Last season, the Baltimore Ravens’ passing game never really got off the ground. The team’s receivers caught an NFL-low 1,517 yards, and quarterback Lamar Jackson’s Week 13 knee injury dealt the death knell. But they begin 2023 as the only team ever with five-first round picks in the wide receiver room: Rashod Bateman returned from a season-ending foot injury; Odell Beckham Jr., Nelson Agholor, and Laquon Treadwell joined in free agency; and the team selected Boston College standout Zay Flowers at No. 22.
Early in his life, Flowers was often overlooked. He’s the 11th of 14 children, and he was outside of the top 1,000 in his recruiting class. But despite standing only 5’9”—with shoes on—he’s already become one of the biggest rookie personalities in the league. And he has much more in mind for his future than merely proving those who literally overlooked him wrong. Flowers spoke with GQ about growing up in that larger-than-life family, about going from one Power 5 offer to the first round, and about how it was Lamar Jackson’s plan for him to be a Raven all along.
GQ Sports: You’ve talked a lot about the toughness that growing up in South Florida instills in you. It’s something that you share with teammates like Lamar and Tyler Huntley. For people who are outside of the state, can you explain what it’s like to grow up there and why so many incredible NFL players come from South Florida?
Zay Flowers: We live and die football down there. The way I grew up, it was football, football, football, football, football. And then after that, it was football, football. So I’m like, “Football it is.” That’s all I’m going to focus on. That’s all I’m going to think about. That’s all I’m going to do. And it was always around me. My mom loved it. My dad loved it. My brothers played. Even my sisters played at the park. So my dad would be at the park for 12 hours just watching us all play. Sometimes we’d be playing more football while we were playing football. Everything that I know and everything I was doing was about football.
You mentioned your family there. You’ve said before that the best thing about being one of 14 was that you were never alone, but the worst part was finding somewhere to sleep. What was day-to-day life like in that house?
It was fun. Everybody had their own thing, but everybody was still best friends. Everybody was still close, would still play with each other. And my sleeping situation, it was more like—three people to a bed, three on top of the bunk bed, three at the bottom. Maybe each night somebody would sleep on the floor or on the couch. But it was a fun house though. Everybody was competitive. My older siblings used to make us go out to the front yard, put on pads and try to juke each other or run each other over. We’d have races to see who was the fastest. We played basketball. We did everything together, and I think it worked out for the best for me.
I was five years old playing basketball against 17-year-olds at the park. I’m shooting, I’m knocking ’em off. So I’m like, all right, then I could do this at every level. Once I got to high school, I was still small, proved that. Then college, prove that same thing. Now I just got to prove it at this level, and I know I can. And I will.
I have two memories of her. The first is not a bad memory, but I peed in the bed and she gave me a whooping. That’s one of the memories I got. And another one was that we had this little bounce house thing in the back that she got me for Christmas. And she used to go out and watch me jump on it every day.
Do you think that focusing on sports was a way for you to sort of get away from the grief of losing your mother at such a young age?
Absolutely, but I was so young that I ain’t had the memories that my older brothers and sisters had, so I wouldn’t say it hit me hard as them. But she loved football, so she kept us in football. Once my mom passed, my dad just pushed us through and made sure we was always there, made sure we had everything we needed. He’d go out and wash 15 loads of clothes and come back all in a morning. I’d usually go with to wash the clothes. If you go with him in the morning, you get breakfast. Not everybody getting breakfast, but if you go, you’ll get a donut or a sandwich or something. So I was the one always waking up and going. But I would say that when my brother passed away, I started doing football a lot more, just working out, just keeping my mind going and doing something.
He passed away Thursday, and I played Friday. I scored twice and caught a pick. When I scored, I did this little dance he used to do, that we had this video of him doing. It’s called Jump Out of the Jet, and then I did the dance.
[Laughs] That’s what I’m saying! Not yet. I got to do it slowly. Slowly, but surely. At Christmas, I’ll get them all something.
I know you like to fish, too. Did you buy a boat or do you want to buy a boat, or get a house on the water?
I want a little bass boat that I could just go out on the water and be able to fish in. Nothing crazy expensive. When I was in college at Boston College, I probably fished every day in the summer. The best catch I ever had was a 10-pound bass.
[Laughs] Absolutely it is: You got to think about it. The receiver already got his route. He knows where he’s going. He knows everything he got to do at that point the ball is snapped. He’s just got to run the route and catch the ball. But cornerbacks, you got to run with ’em. You got to make sure you’re playing the right technique. It’s crazy. It’s like basically one-on-one out there in the field out there by yourself, and you got to keep yourself motivated the whole time. Sometimes you don’t get a lot of action to your side, and you have to stay locked in.
They also said that corners are the biggest trash talkers on the football field. Is that true?
Yeah. That’s how they keep themselves in the game. If you don’t trash-talk at corner, you going to be in like la la land. Then somebody will throw a deep ball over you, and you won’t be able to say nothing else.
What’s the best trash talk anyone’s ever given to you?
