Ice up, Ric Flair.
A dust-up over a motivational speech the pro wrestling legend gave to the San Francisco 49ers last week before the team faced the Green Bay Packers has escalated into a sideshow soap opera worthy of the Royal Rumble. Flair released a statement Thursday saying he would not attend his hometown team's first playoff game in five years on Sunday, when the Carolina Panthers host the 49ers, after receiving death threats from fans. (There may be another reason as well. The Charlotte Business Journal reported Thursday that Flair has a warrant out for his arrest on contempt of court violations.)
The Panthers themselves were stunned when they saw the video of Flair's visit with the Niners. "Everybody was shocked," said wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl, who played for the Panthers back when Flair's trademark "Woooo!" was played on the scoreboard. "The whole city of Charlotte was shocked. Everybody knows Ric Flair. So when the guys saw that video, it was like, "Damn, really? I thought he was a Panther?"
Proehl said the Panthers have even modeled a chant after Flair this season: two claps followed by a "Wooo!" The team has used it all season, but Proehl isn't sure if it'll be kept for this weekend's game against San Francisco.
But you know what? The Panthers don't need The Nature Boy.
They have Steve Smith.
What motivation could Flair give to the Panthers that Smith doesn't give them simply by walking through the locker room door? Smith is a real-life hero for the franchise – just one of two members of the team still around from the Super Bowl run of a decade ago (Jordan Gross being the other) – and a larger-than-life personality to rival any pro wrestler.
"He's probably the best Panther in the history of the franchise," Proehl said, "and one of the best to play the position."
Smith owns a Ric Flair robe and wanted to wear it out of the tunnel for the 2007 home opener before Jake Delhomme talked him out of it.
"As a guy who actually has a Ric Flair robe I'm real disappointed in seeing that. Real disappointed," Smith told The Charlotte Observer on Monday. "I'm not sure if he'll get the invite here. That Golden Gate Bridge has been burned."
That kind of zinger has energized fans even when Panthers football didn't. Remember the "rules and regulations" speech back in '09? Smith came off the field after a Sunday night win and noted that Minnesota Vikings defensive back Benny Sapp was chatty during the game. "So, little youngster telling me who he is," Smith barked, "so I had to tell him the rules and regulations of the game."
Asked to define those rules and regulations, Smith said, "89. Bottom line. That's why he going home."
Smith's banter is every bit as good as anything Ric Flair could muster. Better, actually, because Smith has backed it up with performance and loyalty. Flair can call himself a diehard Panthers fan, but that's far easier than being a diehard Panther. The franchise is often overlooked, tucked away in a smaller market where NASCAR often takes top billing. (Flair told the 49ers he didn't even know his team beat San Francisco this season.) The losses on the field mounted over several years as Smith has run route after route, hoping with the rest of Charlotte for an adequate replacement for Jake Delhomme. Cam Newton came along like Shaq in Miami, commanding all the attention and headlines, and Smith was willing to be Dwyane Wade while Superman found his stride. There was concern that Smith's time would end before Newton's prime began. Then came this season.
The future belongs to Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. The present still belongs, at least in part, to 89. He's the underdog with a chip on his shoulder, just like his city and his franchise. His midseason instruction to Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib to "Ice up, son," has become a rallying cry all over the region. It's only fitting that it came from Smith, and targeted a star from a major market that's been awash in titles lately.
Smith has not been at the top of his game this season. He's 34 and he had only half the receiving yards in 2013 that he did in his breakout year in 2005. Nor has he been the perfect citizen over the years. He's gotten into fights with teammates in the past, most notably when he clocked Ken Lucas in training camp and got suspended for two games. He's never been overly sunny, but that's a lot better than something pro wrestlers have been accused of being: fake.
True to form, Smith is hurt and not hiding it. He sprained his knee in New Orleans last month and in the era of the "lower body injury," Smith said he was 71 percent healthy earlier this week. He then downgraded himself to 57 percent on Thursday. "He's not his normal self yet," head coach Ron Rivera told reporters.
Well that's just it. Smith is always his normal self. That will be his legacy in Charlotte: brash and unafraid.
"Mentally, when he crosses that line, he hits that switch," Proehl said. "He can run by you, run through you, run over the middle and make the big catch. You want him on your team."
That's also Flair's character, but it's more meaningful on a football field – on a team. It's fitting that even Flair, the Charlotte celebrity, turned heel before Smith took off his Panthers jersey for the last time.
"To be the man, you got to beat the man," Flair always said. In a true fight, against the team that rallied around The Nature Boy last week, it's hard to beat having a guy on your side like Steve Smith.