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OWINGS MILLS, Md. – When Baltimore Raven’s offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley was 14, his parents bought two cocker spaniels for Christmas after Stanley had asked his parents to get a dog for years.
Eight days later, a babysitter accidentally left the door to the pool and one of the puppies drowned. Stanley was on his way home after having a great basketball game when he found out his dog was dead.
“I certainly took it hard and felt helpless,” Stanley said. “I could not do anything. It was hard.”
Now, 13 years later, the All-Pro left gear has become a driving force in helping dogs in need. He recently announced the launch of the Ronnie Stanley Foundation, whose mission is to improve the quality of life for rescue dogs and match them with those who have faced a challenge in life, such as a chronic illness or emotional trauma.
The foundation has already placed three dogs in new homes and has another three in training.
“My life was forever changed for the better when I adopted Lola, Rico and Kaia. Many individuals can benefit from the company an animal can bring into their lives.”
“It brings tremendous joy,” Stanley said. “I just think it was great to show that this idea can work, and it works for different types of people, different walks of life, different problems, so I think there are a lot of possibilities.”
In partnership with the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), the Stanley Foundation will recommend rescue dogs for the program and then provide 30 days of training, food and housing with certified trainers. Once the family or individual is selected, the foundation arranges a meet-and-greet to ensure a favorable match and provide the new home with a box, dog bed, bowls, food and toys.
Jonathan Birckhead is a U.S. Navy veteran who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after completing a trip to Iraq during the Desert Storm. I received Garrison, an abandoned 2-year-old pit bull mix.
“He has certainly affected not only me but my entire family,” Birckhead told ESPN. “He’s a lovable ball of energy. It seems like his whole mission in life is to give love and get love. So we might as well call him Garrison Birckhead.”
A 2018 study by Purdue University researchers reported that veterans with service dogs had a 22% higher degree of life satisfaction. It also found that veterans with service dogs exhibited a significantly lower overall PTSD symptom, including increased overall psychological well-being, an ability to better cope with anxiety attacks, and lower levels of social isolation.
“He’s always optimistic, and sometimes you need that,” Birckhead said. “When you sometimes deal with PTSD, you have your good days and not so good days. He is a constant stream of loveliness.”
Helps hometown shelter
Stanley has first-hand experience when it comes to rescuing dogs.
One month after being No. 6 in the overall draft in 2016, Stanley walked into BARCS and surprised them at the shelter by not asking for a puppy. I had another question instead.
“Which dog has been in the shelter the longest that no one wants?” Stanley asked.
Stanley was introduced to Lola, a then 6-year-old pit bull who had been found locked inside a room in an empty house with no food or water. It looked like she was trying to eat through walls and the door to escape.
“Ronnie just instantly fell in love with her and took her home,” said Bailey Deacon, director of community engagement for BARCS.
Since then, Stanley has rescued two more dogs, Rico and Kaia.
“My life was forever changed for the better when I adopted Lola, Rico and Kaia,” Stanley said. “Many individuals can benefit from the company an animal can bring into their lives.”
For years, people have asked BARCS if the shelter had any animals trained to be emotional support or service dogs. But BARCS just did not have the capacity or the resources to do so. It is a non-profit boarding school with open access that takes an average of 10,000 animals a year.
Before BARCS, the city of Baltimore operated the shelter and the euthanasia rate was 98%. Now, in its 17th year of existence, BARCS is rescuing 90% of the animals.
So when Stanley approached BARCS about this idea for his fund, Deacon was not surprised that the program involved shelter dogs and not puppies from a breeder.
“He saw the value that animals from shelters can bring to families,” Deacon said. “They brought value to his life and really made his home here in Baltimore a true home.
“There are a lot of programs out there that train dogs to be service animals, to be emotional support animals. And even though they are amazing and wonderful, Ronnie took the extra step and said, ‘I think we can do that with shelter dogs. “I think they are just as smart, just as talented and just as full of love as a puppy that has been trained since it was a baby.”
The Stanley Foundation will continue to arrange free training sessions and regular check-in with the family. The goal is to expand services to communities outside of Baltimore in the future.
“I really enjoy the fact that I’m able to help not only animals, but also to build that bridge or connection between people,” Stanley said. “It’s just trying to show people how each species can benefit each other. If it’s done the right way.”
Determined to prove that doubters are wrong
Just as a big influence Stanley makes off the field, he hopes to return to do the same as quarterback Lamar Jackson’s blindside defender.
Stanley, 27, has heard questions about whether he will play at the same level after missing 28 of the Ravens’ last 29 games (including playoffs) and being placed on injured reserve in back-to-back seasons.
“I’m fine with people who doubt me,” Stanley said. “I’m just excited to prove that a lot of people make mistakes and show people who support me and believe in me that I can get back to what I was and even better.”
Stanley, a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl player in 2019, first injured an ankle two days after signing a five-year $ 98.75 million extension on October 30, 2020. He broke his left ankle when the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker TJ Watt inadvertently rolled into the back of Stanley’s lower leg while trying to fire Jackson.
The NFL’s second-highest paid offensive tackle, Stanley underwent two ankle surgeries before this season. After being out of the game throughout the low season and for the first nine days of training camp, he returned to play in the season opener in Las Vegas, but was clearly having a hard time. He did not play after that and was placed on injured reserve on October 19th.
“I do not want to say that I felt completely right,” Stanley said. “I certainly just pushed through and tried to be the leader and player for my team, but yeah, I would not say that everything felt right.”
Last month, Raven’s general manager Eric DeCosta said it was his fault he expected Stanley to return in full force in 2021. DeCosta said he is optimistic about Stanley for the upcoming season.
“I really believe Ronnie will return this year and play good football, play winning football and again become Ronnie Stanley, who was an All-Pro left tackle,” DeCosta said. “If he can do that, then it will be a huge, huge advantage for us in the future.”
In hindsight, Stanley said he probably should have waited longer before rushing back to training and to play in matches in 2021. This time, he will not push past what he should do and make sure he has enough strength in the ankle before returning.
“I want to make sure everything feels right before I jump back into things,” Stanley said. “I think that’s probably going to be the difference.”
Stanley then added, “I itch a bit after getting back to work again and getting back to my normal self.”