SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In the NFL, teams are comprised of players from all over the country. From Miami, Fla. to Hau’ula Hi., rosters can be made of people that grew up thousands of miles apart, and play pro football thousands of miles from where they call home.
Not often do players get to play out their professional careers in their backyards. It can be a gift and burden. Being close to family members and friends who would normally be a phone call away means more commitments and distractions away from the football field.
For new San Francisco 49ers receiver Torrey Smith, that’s exactly what he dealt with during his first four years with the Baltimore Ravens. Not only did Smith play with the closest NFL team to his home town of Fredericksburg, Va., his college, the University of Maryland, wasn’t far away either.
"So that’s an hour and some change from College Park, up (Interstate) 95,” Smith, 26, said Friday, a day before his first training camp with the 49ers.
"That’s literally as far as I went the entire time when I left high school. I loved it. That’s going to be home for me when I’m done. My house is still there. But if it wasn’t for the 49ers giving me the opportunity to be there, I would have never left that area. I’m excited about that change."
Smith said he doesn’t get homesick, which played a minor role in choosing to sign with a team 3,000 miles away on the west coast. In his four-plus months in the Bay Area, he said he’s found tranquility in his new digs, because he’s been able to focus on football and avoid the distractions that came along with playing close to home along the I-95 corridor.
"I’ve always been so close, always been in a comfort zone. I’ve been able to focus on football more," Smith said. "It’s peaceful to me. It’s weird. I was telling my wife today, ‘I love being out here.’ To have an opportunity to just focus on what I’m doing, no outside distractions."
"Because everything’s new, I’ve been able to really just focus on what’s important for me and my family, my wife and my child ... I don’t have as many friends out here, I don’t have any family members out here. I’m not around people as much."
Smith signed a five-year, $40-million contract this spring, becoming general manager Trent Baalke’s most expensive free-agent acquisition since getting promoted to his role in 2011. Smith is reuniting with his former teammate Anquan Boldin, with whom he developed a solid relationship during their two seasons together in Baltimore.
The 49ers, of course, know how good of a duo they make, having lost to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII when they combined for eight catches, 139 yards and a touchdown.
"I work underneath, intermediate routes," Boldin said in the spring following Smith’s signing. "He’s a guy that can take the top off the defense. With that, we compliment each other."
Smith notched a career-high 11 touchdowns in 2014. Conversely, his 767 yards were the fewest of his four seasons. Boldin, 34, led the 49ers with five receiving touchdowns and 1,062 yards, his second-straight 1,000-yard season.
The 49ers finished with the league’s 30th-ranked passing attack, averaging 191.4 yards per game. Those struggles came, in part, because the team was unable to push the ball down field with any consistency. San Francisco’s quarterbacks ranked 25th in the league in yards per pass attempt. That lack of production led to the release of former No. 3 receiver Stevie Johnson and letting Michael Crabtree walk in free agency this offseason.
Smith gives the 49ers an element they didn’t have in 2014, and have coveted for a long time.
“Guys respect his speed,” Boldin said. “You’re not going to find too many guys that play up on him like that, which makes running intermediate routes that much easier for him.”
And while Smith has shown off that speed during the offseason program, connecting on deep throws from Colin Kaepernick, he’s impressed off the field as well. In January, Smith enrolled in the University of Miami’s MBA program for business administration, already armed with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from Maryland.
Smith’s work with the community earned him the Ravens Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2014. His resume in public service includes feeding low-income families during the holidays and providing school supplies for 600 low-income middle school students at the start of each school year.
”My first impression of Torrey Smith is more about the man than it is about the ball player,” first-year head coach Jim Tomsula said. “He is a unique guy. And the way he carries himself and the way he talks to people, he’s one of those multipliers. He’s just a really, really good person.”
Usually active on social media, Tweeting about social issues, including the protests close to his home town in Baltimore earlier this year, Smith said he will be turning his phone off for the majority of training camp, using it only to communicate with his wife, Chanel, and 1-year-old son, Torrey Jr., “so he doesn’t forget what I look like,” Smith quipped.
"It’s like an addiction in a lot of ways with the telephone," Smith said. "I learned that after my rookie camp, I put it away. I was able to just focus and not race to my phone to see what’s next. That’s been great for me and is different. I can just put it away."
"It’s nice to be kind of isolated."