The Ravens have dealt with tragedy before in their 20-year existence, but never quite like this.
The death of 23-year-old cornerback Tray Walker takes on different meanings for various members of the organization, very little of it having to do with football. Fans were limited in their experiences watching the 2015 fourth-round pick as he played just eight defensive snaps as a rookie, but he left an impression with team executives, coaches, and teammates in his far-too-short time in Baltimore.
We’ll never know what kind of football player Walker might have become, but that pales in comparison to such a loss of young life. It’s gut-wrenching to know a family that celebrated the start of his NFL career less than 11 months ago must now bury a young man whose adulthood was just getting started.
“Tray was one of the most humble persons we brought in for a pre-draft visit,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said. “That was striking. After we drafted him, he and his family were so excited to receive the call that he was about to become a Raven. It was one of the calls I will always remember. There was such joy for Tray and his family.”
Reactions collected on Friday evening reflected the various ways in which Walker’s death resonates with members of the organization.
Owner Steve Bisciotti noted that his two sons aren’t much older than Walker and expressed deep sadness for his grieving mother and family. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to outlive a child.
After writing such a heartfelt letter to all of his players earlier Friday, John Harbaugh recalled Walker’s smile and how the rookie defensive back often stood next to the head coach during the national anthem, which would result in a big hug before kickoff.
Those little moments are sometimes the most important ones in life, aren’t they?
Teammates ranging from Joe Flacco and Steve Smith to C.J. Mosley and Jimmy Smith expressed their grief and heartfelt condolences, but the words of one of Walker’s closest friends on the team, safety Terrence Brooks, were particularly powerful. Much like Walker, Brooks hasn’t firmly established himself in the NFL and spoke of their bond in that journey.
It’s a struggle typically ignored by fans and media, but one that involves much hard work behind the scenes while dreaming of Sunday stardom.
“We vowed to each other to stick together and push each other as long as we remained on the same team,” said Brooks, who was drafted a year earlier than Walker. “We both shared similar life experiences growing up in Florida. We sat together every day during meetings. He was like a little brother to me. I especially remember times he would drop by my house, and we would have long talks and laughs just about the NFL and everyday life. I truly felt a brotherly bond with him.
“Tray was a young man with so much life experience. I feel like he was much more of a man just because of where he grew up. Football was his escape. Not many understood that. It hurts my heart that he’s not getting the chance to show the world just what type of man and football player he was going to be. I was looking forward to taking that field with him this year, because we both kept up with each other’s progress this offseason. I really felt he was going to have a great year.”
Even for those who didn’t know Walker well, his vow last spring to dedicate his rookie season to his father — who died of a heart attack several months before his son was drafted by the Ravens — made him easy to root for as an underdog from Texas Southern who wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school. Anyone who has lost a father at a similar age understands the intense desire to make him proud and to carry on his legacy for the rest of your life.
It breaks your heart that his family experiences such a loss.
They — as well as the Ravens and everyone else — are left wondering what could have been.
In football and, much more importantly, in a longer life.