Torrey Smith and his dancing, Instagram-famous sons
The Eagles receiver on fatherhood, family and black masculinity
PHILADELPHIA – You already know what it is.
The first words you hear before a tiny, bushy-haired baby in nothing but a diaper comes flying onto the screen. The excitement of the opening line of Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” has caused the toddler to burst into the middle of a living room, falling over himself in excitement. As the song builds to the dance routine made popular in 2015, TJ Smith, the half-naked 1-year-old son of Philadelphia Eagles receiver Torrey Smith, is bobbing up and down in excitement, his elbow bent to a near perfect 90-degree angle, anticipating the cue from the young Atlanta rapper. In the background, raised to their feet by TJ’s presence, stand two slightly older children and the hyperventilating baby’s mother, Chanel Smith.
As the first verse begins (Now watch me …), a devilish grin comes across the boy’s face; he knows this is his moment, his time to shine. The second half hits (… whip, now watch me Nae Nae). TJ’s one decibel too high on his pint-sized Richter scale, his “whip” catapulting himself across the room.
Over the past two years, TJ, now 3, has graced the social media accounts of Torrey and Chanel Smith, appearing in roughly 99 percent of his parents’ Instagram posts. He’s not limited to whipping and Nae Nae-ing either. He has (literally) bounced to Diddy and Pharrell’s “Finna Get Loose,” Cha-Cha’d to Don Omar’s “Danza Kuduro” and hit dem folks to Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall’s “JuJu On That Beat.” He’s been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, GQ and ESPN, and the toddler boasts his own Instagram account that’s racked up over 14,000 followers since 2014. Sports website Deadspin dubbed him “King Of The Sports Babies.”
Smith, 28, is in his first year with the Eagles after spending the first six seasons of his career with the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. He’s generally regarded as one of the fastest receivers in the league, evidenced by his 26 40-plus-yard receptions in his career, tied for eighth in the league since 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He married college sweetheart Chanel in July 2013, and they welcomed Torrey Jeremiah into the world nine months later. In June 2016, they had their second child, Kameron, nicknamed Kam.
Even before TJ was born, he was destined to be the viral star he is today. While Chanel Smith was pregnant, she would dance around the house; by the time TJ appeared in the world, he was basically an expert in “Dance Dance Revolution.” The first song the infant attached himself to was Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz’s summer jam “Am I Wrong.”
“That was TJ’s song that I needed to play if he was crying, I just go ahead and push that, he would stop crying,” Smith said. “So shoutout to them for that.”
The parents like to share the organic moments of their family: their sons enjoying music — or reading, or drawing, or their dad playing football — just happen to be a big hit on the internet.
“We don’t post things that people think are cool. We post it because we think it’s funny, or that we’re going to post it,” Smith said. “So people tend to like the babies more than they like us, so anytime you post something of TJ, people love it.”
There have been dozens of videos the parents have posted of TJ over the years, including him dabbing when he should be Milly Rocking or hitting the Quan in nothing but a T-shirt and sagging diaper. But only one video truly stands out from the rest. It’s TJ’s pièce de résistance, his Mona Lisa.
“Man, I mean he would literally be doing anything, lying down, and the one that we actually caught on tape, he’s sitting there, and I just pushed the music button, and he whips his leg over his toy, and gets up and starts dancing,” Smith said of “Whip/Nae Nae.”
Not to be overshadowed by his older brother, Kam is no different. In one Instagram video, while Chanel Smith sets him up with Rihanna’s chorus of wild, wild, wild for DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” Kam is supposed to repeat back wild, wild, wild thoughts; he instead pronounces “wild” like Wawa, an East Coast convenience store chain. On the day of this interview, Kam perks up when Ayo & Teo’s “Rolex” comes on, breaking into a dance that involves violently throwing his hands up and down like he’s playing a set of invisible drums.
“He hears that song, he goes crazy,” Smith said. “So he’s crying, I just turn that on in my phone, and he stops. He forgets about it, tears down his face, and just starts dancing. So it helps me out.”
