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Torrey Smith: 'We need to figure out ways to create change'

Torrey Smith, drafted by the Ravens in 2011, has brought his veteran leadership along with his passion for social issues to the Panthers. John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Torrey Smith recalls having guns drawn on him by police officers on three different occasions growing up. He remembers having his car searched on the side of the road because he had an inspection sticker that just failed because of faulty windshield wipers.

He watched his mother, Monica Chante Jenkins, spend six months in jail after a domestic violence dispute with her daughter-in-law that turned violent. He has observed what his wife, Chanel, dealt with as a schoolteacher.

So when you see the Carolina Panthers wide receiver in a T-shirt such as the #SchoolsNotPrisons one he recently wore during practice, it's not simply because he wants to promote social issues.

Smith does it because he feels obligated.

"So for me to sit here and remain silent and not speak up on things that I know are wrong, when I know it affects me ... well, I've been in that situation," Smith said. "I want to figure out ways to help, spread light to a particular situation, whatever it may be, and figure out what we can do best as citizens to make America great for everyone."

The Panthers acquired Smith in a trade with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles during the offseason because they needed a veteran presence in the receivers room being led by Devin Funchess, who at 24 wasn't ready for that role after Kelvin Benjamin was dealt to Buffalo.

They acquired Smith to bring more team speed to a unit that dreadfully lacked it a year ago.

What they got in addition to those things was a man who quietly fights social injustice, whether it's the protests by NFL players during the national anthem or issues such as #SchoolsNotPrisons that began in California in 2016.

Smith, as a member of the NFL Players Coalition founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins, feels obligated to take protests to work in the community.

"When you talk about the issues of the criminal justice system, I grew up in a family where a lot of my family members are convicted felons," Smith said. "But I also grew up in a family where I've had lawyers checking into things that, now that I'm an adult who's able to make a decent amount of money, to know that they don't understand why they were charged with this particular crime or why it was at that level.

"So I've recognized since I was a kid that there are different issues depending on where you're from, the color of your skin or how much money you made."

Smith says he doesn't drink or smoke or get into trouble, aside from "a speeding ticket here and there." He's not a troublemaker or instigator. He didn't kneel in 2016 with then-San Francisco 49ers teammate Colin Kaepernick, who tried to bring attention to police brutality and racial injustice.

He still doesn't kneel.

But Smith is one of the first to speak out on these issues because of everything he has experienced growing up in Colonial Beach, Virginia, and going to college at the University of Maryland.

He is proud to use his platform as an NFL player.

"I haven't even protested and I've had full-on debates with people who are yelling at me or tweeting me about taking a knee and I didn't even do it," Smith said. "So that goes to tell you what people know and what they don't know. They're just mad and don't even know why. You know what I mean?

"So for me, it's just about continuing to do the right thing. Continuing to press forward, because it's not really about continuing to protest. The message is out there. We need to figure out ways to really go about creating change. That's the process that we're on right now."

Still a deep threat

Smith, 29, blew past a defender in a recent practice and gracefully hauled in a long touchdown pass from Cam Newton.

He hasn't made a lot of these plays in training camp. He didn't make a lot last season with the Eagles when he caught 36 of 67 targets for two touchdowns and led the team in drops. He didn't make a lot the previous two seasons at San Francisco, where he had a combined 53 catches and seven touchdowns.

Smith hasn't made major contributions since catching 11 touchdowns during his 2014 season at Baltimore. He was available for trade to Carolina because his production didn't match up to his $5 million price tag.

But he always has been respected by his teammates no matter where he has played. None respected him more in Philadelphia than quarterback Carson Wentz, who grew close to the 6-foot, 205-pound receiver.

Wentz was one of the first to go on social media after the Eagles traded Smith for cornerback Daryl Worley, saying, "Much love and respect for you brotha! Gonna miss playing with you. Go and make the most of this opportunity and keep being the man of God and father that you are! Love you bro!"

Smith is earning that same respect in Carolina. He brings a presence similar to what veteran Jerricho Cotchery did during the 2015 Super Bowl run. He's quiet, but his work ethic and presence in the receivers room already is paying dividends.

"Quite honestly, it's taken a lot of pressure off of Funchess," coach Ron Rivera said. "Devin's felt he's had to step up last year and this last year. Now, having veterans in there with him, he's starting to relax more and practice the way he's capable of. He can become the player we hope he can be."

Cotchery did that for the Panthers in 2015 when they had to adjust to being without then-star receiver Benjamin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp.

Cotchery didn't light it up, catching only 39 passes for three touchdowns. But he quietly showed young receivers what it took to succeed, and helped Newton to an MVP season with a career-best 35 touchdown passes.

That's what Smith has done so far.

"Just the approach to every day," said Cotchery, now an assistant wide receivers coach for Carolina. "He talks about getting better every day and getting closer as a group. He's been a part of two championship groups [Philadelphia, Baltimore] where they had great chemistry.

"He offers some firsthand experience to guys in the room. They [would] do well to pay attention to him."

Cotchery also respects Smith's willingness to take stands on social issues.

"He's him," Cotchery said. "Whatever he stands for, he stands for and he goes about doing it the way he believes in doing it."

Rivera agreed.

"We have a guy that pays attention to what's happening," he said. "He shows that he's very alert, very aware. He's not going out half-cocked. When you talk to him, you see a lot of things are very well thought out, very well read and very well prepared. He's a young man that can share that with other guys.

"The thing I love about him as well is he can separate the football from social issues. That is kind of what everybody would like to do."

'Carries a lot of weight'

Nickelback Captain Munnerlyn was among the players who found a "#SchoolsNotPrisons" T-shirt at his locker before practice two weeks ago. He didn't hesitate to wear it because of the respect he has for Smith.

"Torrey, he's a great guy on and off the field," Munnerlyn said. "He has strong beliefs. He's one of those guys you have to respect. You never really hear him talk that much, but when he's talking it adds value to the room."

Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen got to know Smith years ago during offseason training in Miami. He's familiar with Smith's story, which is littered with heartbreaks and highlighted by victories. He's already seeing the benefits of Smith's leadership for a receiving corps that will depend on young players such as first-round pick D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, a second-round pick in 2017.

"He's been a really good mentor to a lot of guys," Olsen said. "He has a really good work ethic, a really good approach. He brings a lot, not just on the field, but he brings a lot to the team."

Olsen also says he appreciates that Smith is not afraid to speak out on social issues.

"Torrey is not only vocal, but he's very knowledgeable," he said. "That's what separates him from a lot of people. He knows what he's talking about, so when he does speak, it carries a lot of weight.

Smith says he believes it is his right to be a leader in all ways as former teammates Jenkins, Boldin and even former Baltimore receiver Steve Smith -- Carolina's all-time leading receiver -- were for him as a young player.

He also wants to show he still can be effective as a player, set to start opposite Funchess in Thursday's preseason opener at Buffalo (7 p.m. ET).

"Those guys were great to me when I was a younger player trying to find my way, and it's only right to do it," Smith said. "So when you're here and you have a guy like Funchess who has all the potential in the world, to try to help him with some little things or try to show him the right way to do certain things, it goes a long way."