CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It's taken a few years, but the protective veneer is peeling off Steve Smith. It's still palpable, mind you. You can see it in the way he smiles, sometimes looking as if it would take a forklift to get a genuine grin. Or hear it in the way he answers questions in a struggle between the charming Steve Smith and the guy who speaks in a Morse code of monosyllabic words.
This is the enigma of a man who shrugs off the spotlight away from the field while simultaneously doing everything he can to attract attention while on it. Outside of football, every compliment is kryptonite, every magazine cover is an albatross and every pat on the back is a red-hot cattle prod.
Clearly, the outside world wants in on Steve Smith the superstar. But the private man is opening up at his own pace – and it's nowhere near as fast as he goes on the football field.
"He's getting better, but I don't know that Steve trusts people at first," said Robert Taylor, the coach who balanced Smith and Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson when the pair played junior-college ball at Santa Monica College. "When you approach him as a reporter or whatever you do, Steve can be standoffish."
"He's not handing out lollipops," said agent Derrick Fox, who has been with Smith since he declared for the draft out of the University of Utah. "He's not your happy-go-lucky guy. He's got a hard shell. But when you break that hard shell, his heart is the size of Texas."
The same could be said for Smith's talent. No player has looked more dangerous in these NFL playoffs than the Carolina Panthers wide receiver, who incinerated the Chicago Bears' vaunted defense last week for 218 yards and two touchdowns in a 29-21 win at Soldier Field. Smith's performance prompted Bears linebacker and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher to declare in disgust, "What happened? Steve Smith. That's what happened to us. … He is the best offensive player in the league."
You'd be hard-pressed to find an argument at the receiver position in 2005, even though Smith entered the season as a relative afterthought after breaking his leg in the first game of 2004. That injury wiped out the momentum of a promising playoff run that saw him roll up 404 yards and three touchdowns in four games – including a clutch touchdown grab in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Yet, before leading the league with 1,563 receiving yards and 12 touchdown catches (tying Marvin Harrison) this season, any number of his counterparts were considered more valued commodities four months ago – Philadelphia's Terrell Owens, Indianapolis' Harrison, Oakland's Randy Moss and maybe a dozen other "prototype" wideouts.
As far as scouts were concerned, Smith was small, fragile and a hothead. What the rest of the league couldn't see was a player who had for the first time fully dedicated himself to becoming Carolina's No. 1 wideout.
After the loss of Muhsin Muhammad in free agency, Smith did more film study than ever before. He went through an intense rehabilitation, arrived in training camp with a body cut from granite and posted his fastest time ever in the 40-yard dash (4.38 seconds). He also spent months without a football field, grounding himself in nothing more than marriage and fatherhood with his wife, Angie, and three children – Peyton, Baylee and Boston.
"He's changed a lot – for the better," said Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross, who spent two years at Utah with Smith. "He was a little more hot-headed in college. He's really settled down now. He still fights himself sometimes. You can see that. He's still got a little bit of a temper. But it's a lot better."
LITTLE BIG MAN
The story is almost unbelievable.
The quintessential Steve Smith snapshot came late in November of 1999 against Brigham Young when he was a return specialist for Utah. Smith took a second-half punt up the sideline and took a thundering hit. He hopped up, finished the game and felt good enough to skip a Sunday session with Utah's trainers. But by Monday morning, Smith's neck was so sore that coaches ordered a precautionary exam.
"I thought it was a crick," Smith says now.
As it turned out, the crick was a crack in his vertebrae. Doctors told Smith he had finished the game and walked around for two days with a broken neck. And if that wasn't shocking enough, he had even received a personal foul on the very play that could have paralyzed him for scuffling with another player after the hit.
Sort of gives added meaning to an observation by Panthers safety Mike Minter this week. "I guarantee if you hit Steve wrong," Minter said, "he'll ring your bell."
You may never find a more fitting microcosm for Smith, who stands 5-foot-9 but plays six inches taller and 40 pounds tougher and could crack every vertebra in his spine and still not override the titanic chip on his shoulder.
"He's an S.O.B. as a matchup," an NFC defensive backs coach said. "You better have a dependable safety because he'll kick your ass in press (coverage). Some small guys are hard (to press) because they'll out-quick a corner when he tries to get his hands on him. (But) Smith is twice the problem because he can out-quick most corners, and if they get their hands on him, he's just as liable to knock them down as he is to get (pushed) off his route.
"He's a 5-9 guy who makes room like he's a physical 6-3, and he comes off the line like he's a sprinter and a boxer rolled into one."