It’s a sweltering summer morning at the Eagles practice facility in South Philadelphia. After a 45-minute one-on-one interview in the building’s auditorium, Smith is joined on one of the team’s practice fields by the boys and Chanel Smith while Eagles rookies and quarterbacks practice on an adjacent field. TJ runs routes as his dad throws him the ball, his tiny, bowed-out limbs flopping through the air. Whether dancing around to Pitbull’s “Timber” – dalé – or training with his dad on a speed ladder, TJ’s knees have always looked like they’re allergic to one another. “He was so bow-legged, it looked like a little leprechaun walking around,” dad joked. “But now his legs have straightened out, and he’s just super pigeon-toed.”
After one reception, Smith yells to TJ to tuck the ball in as he runs to an imaginary end zone; he obliges. When it’s TJ’s turn to play quarterback, he doesn’t remember the cadence, and rather than calling “hike,” he just takes off running. Smith then takes over as the ball carrier, and TJ tries to solo tackle him. But, as if the boys set this up before they got to the field, the older brother holds dad’s legs as Kam runs in from out of nowhere to lay the upper-body hit stick like legendary WWE tag team The Road Warriors.
Smith won’t push his sons into being an athlete like him. He wants them to remain active, mostly because of the inherent benefits of team sports: learning to work well with others, especially those you don’t know that well or even like. But sports, including his own, won’t be a priority. “I’m never gonna force them to do anything. When [TJ’s] older, I’ll probably push it on them a little bit,” he said. “Not football, though. He can stay away from football for all I care.”
Part of it is allowing the boys to chart their own paths, but Smith also worries about the health impact of playing football, especially after the concussion that knocked him out the rest of the 2016 season. “I told my wife he’s not playing tackle until at least middle school, because my kind of fears with concussions. I had a bad one last year, so I mean that stuff is serious.”
It’s a losing battle, as TJ currently plays flag football. At one recent practice, while going through a rushing drill, TJ has his flag pulled by another player and falls to the ground. He immediately starts crying (“Here comes the tears,” an exasperated Chanel Smith is heard saying to the camera). When it’s his turn to play defense, TJ false-starts, lunges for the flag and yanks the whole belt off another little boy. His grin is as wide as the moon. The parents might not have to worry about their youngest, though, as he’s absolutely petrified of Swoop, the Eagles mascot. On the practice field, Kam tries to carry the football but barely makes it a few yards; the football is the length of his torso.
When it comes to sports, Smith wants to teach his sons that nothing in life comes easy, so even at 3 and 1, they have to learn how to fail. Call it the NBA School of Humbling Kids. “We played basketball yesterday, and in the locker room, [TJ] was here and I beat him 45 to 13. So he has to learn how to lose, but he has to learn how to win, too, and handle success.”
When they bring out a soccer ball, TJ tries to steal it from his dad multiple times. To remind the little one who’s the boss, Smith traps the ball with his foot, thus tripping TJ onto the artificial turf. Not today, little fella.
Chanel Williams wasn’t originally checking for her future husband when they met at the University of Maryland, College Park. James Torrey Smith was an all-conference receiver for the Terrapins, while Williams ran sprints and hurdles for the track and field team. But they started off as friends before deciding to later make it official.
They decided to be married and settled before having kids. Smith grew up in a home — homes, really — without two parents at all times and didn’t want the same for his future kids. “I just wanted to do things ‘the right way.’ To me, I thought having a solid foundation first with your wife was important before a child came,” he said.
He’s the oldest of seven children to his mother, Monica Jenkins. They moved around a lot, mostly escaping poverty and domestic violence. Jenkins constantly fought with her husband, Smith’s stepfather, who would sometimes beat his wife so severely that she would have to flee with the kids to her mother’s house. On one occasion, the man aimed a gun at Jenkins’ head before firing a shot through the roof of the vehicle. Smith and one of his brothers were in the back seat.
