SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Long before San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his protest of racial oppression and inequality in the United States by kneeling during the national anthem, one of his teammates was already outspoken about and taking action to tackle those very same issues.
Like Kaepernick, 49ers receiver Torrey Smith has never been afraid to voice his opinions on social issues, be it in conversations or via social media. Since Kaepernick began kneeling alongside linebacker Eli Harold and safety Eric Reid, Smith has offered words of encouragement and support every step of the way.
Yet, when the "Star-Spangled Banner" plays before every Niners game, Smith can be found standing alongside the rest of his teammates. He doesn't take a knee or raise his right fist.
That's not to say that Smith hasn't considered it. In fact, Smith said recently he thought long and hard about how he wanted to fight those social issues. But it was one conversation with his father Clarence, who served in the Army for 25 years, that ultimately kept him standing.
"I talked with my dad for about two hours about just different things," Smith said. "My dad was in the military for 25 years, and his opinion about it was that it really didn't bother him. He was like 'You fight for that right to do that.' He understands why [Kaepernick is] doing it, and he has a lot of respect for Colin for why he’s doing it and for him taking a knee. So that wasn’t the issue.
"But honestly with 9/11 (being the opening day for the NFL), I wasn't comfortable doing it the first game or anything surrounding it because I know people who are affected by it and their families were affected by it. Even though this protest is completely different, it wasn’t something I was comfortable with."
Smith said he then considered joining Kaepernick in Week 2 but came to the conclusion important discussions were already happening and he could continue to make a difference by doing work in a less public manner.
"The following week, I was like 'All right, the conversation is going,'" Smith said. "I have been in the community, I have been talking about this issue in the community, so it's kind of like, I have been doing things to fight these type of social injustices before, so it doesn't really change anything I have been doing, so I just kind of focused on the change."
Soon after Kaepernick's protest garnered attention, Smith was quick to reinforce his feelings Kaepernick was shedding light on an important issue. He has been impressed with how Kaepernick has handled all of the attention since the protests began, noting that he might not be able to bite his tongue in certain situations like Kaepernick has.
"I think I would do all right (in that spot)," Smith said. "I think I would probably talk back a little more to people than he does, but he does a great job. To whom much is given, much is required, and he's doing a great job of handling that responsibility, and he's doing the right thing."
Smith has said that the protest has led to more meaningful conversations with teammates in the locker room, and he has noticed a "happier" Kaepernick compared to a year ago.
"He’s been a professional since the day I have been here," Smith said. "He handles his business on that football field. And we're definitely cool off the field, so it's not like one of those things where it made (our on-field relationship) any better or anything. I have always had all the respect in the world for him because he works hard and he's a competitor, so it's one of those things where he basically elevates your game. I've had respect for him since Day 1."
Upon entering the NFL in 2011, Smith formed his foundation, the Torrey Smith Family Fund, which, according to its website, has a mission "to provide youth with the tools they need to identify, unleash, and reach their full potential." The foundation works to improve underprivileged communities in Smith's home state of Virginia and in neighboring Maryland, where Smith played collegiately and started his NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens.
That work includes providing meals and presents for families in need during the holidays, awarding annual scholarships and hosting a charity basketball game in Baltimore. Last year, Smith also donated money and traveled to Flint, Michigan, to deliver supplies to aid the city during its water crisis.
During the Niners' bye this week, Smith will be part of a panel called "Conversations for Change" on Wednesday night in which he will join activists, educators and officers to have an open dialogue intended to focus on "issues facing young black males in Baltimore."
"Kaep got the conversation going, and he's continuing to do work to change it," Smith said. "So I'm just going to help work for the change like I had been doing before."