Steve Smith has been one of the best receivers of his generation, and he's done that with perhaps the least amount of help any elite receiver has had in the last decade. Among the quarterbacks who have thrown to him, there's been just one Pro Bowl season (Jake Delhomme, 2005), and never a complementary receiver of note since Mushin Muhammad went to Chicago after the 2004 season. He was drafted by the Carolina Panthers just in time for their 1-15 season in 2001, and he was the team's offensive catalyst in the following half-decade, when the franchise almost won one Super Bowl and came up a game short of going to another.
In recent years, Smith's challenges have been different, but similar in some ways — after a number of personnel misfires from the Panthers' front office, the team finished 2-14 in 2010 and John Fox, the most successful coach in team history, left for the Denver Broncos. If he stays with the Panthers in 2011, Smith will be in line to catch passes from three different primary quarterbacks in three seasons — from Delhomme, to Jimmy Clausen, to first overall pick Cam Newton. Smith still has it on the field, but the stats don't always tell the story because the guys throwing to him have been a mixed bag in recent years.
But when we recently talked to Smith about his offseason and a host of other things, the main focus was about the off-field challenges he's been facing. In the first part of this two-part conversation, we started out by talking about his recent work with Powerade, and then, things got deep.
Shutdown Corner: First of all, I wanted to ask what you're doing with Powerade — it seems like a cool initiative with the Triple Play Challenge. How did you get involved, and how has the experience been for you?
Steve Smith: Oh, it's been great. We did this in Charlotte with about 200 kids from the local Boys and Girls Clubs, and Powerade has really launched a nationwide campaign with the Boys and Girls Clubs. It's really a part of the future for a lot of NFL players, a lot of doctors, just a lot of people promoting eating healthy, staying active, and developing positive relationships. I think those things are really important — they're the basis and the foundation when you're operating [in life] and in the business world. Just to have that lifestyle.
SC: I know the NFL has had their PLAY 60 campaign for a long time — have you been involved with that as well?
SS: I've done Play 60; I've done a lot of stuff. The United Way — I'm really active in that as far as financially giving and just being around activities that are helped by that, because I know it's important. I also know that the efforts of the companies like Powerade are doing now didn't exist when I was growing up. So, these kids get the opportunity to do it — I think it's fantastic, and I don't want to miss the opportunity to experience it with them.
SC: I usually ask players how they've been spending the lockout, but your offseason has been different in that your wife, Angie, had a major health scare — how is she doing, and how are you holding up?
SS: For me, the lockout started with my son doing a soccer camp in London. He went out there and did pretty well, and when we got home, that's when it all went downhill. My wife was feeling a little under the weather, she went to the doctor, and they said her white blood cells were low. They said it was low iron and this and that, and her blood cells kept getting lower.
At first, she was diagnosed with mono, and then after two weeks, she was diagnosed with lupus. They needed to get her in with a rheumatologist as soon as possible. Psychologically, it was tough — it was just one of those phone calls you don't anticipate getting at 8:00 in the morning, at the beginning of the week. Our kids had just gotten out of school … it was tough, and scary, and something that we didn't really know about.
So, we did research on it and took the approach that whatever she has, this is where I need to be, and this is the most important thing. Because after football, after the money and all that stuff … when you walk out of the stadium after a win or a loss … for me, I walk out of the stadium with my family. If walking out of the stadium last year was the last time, then so be it, because I had a greater reward waiting for me at home that no money can buy. This was my wife — my companion for the last 11 years now.
She's been with me though all the "interesting" things that have happened to me throughout my career — broken ankle, broken arm, even in college when I broke my neck — she's been with me through all those things. For me to not stop what I was doing, and direct the right attention to what she deserves and needs, I wouldn't be doing my wife or my children honor.
SC: How is she doing now?
SS: She did her checkup on Wednesday, and she's doing well. They just have to monitor her, watch her and do checkups for the next year, and we're just chugging along.
SC: That's great news. Moving to football a bit, and I talked with Larry Fitzgerald about this a few months ago — that challenge facing an elite receiver when the quarterback situation changes or degrades. You have a guy you're used to in Jake Delhomme, and then this new bunch of young quarterbacks come in, led by Jimmy Clausen, and the offense kind of stops. What was that challenge for you, knowing that the quarterback position was going to be a struggle, and that it would probably affect what you were able to accomplish?
SS: Whenever you implement a new coach, new system, new player, it's a learning curve — it's a process. One guy may put his right foot down first, and the guy before him for five years puts his left foot down first. Everyone has their own individual habits, and you just have to learn each other's habits. Each player has their own individual process that they go through, and each year, a new habit is built in each player, for good or bad. You just have to work through those processes and the transitions and all that stuff.
You can make a cake with the instructions right there, or you can do it from memory. Add a bit of this or that, and you can change the taste dramatically. Ultimately, you just have to have everything working together, so that everything can work well, and you can be productive.
People don't really care what's going on in your home life, when you line up and they've spent their hard-earned money to come to the game — all they care about is whether their team is productive, and that the players they root for are winning. That's the truth, so you've just got to work through those things and play ball.
SC: And for the second straight year, the Panthers have taken a quarterback they believe to be the franchise guy, which is unusual. Jimmy Clausen gets one season as a second-round pick in 2010, and then the Panthers select Cam Newton first overall in 2011. How did you think Jimmy did under the circumstances, and what have you seen of Cam? What's your overall take on that current situation?
SS: I think Cam said it best — "You only have one shot at greatness." And everybody has their shot — they either make it or they don't. You know what they say — 'Don't tell me about the pain, just show me the baby." And that's for everybody — it's a production-based business, and if you don't produce, they'll replace you. One day I will be replaced, and I understand that, too.