Cover Story: For Zay Flowers, It's Always About Family
Growing up with nine brothers and four sisters, Zay Flowers has reached the NFL buoyed by the strength of a closeknit family.
By: Clifton Brown
As the 11th of 14 children in his family, Zay Flowers has always had a large cheering section.
"The best part about growing up with so many brothers and sisters is that you're never alone, and they're my best friends," Flowers said.
What was the worst part?
"Finding a place to sleep," Flowers said, laughing as he often does.
The Ravens' first-round pick is inspired by his large family in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a loving unit that has endured triumph and tragedy by sticking together.
Flowers' mother, Jackie Walden, passed away when he was just 5 years old after suffering a head injury caused by a fall. His brother, Martin, was murdered when Flowers was in high school.
The rock of the family is Willie Flowers, a driver for a medical device company who accepted the challenge of raising 14 children and became an example of perseverance for 10 sons and four daughters. As Zay watched his father every day, working long hours and making many sacrifices, it left an indelible impression that became part of Flowers' DNA.
"My father said when you start something, you always finish it," Zay said.
"I used to see him get up and go to work at 4 a.m. in the morning; he did that every day Monday through Friday, and then he would get up Saturday, wash our clothes at the wash house, cook everybody breakfast and take us to football games. Then do the same thing Sunday, and then go back to work Monday. So, just seeing him do that, it gave me my drive."
Now, as Zay begins his NFL journey participating in offseason team activities, Willie believes the best is yet to come for his son.
"I'm so happy for Zay, that he's earned this opportunity," Willie said. "Through everything, Zay was always a happy kid, glass half-full, smiling. But he was driven."
New Car for Dad, New Quarterback for Zay
Flowers has already fulfilled one dream since joining the Ravens, surprising his father with a new Mercedes SUV after he wouldn't accept a new house that Flowers offered to buy. Willie has just two children living at home now and has the most living space he's ever enjoyed.
"That is the first house he's ever owned, so he wanted to stay," Flowers said smiling.
On draft night, Flowers wore a necklace with a picture of his mother in the center. He had 14 petals around it, representing the Flowers children. He wore the same necklace the next day when he arrived in Baltimore for the first time as a Raven.
"She started us off playing football, so I felt like I needed her with me last night, and I have her with me today," Flowers said of his mom.
Flowers began playing football when he was 4 years old. He would take on his older brothers wearing full football pads. They were competitive at everything inside and outside their five-bedroom house. The little brothers would team up to take on the big brothers, trying to run each other over or juke each other out. Flowers described it as "harassing each other."
"It was just meant to be that way, and it worked out perfect," he said.
Flowers wishes his mother could have watched her entire family grow up, but that wasn't meant to be.
"She actually fell over a wooden fence that was broken off from a hurricane that the park forgot to clean up," Flowers said. "She was walking backwards and talking, and hit her head."
Willie said he didn't always have words for his son after losing his mother, but that the family's closeness helped them get through it.
"Losing his mom was a rough time for all of us. Kids need their mother," Willie said. "I was really pissed at God for a while, feeling like it had to be a mistake. I stopped talking to God, but I'm glad he kept talking to me, and I came out of it."
Flowers came out of it too, following the determination of his siblings and father. Willie recalls that even when Zay was small, he would drop down and do pushups if his father asked him to.
"He was never afraid of hard work, and he had that 'it,'" Willie said. "When he gets on the field, he makes things happen. Always has. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does in Baltimore."
While his mind rarely strays far from family, Flowers is passionate about football. He is determined to become what the Ravens want him to be – an explosive weapon who can help elevate their passing game to another level.
The draft played out how Flowers hoped when the Ravens selected him with the 22nd-overall pick. Flowers loved the vibe when he met with the Ravens on his pre-draft visit and spoke with General Manager Eric DeCosta, Head Coach John Harbaugh, and others.
Most of all, Flowers wanted to play with Lamar Jackson, another South Florida native he could forge a brotherhood with.
"I wanted to play with either Lamar, or ... Lamar," Flowers said laughing. "I just wanted to team up with him. Down there (South Florida), it's not easy. Growing up as I did, I always knew things would never be handed to me. I had to go get it. Same as him. Even if you don't make it to the next level, you still congratulate guys, because you know what they went through just to get however far they did.
"When it got to around pick No. 21, I walked up to my Dad and said, 'We're going to Baltimore at No. 22.' He laughed and I sat back down. One minute later, they called."
Proving He's a Complete Receiver
Flowers' speed and elusiveness made him a prolific playmaker at Boston College last season with 78 receptions for 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns. He blew past cornerbacks with his 4.42 speed, high-pointed balls to make contested catches, or eluded defenders in the open field with shiftiness that turned short passes into long gains.
The biggest question surrounding Flowers is whether he will be an effective outside target in the NFL, or whether he will work primarily from the slot in Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken's system. Flowers played much bigger than his 5-foot-9, 182-pound size at Boston College, but doing so in the NFL against more physical and more polished cornerbacks represents his next challenge.
