A line of challengers formed in front of Roquan Smith, all eager to test his mettle.
The Ravens star linebacker had one question for them:
Red or yellow?
Smith may always be looking for the edge on the gridiron but, if you play him in Connect Four, he’ll at least let you pick your color.
These one-on-one sessions last month, however, were particularly special. Smith took on all comers for a few hours at a holiday party he hosted for families at the House of Ruth Maryland shelter — a refuge for women and children in their most desperate hour of need.
Smith came with Ravens mascot Poe, doling out gifts that had been specifically chosen for each resident with accompanying notes. He brought Chick-fil-A to feed them. He indulged break dance sessions, pictures and, of course, games of Connect Four.
Wrote one of the grateful parents, in a note shared with The Banner: I want to thank you for being so humble and down to earth. My son didn’t even know he was playing Connect Four with a professional football player, and I’m grateful we were able to get pictures so I could show him when he gets older.
For the fearsome reputation Smith has cultivated as a hard-hitting linebacker, the 26-year-old hopes his greatest legacy will come off the football field through the people he’s helped through his Roquan Smith Foundation, run by his aunt Shaquwanda Baker. He’s the Ravens’ nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year, the NFL’s service award named for one of the league’s greatest benefactors.
Smith’s community work has great scale, spanning at least three states and encompassing many organizations and schools. But, through his work serving victims of domestic violence, what makes Smith stand out (to those he’s worked with) is his personal touch — his ability to listen, to spend time discerning what will make the most impact, and the willingness to go above and beyond with his time to deliver unforgettable experiences.
To Smith, that’s the point.
“I just want to show them that I care and there’s many others that care and just want the best for them,” he said. “And, if I can be a helping hand in any way, that’s what I would love to do.”
Shining light in the darkness
If you live in a town where Smith has lived, there’s a great chance you’ve been affected by his community service.
In rural Macon County, Georgia, where he grew up (Smith frequently describes it as a “no-stoplight town”), his foundation distributes Thanksgiving turkeys by the hundreds every year. In Chicago, Smith worked with WINGS, another domestic violence support organization, and gave families tickets to his games with the Bears. He donated to local schools, Baker said, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“We were so sad to see the Bears trade him away — we were like, ‘No!’” said Rebecca Darr, president and CEO of WINGS. “He’s a very special human being.”
In Baltimore, he considers his work to be just beginning, even though he’s done community events for Thanksgiving and Sept. 11, and joined NFL-USO to visit soldiers stationed in Japan during the offseason. In addition to the holiday party, he has given game tickets to families — a family of four will attend Ravens-Texans this weekend — and partnered with Casper Mattress to give new beds to families leaving the shelter and moving out on their own.
But the list doesn’t quite capture his approach. The Banner was unable to speak directly to families in House of Ruth Maryland and WINGS, because of privacy and security concerns. But one of his thank you notes — before getting to the games, the pictures or the gifts — expresses gratitude for something else first.
I want to thank you so much for coming into [the] shelter and treating us like normal people, the woman wrote.
Winding up in a shelter is the culmination of a long, painful process, and it can feel like rock bottom. Women and children leave behind their lives to find safety, but at great cost. Being a victim of domestic violence can feel shameful and stigmatizing, and stepping away from a previous life can be lonesome.
Being heard and seen as more than a victim is humanizing for many of the residents. Gabrielle Millard, associate director of housing services for House of Ruth Maryland, saw Smith, between the fun and games, listening to the parents’ stories. “Their whole persons were seen that day,” she said.
Once Smith had established himself in the NFL, he and his family evaluated where they could do the most good. Supporting victims of domestic violence stood out in part because of how much those families suffer in silence. Smith does much of this work privately out of necessity, but did show his support this season on his custom cleats that read, “End Domestic Abuse.”
In an interview with The Banner, Smith called domestic violence “so overlooked in today’s age” and an area he thought he could make an impact.
