To the rescue: Helping dogs from shelter is heartfelt mission of Baltimore Ravens' Ronnie Stanley

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- When Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley was 14, his parents bought two cocker spaniels for Christmas after Stanley had begged his parents to get a dog for years.

Eight days later, a babysitter accidentally left open the gate to the pool and one of the puppies drowned. Stanley was headed home after having a great basketball game when he learned his dog had died.

"I definitely took it hard, feeling helpless,” Stanley said. "I couldn’t do anything. It was tough.”

Now, 13 years later, the All-Pro left tackle has become a driving force to help dogs in need. He recently announced the launch of the Ronnie Stanley Foundation, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for rescue dogs and match them with those who have faced a challenge in life, such as a chronic illness or emotional trauma.

The foundation has already placed three dogs in new homes and has three more in training.

"My life was forever changed for the better when I adopted Lola, Rico and Kaia. A lot of individuals can benefit from the companionship an animal can bring into their lives." Ronnie Stanley

“It brings tremendous joy,” Stanley said. "I just think it was great to show that this idea can work, and it works for different types of people, different walks of life, different problems, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity.”

Partnered with the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), Stanley’s foundation will recommend rescue dogs for the program and then provide 30 days of training, food and housing with certified trainers. Once the family or individual is selected, the foundation will arrange a meet-and-greet to ensure a favorable match and provide the new home with a crate, dog bed, bowls, food and toys.

Jonathan Birckhead is a U.S. Navy veteran who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after completing a tour in Iraq during Desert Storm. He received Garrison, an abandoned 2-year-old pit bull mix.

“He has definitely impacted not just me but my whole family,” Birckhead told ESPN. "He is a lovable ball of energy. It seems that his entire mission in life is to give love and get love. So we might as well call him Garrison Birckhead.”

A study in 2018 by Purdue University researchers reported that veterans with service dogs had a 22% higher rate of life satisfaction. It also found that veterans with service dogs exhibited significantly lower overall PTSD symptom severity, including increased overall psychological well-being, an ability to better cope with anxiety attacks and lower levels of social isolation.

"He’s always upbeat, and sometimes you need that,” Birckhead said. "When sometimes you’re dealing with PTSD, you have your good days and not so good days. He’s a constant stream of lovableness."

Helping the hometown shelter

Stanley has firsthand experience when it comes to saving dogs.

A month after being the No. 6 overall draft pick in 2016, Stanley walked into BARCS and surprised those at the shelter by not asking for a puppy. He had a different question instead.

“Which dog has been in the shelter the longest that nobody wants?” Stanley asked.

Stanley was introduced to Lola, a then-6-year-old pit bull who had been found locked inside a room of an empty house with no food or water. It looked like she was trying to eat through walls and the door to escape.

"Ronnie just instantly fell in love with her and took her home,” said Bailey Deacon, the director of community engagement for BARCS.

Since then, Stanley has rescued two more dogs, Rico and Kaia.

“My life was forever changed for the better when I adopted Lola, Rico and Kaia,” Stanley said. “A lot of individuals can benefit from the companionship an animal can bring into their lives.”

For years, people have asked BARCS if the shelter had any animals that are trained to be emotional support or service dogs. But BARCS just didn't have the capacity or resources to do that. It’s a nonprofit, open-admission shelter that takes in an average of 10,000 animals a year.

Before BARCS, the city of Baltimore ran the shelter and the euthanasia rate was 98%. Now, in its 17th year of existence, BARCS is saving 90% of the animals.

So, when Stanley approached BARCS about this idea for his foundation, Deacon wasn’t surprised that the program involved shelter dogs and not puppies from a breeder.

"He saw the value that animals from shelters can bring to families,” Deacon said. "They brought value to his life and really made his home here in Baltimore a true home.

“There’s a lot of programs out there that train dogs to be service animals, to be emotional support animals. And while those are amazing and wonderful, Ronnie took it the extra step and said, 'I think we can do that with shelter dogs. I think they are just as smart, just as capable and just as full of love as a puppy that’s been trained since it was a baby.’"

Stanley’s foundation will continue to arrange complimentary training sessions and ongoing check-ins with the family. The goal is to extend services to communities outside of Baltimore in the future.

"I really enjoy the fact that I’m able to help not only animals, but kind of build that bridge, or connection between humans,” Stanley said. “It’s just trying to show people how each species can be a benefit to each other if it’s done the right way.”

Determined to prove doubters wrong

As much of an impact that Stanley is making off the field, he hopes to return to doing the same as quarterback Lamar Jackson’s blindside protector.

Stanley, 27, has heard the questions about whether he’ll play at the same level after missing 28 of the Ravens’ past 29 games (including playoffs) and being placed on injured reserve in back-to-back seasons.

"I’m all good with people doubting me,” Stanley said. "I’m just excited to prove a lot of people wrong and show people that do support me and believe in me that I can get back to what I was, and even better.”

Stanley, a first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl player in 2019, first injured an ankle two days after signing a five-year, $98.75 million extension on Oct. 30, 2020. He broke his left ankle when Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt inadvertently rolled onto the back of Stanley's lower leg while trying to sack Jackson.

The NFL's second-highest-paid offensive tackle, Stanley underwent two surgeries on the ankle before this season. After being sidelined for the entire offseason and for the first nine days of training camp, he returned to play in the season opener in Las Vegas but visibly struggled. He didn’t play after that and was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 19.

"I wouldn’t say I felt perfectly right,” Stanley said. "I was definitely just pushing through, trying to be a leader and player for my team, but yeah, I wouldn’t say everything felt right.”

Last month, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said it was his mistake to expect Stanley would return at full strength in 2021. DeCosta said he’s optimistic about Stanley for the upcoming season.

"I truly believe that Ronnie is going to be back this year and play good football, play winning football and become, again, the Ronnie Stanley that was an All-Pro left tackle,” DeCosta said. "If he can do that, that will be a huge, huge advantage for us moving forward.”

In retrospect, Stanley said he probably should have waited longer before rushing back to practice and to play in games in 2021. This time, he will not push past what he should do and make sure he has enough strength in the ankle before coming back.

“I will make sure everything is feeling right before I jump back into things,” Stanley said. "I think that’s probably going to be the difference.”

Stanley then added, "I’m kind of itching to get back to working again and coming back to my normal self.”