to go out and give it everything I have.”

That shows. Smith is the only player in the NFL with multiple sacks and interceptions this year. “He’s just such a dynamic player across the board,” says Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald.

Smith knows the spotlight, though. He made national headlines as a teenager after originally committing to UCLA rather than opting to stay in-state to be a Georgia Bulldog. He ultimately played at Georgia and became college football’s top linebacker in 2017; he was also the program’s first Butkus Award winner, and Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference.

Smith played his high school football at little-known Macon County High, and was shaped by his Southern Georgia upbringing. He was born and raised in Montezuma, a small town of about 3,000 residents. His family still lives there.

Except for several churches, it’s one of those towns where there’s one of a lot of things. One downtown strip. One big grocery store (called Piggly Wiggly). And there’s one go-to town handyman, Roy Yoder, a firefighter who employed Smith during his junior and senior years of high school, paying him to dig wells with a shovel or a rig in the hard Georgia dirt.

When the town shut down on Friday nights to watch football, he shined. Today, he’s a local hero. His high school retired his No. 1 jersey a few years ago, and his likeness is plastered on one of the walls along with the slogan: “Who’s next?,” serving as inspiration for current students.

Just this week, Smith ran another Thanksgiving food giveaway for the town, which he’s done for the last several years in a row.

But a decade ago, Smith was simply a tall, athletic, hardworking kid who was more interested in following in his father’s footsteps to play basketball. In football, as a 176-pound freshman, he was wearing No. 68 and playing defensive end and center and had nearly lost all interest in the game. Then former Macon football coach Larry Harold, freshly hired, convinced him to dedicate energy to football and changed his positions. Smith put on some weight and became a star on both sides of the ball, as he studied and dedicated himself to the game.

“The thing that makes him great is his attention to detail,” Harold said. “We’re from a small town and we always said the only way we’re going to get people to recruit y’all is if we go to Atlanta to these big camps and compete against the best. We would leave at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning and he’s the only kid there.”

As his former coach said, “His desire and his passion is unmatched. He’s special.”

Montezuma — named by soldiers who’d returned home after the Mexican-American War and had heard about the Aztec ruler — can be a difficult place to find on a map, but once college recruiters saw Smith’s play in video highlights, they flocked to town. By 2015, Smith was Scout.com’s No. 1-rated middle linebacker in the entire country.

Former Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who coached Smith his freshman year of college, was impressed by his highlights. “If guys make a bunch of tackles in high school, they’re going to make a bunch of tackles in college,” says Richt, now an analyst with the ACC Network. “They have a certain instinct about them to go hunt.”

But the coach with whom Smith got closest with was UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. After watching Smith’s highlights, he called Harold and said he just “threw his coffee out the window” he was so excited.

Smith was planning on going to Los Angeles. But just before making his college decision live on national television, in front of almost the entire town in the Macon High gymnasium, he learned Ulbrich, now the defensive coordinator for the NFL’s New York Jets, was leaving UCLA to take a pro job with the Atlanta Falcons.

Disappointed and bewildered, Smith still went out to the gym and made his announcement, not wanting to call off the day. He held his hands up and showed he was wearing a pair of blue-and-gold UCLA football gloves, stunning those in attendance and people watching nationwide who thought he would surely go to Georgia.

But irked by the experience of a coach who recruited him leaving for a new job and the town’s reaction, Smith never signed the national letter of intent paperwork committing to UCLA. He eventually decided to go 150 miles north to Athens for college, and enrolled in class that summer.

“Roquan always wanted to go to Georgia,” Harold said. “He always wanted to be a ’Dog, but they were in the midst of changing defensive coordinators. There was a lot going on. The whole situation was odd, to say the least. It turned into a national story. But it would be fitting for it to happen to a kid like Roquan. It was totally not of his doing, and it was so unique.”

Those who know Smith say he doesn’t mind when things get messy. Back when he dug those wells for Yoder, the ground was often so hard you needed to add water, and things often got muddy.

Perhaps that’s why Smith doesn’t have an agent, either. He also had two rounds of tense contract talks with the Bears, first as rookie and then this preseason.

“I think times are changing,” Smith said. “Players want to be at the table and want 100% transparency … and the fee that you’re paying agents — some do great jobs — I can be giving that to charity or family.”

Earlier this year, Smith broke down crying in a press conference and cut it short when he was asked to react to news that his close friend and Bears defensive end Robert Quinn had been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

“That’s genuine, that’s him,” Harold said. “Once he gets to trust you and know you, he’ll give you the shirt off his back. If you become affectionate toward him, he’ll give you anything you need.”

A few days later, Chicago general manager Ryan Poles invited Smith to his office. Smith thought it might be to restart contract talks, but instead it was to tell him he was being traded too.

Now, he’s here.

“I just want to bring myself,” Smith said. “I want to bring a lot of energy day in and day out and a not-letting-up mentality. A mentality of there’s never enough work — you can always do more — and try to take this defense to be No. 1 in the league.”

Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, US Lacrosse Magazine, and several other publications.