At age 7, he had to be the man of the house for his younger siblings when his mom was at night school or working one of two jobs. It prepared him for his own family. “My mom was always working multiple jobs, and it was my responsibility to make sure that my brothers and sisters were taken care of. I always knew everything there was about being a parent besides actually having a job, and working. It was very easy when my time came, and there was nothing new, nothing that I didn’t expect.”
Except one thing.
During Chanel Smith’s second pregnancy, she received a call from their doctor warning them that her test results came back abnormal and she needed to come in for more testing. While on the phone, she broke down crying as Smith looked on. The doctor said the fetus had a 1 in 300 chance of developing trisomy 18, a chromosomal condition, much like Down syndrome, where a baby has an extra chromosome that can lead not only to developmental issues but also death 50 percent of the time. Over the next two months, Smith flew back and forth from California (he was with the 49ers at the time) to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for what felt like thousands of additional tests. The odds would increase to 1 in 8.
For Smith, who was born premature with meningitis and jaundice, this was one of the most trying times of his life. A devout Christian, he questioned his faith. “I always look at [Kam], and he reminds me of my weakest moment,” he said. “Because I pride myself on being a Christian man, and then I had zero faith, none. I didn’t know if it was because I was scared, or was I just being a realist.”
After a final round of tests, it turned out Kam didn’t have the condition. The pregnancy scare will likely make Kam the last baby Chanel Smith carries, although she wants to adopt. Smith, on the other hand, doesn’t want any more kids.
So what happens at this standoff?
“Means that I’m going to lose, yes. That’s basically what it means. That’s how it goes,” he said with a smile. “Y’all can record this, and then you’ll have the evidence in a few years of how I lost in every way possible.” Later, TJ, looking up from his Swedish Fish candy, asked whether the family is having more kids, because if so, “no more brothers.” Instead, he just wants a sister, so his dad tells him “make sure you tell that to your mom.” On second thought, TJ wants five sisters. Smith, with a worried look on his face, looks over to his wife. “He done lost his mind.”
The best thing about being a father, he says, is the responsibility he’s taken on to mold two little boys into “great young men.” Stability was a foreign concept for him as a child, so he works hard to give his family the things he was never afforded. And while the Instagram videos are cute and sharable, they’re just a snapshot of what parenthood really is. In short, the boys test their parents’ patience. A lot. Talking to TJ, Smith says, is like talking to a brick wall, especially when he’s captivated by what’s on television. “He’s so smart, and so he’ll say something, or do something, and then you’re like, ‘I know you know what you’re doing. I know you’re only 3, but you’re really like 30. So I know you know what you’re doing. You just testing me.’ ”
For example, Smith at one point asks TJ what his favorite basketball player, Stephen Curry, said to him when they met last year.
“He said a bad word to me.”
When Chanel Smith is at home teaching Kam how to identify objects (he appears to have grasped “ball” and “banana”) or improve his motor skills with stacking rings (he’s still working on it), he can become easily discouraged and frustrated, almost lashing out. But she coaches him past the finish line, and Kam flashes the only four teeth that have grown in.
One thing fatherhood has taught Smith is how to express his emotions. There’s a stigma within parts of the black community that “real men” don’t cry or show vulnerability — asking for help is a sign of weakness. The resulting hypermasculinity stems from black men’s internalization of their status in society and at home, and it can eventually lead to mental health issues, including depression.
“I had to learn to soften up a little bit. I was always a tough-love kinda guy. Expressing my emotions has never been a strength of mine,” Smith said. At least until he met Chanel. “She helped me tear down some walls. I had some issues, some insecurities, in terms of with relationships and love.”
He never heard “I love you” growing up, and it was hard at first to even say it to his sons. It was “super weird” to even tell a baby who couldn’t talk back that he loved him. But he’s getting better at it. “I try to make sure that my son knows he’s loved. He knows that it’s OK to hear ‘I love you.’ Especially from a male figure.”
The same applied to Tevin Chris Jones.
