Last fall, in the early hours of the morning his Baltimore Ravens would play the New England Patriots, Torrey Smith was awakened with the news his 19-year-old brother, Tevin Jones, had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Smith quickly left the team hotel to be with his family in suburban Washington. But before he walked out the door, he stopped to tell Ravens coach John Harbaugh he would return for that night's game.
It surprised a lot of people that Smith played a football game on the night after his brother died. Eyebrows were raised. Voices wondered aloud if his priorities were misplaced.
Shouldn't he be home?
But when Smith arrived at M&T Bank Stadium 3½ hours before the game, there was no more welcome a sight than the double steel doors to the Ravens' locker room. He stepped into the still-empty room and found the refuge like none other. His phone filled with texts from players around football. His teammates appeared one-by-one to embrace him. And he knew then, in the warmth of a room so few others would understand, that he had made the right decision.
Grief is personal. Grief can't be defined by somebody at home watching on television. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is probably going to play on Sunday, two days after his 2-year old son died after allegedly being beaten by the boyfriend of the boy's mother. Some people might not understand that. Some might find it confusing that Peterson chooses to play football before his child is buried. But it could be the best thing he does.
Smith seemed inspired by his teammates that night last fall. He had one of the finest games of his career. He had six catches for 127 yards. Two of them were touchdowns. The Ravens beat the Patriots that night, a victory that would prove to be the difference between the division title and a wild-card spot, and maybe the difference between the Super Bowl and a first-round playoff loss.
Later he said he was overwhelmed by the team's decision to have a moment of silence before the game. And he got a chance to tell the world about Tevin Jones.
"It's hard to explain," Smith said that night. "You had to be around him. He's honest. He had a great heart. A lot of people say that all the time when people pass but he truly was that person. When you see him mad, you'd always laugh because it didn't look right. So to be around him, his big smile and his laugh – which was probably one of the most annoying laughs ever – I'm definitely going to miss him. He laughed so hard at everything and you know he'd do anything for you. It's a tough loss for us."
Who knows how Peterson will publicly handle the death of his son. He asked for privacy when he met with reporters on Friday. Maybe he will do the same Sunday. Peterson is dealing with the death of a child, which is the worst thing a parent can do, but Smith was very much a parental figure to his brother.
There is no right answer for something like this. No perfect way to deal with death. Ten years ago Brett Favre played a Monday Night Football game the day after his father died. He was phenomenal that night, throwing four touchdown passes and nearly 400 yards in a Packers win against the Oakland Raiders. Nobody would have questioned his decision if he chose not to play. Several Ravens said they would have understood if Smith had stayed home rather than play against the Patriots.
Ultimately Favre and Smith thought it best to be who they are: football players. Sometimes the easiest way to handle the hardest moments is to wrap yourself in the predictable. No sport relies on routine more than football. Perhaps the right decision for Peterson is to be around the men who have been there for him the last few years. Perhaps the right thing for him is to be on the football field.
It's the most personal decision. And it's one only he can make.