The Bears saw that problem firsthand, after watching Smith shed Charles Tillman on Carolina's second snap – leaving Tillman to do a face-plant – and then side-stepping strong safety Mike Brown for a 58-yard touchdown. Later, Smith used his 38-inch vertical leap and out-muscled Tillman and free safety Chris Harris for a 46-yard catch. Then in the third quarter, Smith left cornerback Chris Thompson eating dirt on a 39-yard touchdown catch.
"He's good – there's no other way for me to say it," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "He's strong, he's tough, he's quick, he's fast (and) he can catch. I know big receivers are nice, don't get me wrong. Drew Carter (who is 6-3) is a nice target to have out there when he runs a route, but there's room in there for someone who's 5-9. … You find a special player, and they are going to be good on any level. I don't care how big they are."
Undoubtedly, Smith has proven he can be special on any level despite his size. He dominated at Santa Monica College, then went to Utah where it wasn't long before Smith single-handedly won games by returning kicks and catching passes. In one memorable game his junior season, he scored three second-half touchdowns – two receiving and one returning a punt – in a 21-15 win over Air Force.
"There was another game where we beat San Diego State like 14-10," said Gross, "and both of the scores were like two 80-yard passes to Steve. Seeing him take over games is nothing new to me."
Even with all of his success in college, Smith was a tough sell as an elite NFL prospect. In a way, his scouting report was prophetic. Smith was branded as someone who "plays bigger than 5-9" and "can generate yardage and big plays after a catch." Yet, when his agent talked to many teams, he was frustrated to hear them minimize Smith's ability – even after Smith scored four touchdowns in three postseason bowl games for draft prospects and was named MVP of the East-West Shrine Game.
"Every guy that looked at him said, 'Yeah, he's going to be a good return guy,' " Fox said. "… When it comes to wide receiver, every team wants a 6-2, 205-pound guy that can run a 4.4 40-yard dash."
Smith wasn't that guy. And he wasn't helped by his broken neck suffered at the end of his junior season. At least one interested team – the St. Louis Rams – dropped Smith from their draft board altogether because of his neck injury in college. Smith has savored beating the Rams ever since, including a personal favorite moment when he knocked St. Louis out of the playoffs two years ago with a 69-yard touchdown catch in double overtime.
But while the Rams backed off for medical reasons, league sources indicated Smith got panned for a variety of reasons. If it was his neck or his size, a perceived attitude problem was the next red flag against him. Sometimes, it was a misperception – like the time ESPN cameras caught him jawing with the crowd during a game against Colorado State. What the cameras didn't bother to show was the end of the game (which Utah lost) when Smith went up to the Colorado State student section to shake hands with the fans he was trash-talking and give out his wristbands.
But at various times over Smith's career, his temper and emotion hasn't been all innocent.
During his two seasons at Utah, Smith was known to get into fights in practice, and that behavior was followed by several publicized incidents in the NFL. He was suspended once for punching a teammate during a film session, he got caught kicking an opponent and he had a contract squabble early in his career, along with a handful of run-ins with reporters.
And of course, there was this season's untimely ejection against the Dallas Cowboys when Smith was tossed for touching an official. That episode had a more sobering moment than the others. After Smith left the field, he ascended to the luxury box where his family was seated and explained to his daughter why he wasn't allowed on the field anymore.
As Carolina coach John Fox framed it: "Steve Smith is like most young people. He just needed to grow up some. Sometimes you have to have patience when you're doing that."
By most accounts, the coaches in Smith's life have been patient with him. Though he's had moments where it looked like the welcome mat was going to be pulled from the front porch, Smith has always found a way to straighten himself up and coax second chances. In turn, he has opened up more with the media and become more colorful, punctuated by his toe-to-toe rivalry with Johnson, his former junior-college teammate, whom he has gone back and forth with playful end-zone celebrations. Smith, however, continues to play with that angry edge that has seemingly pushed his temper to the brink since junior college.
All the while, he has never gotten specific about where that fury comes from. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, and like most kids in that situation, he got into his fair share of trouble. Witnessing violence went along with it, whether it was drugs, murder, or both – like the time he saw someone get killed at a local bus stop over a case of mistaken identity.
Smith never showed a great deal of interest in his classes in high school and didn't take the SAT. By the time he landed at Santa Monica College, he was just as raw mentally as he was physically.
"Not long after he got here, I had to go to him and say, 'You've had three or four fights here in the last three or four weeks,' " said Taylor, his junior-college coach. "I had to ask him 'What's wrong?' He said, 'I don't know.' I asked him if he was mad at anybody, and he said he didn't know. I asked him why he was fighting with other players and he said he didn't know that, either.
