CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Steve Smith couldn't help himself. He lost control and had to be held at that moment.
The Carolina Panthers wide receiver was at Santa Monica College in May 2007 speaking to students during Black Student Activity Day as a favor to his former football coach, Robert Taylor. Smith, one of many Santa Monica grads there to give advice to students, was supposed to talk for 30 minutes and then take questions for another 30. Easy enough, particularly when you have plenty of interesting life experiences from playing in the NFL.
As Smith talked, however, tears started to flow and he got a little shaky, to the point that the now-63-year-old Taylor got up and put an arm around Smith to help steady his former student.
"I'm sorry, y'all," Smith said to the students as he regained his composure. "It's kind of tough for me talking about Coach."
There's no secret Smith is an emotional guy. Taylor suspended Smith for fighting long before Panthers head coach John Fox did so earlier this year after Smith's highly publicized attack on teammate Ken Lucas, which left Lucas with a broken nose. However, to draw a conclusion about Smith based on the Lucas fight in training camp or one of his previous altercations is like looking at the Rocky Mountains from a distance and saying they're tall.
You're not wrong, but you're missing the full picture.
Smith is thoroughly and fully intense, a man driven on multiple levels. There is no off switch or moment when he gears down. He has helped Carolina to a 6-2 start by becoming one of the league's most productive receivers despite missing the season's first two games because of the suspension.
"Every day, every moment, Steve is intense," said Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who in his second year marvels at Smith's work ethic and ability. "If he's not the most intense player in the league, I'd love to meet the guy who is."
Plain and simple, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith is the straw that stirs everything for Carolina. Most of the time, he does so with good results – as was the case Sunday.
Arizona was leading 17-10 midway through the third quarter. Smith had been held to two catches for 24 yards, mostly by the strong work of Cardinals cornerback Roderick Hood. Then, in the span of four offensive plays, Smith exerted his dominance.
He caught an 18-yard touchdown pass on a deep fade after using a sly bit of handwork to get leverage on Hood. That tied the game at 17. Arizona scored again to make it 23-17, but on Carolina's third play from scrimmage during the next drive, Smith broke a 65-yard score off an intermediate throw from Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme. The highlight of the play was Smith keeping his left foot inbounds by the width of a blade of grass as he pivoted to head up field and run past a second defender.
"Amazing body control," fellow Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "Steve is one of maybe five or six guys in the NFL who can do stuff like that – stop on a dime, change direction and not lose any speed."
About 12 feet away from Muhammad, Smith was getting dressed and tending to his children, including his youngest son. As the 3-year-old sat on his lap and babbled in an endearing voice, Smith gently brushed a few pieces of lint from his hair and came as close to a smile as Smith seems capable of, even in the aftermath of victory and a five-catch, 117-yard, two-touchdown day.
Smith seemed more troubled by the lack of effectiveness for the offense early on.
"We gotta get that stuff corrected," Smith said. "Our defense is too good for us to keep putting them out there without a lead. We have to give them more … when we got in at halftime, there were a lot of bleeps in here with the offensive guys."
Not as many as on Aug. 1, when – during the first week of training camp – Smith sucker-punched Lucas. It was at least Smith's second fight since joining the team in 2001 (he punched teammate Anthony Bright in 2002) and the latest flare-up of his famous temper.
"You have to watch what you say about Steve because he takes things very personally very fast," one member of the team said. "It can be one word and all of a sudden he snaps at you."
That seems to have been the case with Lucas. "We were jawing at each other, yeah," Lucas said. "I hit a nerve with him, but I love Steve and I want him out there on the field with us. This stuff happens."
True enough. Fights among teammates are about as common as traffic jams in Los Angeles. But there are moments when fights can cross the line to destructive, and Smith's latest incident came close.
"Steve knew he had crossed the line big-time on that one," a teammate said. "You could see it in his face right away because he saw how we all reacted. There were guys who were like, 'What the hell?' … But Coach (Fox) took care of it right away and Steve made it clear he was wrong."