Former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. believes Flowers has what it takes to be a consistent NFL playmaker. Now an analyst for NFL Network, Smith had a heart-to-heart conversation with Flowers at the Combine, offering advice and encouragement.
That was special for Flowers, who watched Smith's tape back when he was just 6 or 7 years old and looked up to him ever since. While some of his brothers are 6-foot-2 or so, Flowers was never a big kid, so he always modeled his game after Smith.
"My dad always told me, 'It doesn't matter about size; it's about what's in your chest,'" Flowers said. "He always kept me motivated and said, 'You have to be like Steve Smith. Steve Smith was a dog.'"
It's not fair yet to compare Flowers to Smith, a Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate who had eight 1,000-yard seasons and caught 81 touchdown passes during a stellar 16-year career. However, Smith can relate to being a receiver who was underestimated until he proved that his ability mattered more than his size.
"Let him run all the routes in the route tree. Don't put him in a box," Smith said in a telephone interview. "He's not a gadget player. Let him develop and learn how to play wide receiver in the NFL.
"He's from a large family, which tells me that pressure is not going to make him shrink up. You can see that in his game. You can see that when he plays inside or outside. He's not supposed to be making these plays. But guess what? He's making them. That's what I like.
"I also like the fact that he stayed loyal to the school that recruited him. When all that NIL money was being offered to him last year, he didn't transfer from BC. Money ain't everything, but take it from a guy who has a little change in his pocket – money helps. The fact that he didn't leave BC shows me something about his character. How can you not root for a guy like that?"
Loyalty Over Money
Flowers was just a three-star recruit coming out of high school. He was ranked as the No. 139 wide receiver in the 2018 recruiting class, and the No. 165 recruit in Florida. He was drawn to Boston College because of the education.
After becoming a star at Boston College as a junior, Flowers received lucrative offers from name, image and likeness companies to transfer to another school last season and said he could have earned as much as $600,000. He turned them all down.
"It was absolutely tempting," Flowers said. "I had never seen money like that. Nobody in my family had seen money like that. But what's more important? Grabbing $600,000 or staying in school, being a first-round pick and making that money back and more, with a degree from BC? When I sat down and talked to my dad, I decided it wasn't worth it."
Check out the best photos of our first-round pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, WR Zay Flowers.
Flowers became the first in his family to graduate college. Boston College Head Coach Jeff Hafley wasn't surprised that Flowers stayed. But the way he handled the situation only made Flowers more respected.
"He didn't hide it from me. He was very forthcoming just like he always is," Hafley said. "It shows you a sense of honesty, loyalty and commitment that is very rare with young players.
"I don't know if Zay would've been a first-round pick last year if he had left college a year early or gone elsewhere. I'm glad he stayed with us. The question mark coming into last year was, 'Could he make the contested catches downfield?' I think he's erased any doubt about that."
When NFL scouts asked about Flowers this spring, Hafley told them to watch Boston College's season finale against Syracuse. It was cold and raining that night, and Boston College was 3-8, closing a disappointing season with no chance to play in a bowl game. Many kids in Flowers' position would have sat out that game, not wanting to risk injury as a potential first-round pick. Instead, Flowers played his heart out, throwing blocks 10 yards downfield.
"Turn on that tape," Hafley said. "Watch that effort. It tells you what you need to know about Zay Flowers."
Flowers had a direct explanation when asked why he played in that situation, risking his health in the final game of a lost season.
"I wanted to be there for my teammates," Flowers said. "They were like family."
In a Happy Place
When he entered the ninth grade, Zay was a 125-pound running back/cornerback who wasn't expected to play major college football, let alone reach the NFL. But he was a tenacious basketball and football player at NSU University School in Fort Lauderdale.
Flowers lived in the weight room, and as he got bigger, football became his best sport. He and Kenny McIntosh, a rookie running back for the Seattle Seahawks, led University to back-to-back Class 4A state semifinal appearances.
Their high school football coach, Daniel Luque, remembers the awful night in November of 2017 when he received a phone call that Flowers' 26-year-old brother, Martin, had been shot and killed while being robbed in Sanford, North Carolina.
When Luque arrived at Flowers' home to offer support, Flowers was of course surrounded by family. NSU had a football game the next night, and though Flowers was still grief-stricken, he decided to play.
"He felt it was his duty and obligation to play," Luque said. "His first family is his family. His second family was the football team.
"I want people to know that beyond being a great athlete, he was also a good student, with a 3.3 GPA in high school. Loved by teachers. Loved by teammates. He led by example. He'll always be special to us."
Flowers never missed a game in college and left with the school records for career catches (200), receiving yards (3,056) and touchdown catches (29). He was special there, too.
Now Flowers hopes to be special in Baltimore, where new teammates and the Ravens Flock will add to his already large cheering section. He was the third receiver taken in a historic stretch of four straight wide receivers drafted, which will lead to comparisons to his peers for years to come. He's come to a city starved for a homegrown star wide receiver.
Flowers says he doesn't feel the pressure or worry about how much he will contribute as a rookie.
"I know life can get hard, but being able to smile, being in a place where I feel good, has always kept me up," Flowers said. "I'm helping my family out, and I'm going to help the Ravens. I'm in a happy place."