“I know those are some tough individuals who go through some unspeakable things and circumstances that not most go through,” he said. “And for them to still have the smiles they have on their face and be able to look adversity right in the face and just say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stand tall through it all,’ I have the utmost respect for those individuals that never fold.”
A little extra
Before Smith, only two players from Macon County High School ever made it to the NFL. The second of these was Ervin Baldwin, a 2009 draft pick of the Bears who visited his hometown after making the league when Smith was in the fifth grade.
As a child, it was the only NFL player Smith ever met. He clutched a piece of ruled paper to get an autograph from Baldwin, who played only three NFL games. Smith still thinks about that feeling often.
“When you take a step back and realize I’m in those shoes now and the impact it made on those kids, it’s just so special and it goes a long way,” he said. “It’s something that I know I’ve cherished all my life. And I know kids that have a similar instance will cherish those same moments as well.”
Organizers who have worked with Smith see that extra degree of care and empathy. When he was with the Bears, Smith invited a WINGS family to a game. Afterward, the field was mobbed — including press who wished to talk to Smith — but he invited the family down from their seats and spent more time with them there, Darr said.
Andrew Primrose, the chief communications officer at House of Ruth Maryland, said it’s extremely rare to see a high-level pro athlete in his prime spend as much time and attention as Smith. When buying gifts for the attendees of the holiday party, Smith and his foundation had “several conversations” about what kinds of gifts would be most useful, most helpful, most impactful, and he wrote personal messages on each accompanying card.
When Smith was leaving the party, a number of children clamored for his purple Ravens-themed Santa hat. He had only one, and he had to keep it for a subsequent community event with the Ravens, but he turned to his aunt and mother (who were also in attendance) and asked if they could get hats for everyone.
A week later, a package arrived at the shelter, full of purple Santa hats.
“It was on top of what he had already given,” Primrose said. “You could tell he hated telling those kids no.”
While Smith does more public work with the Ravens, such as a Target shopping spree last month for the holidays, private events allow him to be more present, Baker said, and engage with families — especially children — on a more personal level.
“Nothing is more admirable to him when he walks into a room and a kid says, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Roquan Smith,’ and seeing that and seeing the joy it brings,” she said. “He wants to be able to focus a whole lot on that, just make them know they have not been forgotten.”
A growing legacy
When Smith was named a Walter Payton Man of the Year finalist, he didn’t take it lightly. It’s a legacy he could uniquely appreciate after he was with the Bears, passing Payton’s likeness every day at Halas Hall, the team’s headquarters, and practicing in the indoor facility named after the Hall of Fame running back.
Payton died in 1999, but his foundation still is an invigorating presence in Chicago, helping people who need organ donations, sponsoring runs and toy drives and more in the region. It showed Smith how a legacy of giving can live on long after football days end.
“It’s something like that I’ve always been inspired by,” he said. “If I can be half of that, it would truly mean so much to me and truly be heartwarming.”
In his last contract, Smith hit the big time with $100 million over four years. He’s also accordingly scaled up his charitable efforts, matching his desire to do good with more means to do it.
Darr knows the Payton family well and says Smith is “really walking in Walter Payton’s footsteps” with the work he’s doing.
“It’s not generosity – it’s caring,” she said. “If every person on this planet did the same type of caring he does, House of Ruth and WINGS would not exist. They wouldn’t need to exist.”
But, since they do, Smith is here to help. Primrose observed that, rather than throwing around his clout or status as an NFL player, he simply seems to blend into the scene when he visits with families.
“[At the party], he wasn’t really ‘Roquan Smith’, but kind of the fun uncle, the brother or cousin,” Primrose said. “It was that sense of family at the table, or when everyone was playing, that sense of belonging that I thought brought him the most joy and made him the most comfortable.”
Smith agrees that he gets something out of the work he does, that the families he meets have an impact on him, too. He wants them to feel seen, heard, appreciated — and hopes a little humanity goes a long way.
“I just want to let them know I care and that there’s many others that care out there,” he said. “Just for them to continue to be strong and continue to fight the good fight.”