Smith was sent home from training camp and was suspended for the first two games of the season. After he returned and scored his first touchdown of the season, he walked over and gave the ball to Lucas on the sideline. For a guy who cherishes every ball he catches for a score, the moment was an obvious public display of remorse. After the game against Atlanta, Smith didn't stick around to talk about the gesture, earning more respect for making the moment about Lucas, not himself.
"That pulled us together more because we all saw how remorseful Steve was," Beason said. "You're going to go through rough times as a team, and you have to handle that. If you do, it can make you tighter."
Smith has been here before, living on the edge with his emotions. In 1998 at Santa Monica, Smith got into seven fights with teammates between July and October before Taylor finally had enough and suspended him for a game.
"I could have used him, too, 'cause we were already down a couple of receivers who were hurt and we weren't going to be able to run our passing game," Taylor said. "So we lost the game and Steve came in on Monday and said, 'Dang, Coach, we lost.' I said: 'Yeah, Steve, we did. But I'd rather lose a game than lose you. You understand?'
"He said, 'Yeah, Coach.' I asked him if he wanted to play again and he said yes. I said, 'We gonna have any more problems?' He said, 'No, Coach.' Then I asked him, 'What's going on with these fights?' He said, 'I don't know!' It really, truly bothered him, but he didn't understand it. Steve is unusual, he's different. You have to understand that."
Smith is passionate and competitive. The son of a single-parent mother whose job was counseling drug addicts, Smith would often go to work with her.
This past offseason, Smith did an internship with Smith Barney to learn about financial planning. Years earlier, though, Taylor was the one concerned with planning after Smith came up to him with tears following a loss.
"I said, 'Steve, it's OK, we're going to get them next week.' He said: 'Coach, I'm not crying because of the game. We're getting evicted from our place and I'm going to be living in this other place even farther away. I don't know how I'm going to get to school,' " Taylor said. "And I'm not talking just getting there for practice. I'm talking about getting to school in the morning for classes."
So Taylor told Smith to call the next night to work it out. Smith did, and Taylor agreed to pick him up at a designated spot. For Taylor, the route required an extra two hours of driving time to fight Los Angeles commuter traffic.
It was worth it.
"I learned more about Steve in those three days talking to him," Taylor said. "Steve is deep. He has goals and plans, ideas about what he wants to do with his life. On Wednesday, when I came to get him, he told me, 'Coach, I got it figured out now. You don't have to come get me.' I told him it was all right, but he said, 'No, I got it.' He figured out how to catch this bus and then another one and get himself there."
To this day, Taylor leans on Smith for help. From supplying 120 pairs of shoes every year for the Santa Monica team to signing items to auction off at a golf tournament every offseason, Smith keeps giving back to Taylor.
Taylor still uses tapes of Smith cut-blocking defensive backs at the junior-college level as a way of demonstrating how to set up routes later in the game.
"He loved doing that because by the time he was ready to run his routes, the defensive backs were all getting out of his way because they didn't want him to cut-block them anymore," Taylor said.
But this isn't just about running past defensive backs or setting up the game-winning play. It's about what cuts deep into Smith's soul.
"It's like before the Super Bowl he played in with Carolina (on Feb. 1, 2004, against New England)," Taylor said. "My wife died in May 2003, and I was still having a hard time with it. So we're sitting there in the house, two or three hours before the game, getting ready to watch it. The phone rings and I answered it.
"I hear, 'Coach T, this is Steve.' I'm thinking, what the heck? He's supposed to be getting ready for the biggest day of his life, other than getting married, and here he is calling me. He says, 'Coach, we're on the bus going to Reliant Stadium.' I said, 'Steve, what's up? Why are you calling me?' He said, 'Coach, I'm just checking on you to see how you're doing. You OK?'
"I'm like, 'I'm OK, you ready for the game?' He said, 'I'm going to do mine, Coach, you know that.' Then he said, 'I gotta go, Coach. I just wanted to make sure you're all right.' He remembered I was hurting even all those months after my wife died, and just took a minute to call. I hung up and told my friends it was Steve and they were like, 'No way.' "
"Like I said, he's an unusual dude. Some will understand him, some won't. But he won't cut corners on what he believes."