This was recent, at the joint practice [with the Commanders]. Somebody said, “I seen shit in the toilet bigger than you.”
What’d you say back?
I said, “Size don’t mean shit.” Then we went one-on-ones, and I beat him every time.
I know you also played basketball in high school, and you were teammates with at least four guys who are in the NBA now: Vernon Carey, Scottie Barnes, Taylor Hendricks and Jett Howard. Do you still talk to those guys?
I talk to ’em once in a while. We on different schedules so it’s hard to keep up. Vernon was my year, and Scottie was a year under. But Scottie’s got such a great personality, he got a way to grab everybody. So I gravitated towards that, and we played around a lot.
Now you’re considered undersized for a typical NFL receiver, but you’d be really small in the NBA. If you had gone after basketball like you’d gone after football, you think you’d be in the NBA right now?
I’d be like Patrick Beverly! Be a pest on defense. Score a few points here and there, and you got a couple Ms in your pocket for the year.
In football, you were listed below 100 in most of the national rankings—
I got all the rankings in my head.
You remember every one?
Oh yeah. I think I was 1188 national, 189 at receiver, 198 in the state.
Did it?! Yeah, I was like, what?! I’m way better than that. That’s why I had a chip on my shoulder at BC. I was playing with some of the most talented people in South Florida and guarding them on defense and running routes against them on offense. But I just think my size played a big role in me not getting the scholarships I think I deserved.
Do you take pleasure in having proven all those people wrong?
No, because I got two people sitting in front of me. So I got a little bit more to prove. But I wouldn’t change nothing. I’d do the exact same thing. I love how my story went, and I love how it’s going.
It was closer to home, but I ain’t going to say no names.
ACC schools, perhaps?
[Laughs.] Maybe. Maybe.
You were selected in the midst of a historic run of four wide receivers selected in the first round. Do you feel like you’ll always be compared to those guys? Does it motivate you?
I’m trying to be the best. I ain’t trying to be the best out of my class—I’m trying to be the best in the league and be one of the best to play at my position of all time. So I ain’t really worried about trying to be better than the three others. I’m just trying to go prove myself and trying to keep playing and do what I’m doing my best on the field.
During the pandemic, I know you spent some time working out with Antonio Brown and Geno Smith. Was it on a golf course?
Yeah, that was on the golf course. We were just running with no lines. They called me super late, and I was at the house chilling. I thought they canceled the workout. So when they called me, I just shot over. No warmup. I forgot my gloves. I forgot my socks. I just had to go. I went to Dick’s and bought some cleats right before, and then I was running in a new pair of cleats out there. And then I was catching the ball from Geno and I was like, “God damn, he throwing the ball hard.” And I didn’t have on no gloves. That was my first time experiencing an NFL quarterback.
He really got it. He that guy. He has a touch. The way he’s placing the ball, as soon as you turn around, the ball going to be in your face. So the only thing you got to do is catch it and run. I can’t really explain it, but he can do it for every route. The ball is always exactly where you need it, and it won’t be too hard or too soft. It just touches your hands as you run.
But to be honest with you, I wasn’t about to go. Because I just left five or six visits. I flew from Vegas to Boston, from Boston to the Ravens, from Ravens to Tennessee, and then I was going to have to fly to Texas to work out with him again. So I was like, “Bro, I just want to go home.” But I talked to my agent, and he was like, “Bro, you can’t let this moment go. You got to go.” And I was like, “All right, bet. Let’s go.” And then I went out there and killed every route. I could hear him mid-route as he throwing the ball. He didn’t even throw the ball yet, and he’d be saying “good route.” Then I turned around and the ball was there. He’s a magician, man.
Lamar Jackson re-signed right before the draft started. How did you hear about his contract extension?
I heard about it after. And then I seen him tweet something like, “We got another surprise.” He was setting it up the whole time! During the draft process, when I was at the Combine, Coach Harbaugh told me: “My quarterback asked about you.” I said, “What did he say?” Harbaugh said: “Lamar told me to draft you.” I said: “That’d be the best decision y’all could make.”
I appreciate him helping me get drafted because, bro, we got a squad. We got a squad.
I know Lamar keeps tabs on every up-and-coming player from South Florida. When’s the first time you interacted with him?
My freshman year in college, we played Virginia Tech. I had two catches for a 100 yards and a 30-yard jet sweep that day. I put a highlight tape together and posted on Instagram, and I seen him like it. And I’m like, “Oh shit! Lamar liked my shit!” I kept going back and looking at it. As time went on, he followed me. And he commented on one of my stories.
Did you think about shooting your shot and sending him a DM?
Nah. My thought was: At some point, I’m going to be at the same level, and then I’ll let him know. And it worked out perfectly.
What’s your best Lamar story so far?
We had a beach workout where we were supposed to have 10 sprints. And he was like, “Man, I’m kinda chubby. I gotta lose my stomach.” And then when we came back from doing the sprints and sit down, he was trying to hide that he was tired. My camera guy was taking a video and he was in the background breathing heavy, but when I turned around Lamar went straight-face like nothing was wrong.