"So I told him, 'Well, until you figure out why, I'm not going to let you play this weekend.' I needed him in that particular game, too. We had injuries and I needed him to be in there. But there comes a time when you've got to evaluate what's most important – a game or a life. So I told him, 'I'm probably going to lose this football game, but I'm not going to lose you. So you're out.'
"Then we went out and lost the game."
Smith returned to the team sheepishly the next week. "And I never had a problem with him again," Taylor said.
LITTLE KNOWN FACT
Over the course of time, Taylor has seen Smith steer his life in the right direction. He's seen a lot of things he never expected, like Smith getting married before he graduated from Utah and having his first child. Taylor has also discovered emotional depths in his former player that he never knew existed.
One of those moments came in March of 2003 when a former Santa Monica player named Demetrius Posey was killed in a car accident. Posey was one of the wide receivers who starred alongside Smith and Johnson when they first arrived at the junior college. Early on, Posey's role was that of a big brother. He used to pick on the two, keep their egos in check and – when they didn't know where they were supposed to run their routes – make sure they were in the right place.
Posey was recruited by Utah, and even signed there, but he never attended the university. One of the side effects of Posey's recruitment, though, was then-Utah assistant coach Fred Graves (now the wide receivers coach for the Detroit Lions) discovering Smith.
"I think Steve looked at Demetrius and thought, 'If it hadn't been for him, I would have never ended up at Utah, and none of this would have happened,' " Taylor said. "But I never knew how close those boys were to Demetrius until he died.
"I called Steve in North Carolina to tell him about it, and when I said Demetrius had died, he just hung the phone up on me. Now, when I called Chad Johnson, he just cried like a baby. I had to wait for him to gather himself. But Steve just hung up. He just hung the phone up the second he heard it. Then he called me back, and he said, 'Coach, I'm sorry. I had to hang up.' I asked him, 'Steve, are you all right?' And he said, 'No, I'm not.' "
Even now, Smith has a hard time talking about Posey. Asked about the impact his friend's death had on him, he measured his words.
"Yeah, it did a little bit," Smith said. "It just made me …"
His voice trailed off, and Smith said he didn't want to talk about it anymore.
After signing his $26.5 million contract extension before the 2004 season, Smith established a charitable trust named the Posey Foundation – which helps underprivileged children in the Charlotte area. As a 13-year old, Smith experienced the joy of attending Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena's Rose Bowl with a ticket given to him by the city's Urban League. He is hoping to fulfill both needs and dreams for other kids with his own charitable work.
But not all of Smith's gestures happen in the public eye. Most people who are close to him have been struck over the years by his deep affection for his wife and children. He even admitted to reporters earlier this month that his biggest weakness as a football player was his wife. When the reporter was puzzled, Smith explained she was his weakness "because I stop doing whatever I need to do to take care of my wife."
At one point, he was asked whether it meant anything to him that Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had referred to him as the best offensive player in the game. While most athletes would have embraced the notion, Smith waved it off.
"I just play football," he said. "The one thing I try to do is not worry about all that, because … once you start worrying about what people are saying about you and how good you are, you lose focus on what you need to do.
"I played a great game (against the Bears), and (Tuesday) I'm at home because my wife went to a church event. I'm at home with the three kids – getting beat down. You go from catching touchdowns to my nine-month-old son crying for 30 minutes. I'm sitting there trying to rock him. I can catch a football, but I can't make my son stop crying."
Smith was smiling when he said that – or about as true a smile as you can get.
That kind of sentiment seems to run deep when it comes to those closest to him. And football doesn't stand in the way. Not even the most prized game of them all.
Two years ago, when he was riding the bus to play the Patriots in the Super Bowl, he called to check in on Taylor, who had recently had both his mother and wife pass away.
"You know, I've been doing this a long time – coaching football," Taylor said. "I have all these pictures of kids on my wall, and I believe anybody that comes to community college to play football has a story and has something in their background, whether it's positive or negative. Steve Smith has been able to suppress or overcome something in his life – whatever it was – and become a great football player.
"But that's what people always talk about – Steve Smith the football player. How about Steve Smith the guy? How about Steve Smith who started that foundation? How about Steve Smith who calls his coach up from the Super Bowl bus to see if he's OK? How about Steve Smith who calls me and says, 'Coach, I'm going to send you and the team all the shoes you need from Reebok.
"There's a guy with a big heart. All these things that are going around about how he plays with anger and intensity (but) what about his heart? Do we know that Steve Smith?"
It's an important question we rarely ask about our star athletes. But as the years pass – as Steve Smith captivates us on the field and slowly let's us in off it – we're probably getting closer than ever to the answer.