On a Saturday night in September 2012, Jones, Smith’s 19-year-old brother, crashed his motorcycle into a utility pole in northeast Virginia. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Less than 24 hours later, Smith played in the Ravens’ third game of the season, a Sunday night matchup with the New England Patriots. Despite his broken heart, Smith, like Brett Favre before him, had one of the best games of his career: 127 yards, two touchdowns, including what became the game-winning score in a 31-30 victory. (After the game, Patriots fans taunted him about his brother’s death; he later said that he hated the fan base but has since forgiven them. “I used to say I hate the Patriots fans because of that, but I’m not naive to know that it’s stupid people like that in every single fan base.”)
He’d recently gotten to a point where he felt comfortable telling Jones that he loved him, rather than just saying, “All right, I’ll holler at you,” when they were on the phone. One silver lining, if there’s such a thing, to come from Jones’ death was it helped Smith deal with his tucked-away emotions, especially when it came to his family. But it still hurts him when he thinks about everything Jones missed not only in his own life, but Smith’s as well, including the elder brother’s wedding nine months later and the birth of his two sons. “Man, he never had any kids. He wasn’t old enough.”
TJ and Kam never met Jones, but Smith will make sure his memory lives on. “They’ll know that, hey, you had an uncle. You would’ve loved him. He was goofy. He was funny, probably would’ve spoiled y’all to death.”
Outside the Eagles’ media offices, Smith is sitting in the grass with TJ talking about his responsibilities as an older brother. “I’m supposed to protect him. I’m supposed to save him from other people that want to take him,” TJ says; it’s evident that he’s had this conversation many times. “I like being a big brother because I love my baby brother.” Kam is a few feet away playing with leaves even though his mother brought a backpack full of toys.
Smith asks TJ what he wants to be when he grows up. He responds football or basketball player. What about a nonsports profession, perhaps like his mother, who is a teacher? TJ doesn’t bite (Two months later, on his first day of pre-K, TJ says he wants to be a chef). Kam eventually wanders over to use his dad as his personal jungle gym.
For the entire day, TJ has noticed the cameras pointed at him while with his family. At one point he is asked to yell the Eagles’ game-day chant, but a camera-shy TJ puts his knees in his shirt and covers his eyes. It takes his mother offering him ice cream before he bellows “E-A-G-L-E-S, EAGLES,” possibly rupturing his tiny tonsils.
Now he’s been asked to showcase his world-renowned dance moves, and he sheepishly declines. He’ll dance when it’s just his parents’ smartphones pointed at him, not two digital SLR cameras from complete strangers. He acts like he can’t hear his parents, avoids eye contact and continuously picks at the grass around his feet to avoid the sudden spotlight.
And after some goading — though not with the promise of dessert — TJ finally relents, but he senses the lenses honed in on him, so he just does half-somersaults across the grass. “No flipping,” Chanel Smith has to say more than once. Smith turns on “Rolex” again. Kam, sitting on his lap, stops pulling on his father’s microphone the second the song turns on. TJ cheeses as Chanel Smith asks him if he’s ready.
TJ puts his arms up with his elbows bent to a 90-degree angle while moving his hips from side to side; this is called “The Rollie.” He then hits a dab — or “dab of ranch,” as the song’s barely legal authors call it — which leads to a simulation of him pulling up his pants. When the lyrics state I just want some ice on my wrist so I look better when I dance, he puts his left hand out while he “stirs the pot” with his right wrist like NBA superstar James Harden. As the chorus repeats so does TJ, only this time he adds a little more oomph to each dance move, including some PG-rated pelvic thrusts at one point. Kam tries to mimic his brother, but getting an early introduction to center of gravity, he quickly topples over from swaying his arms back and forth.
Smith sits nearby. He stares at his two sons like he probably did the day they were born, unable to wipe a smile off his face. He’s seen both TJ and Kam dance a million times at this point, but you can see it in his eyes that it still feels like the first time all over again. Other than telling Kam to sit down, he doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to. He loves his son.
He’s not afraid to say it.