Steve Smith Sr. confirms this was his final game, leaves brilliant but complex legacy
Steve Smith entered the NFL as a little-known kick returner who took back his first NFL touch 93 yards for a score. He now leaves the NFL 16 years later a Hall of Fame candidate as one of the most brash, gifted playmakers of his generation. But there was always more to Smith, always that duality that had people guessing and wondering who he really was or what he might do next.
This time, Smith left no doubt. The conflict is gone, in this league anyway. Sunday was Smith’s final ice-up session, and the league won’t be the same without him.
Smith confirmed following the Baltimore Ravens’ 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that this would be it. It was a quiet final outing for Smith, who did very little of his patented jawing during the game — at least what could be seen on TV — in catching three passes for 34 yards.
“I enjoyed it,” Smith said. “But it’s over and it’s done. I know it’s my time. Some people say, ‘Can I play another year?’ I probably could … but what I lose, I’m not willing to risk.”
Smith’s resume reads like that of a Canton-worth receiver, even with the position often proving to be difficult for HOF voters to agree on. He finished his NFL career 12th in receptions (1,031), seventh in receiving yards (14,731), tied for 25th in touchdown receptions (81), 22nd in yards from scrimmage (15,084) and seventh in all-purpose yards (19,146).
Is that enough? It should be.
More than anything, he played every game — and every practice — to the hilt. There was no slowing down, no cruise control. That applied to the way Smith spoke, too. He was blunt and vocal and honest about how he felt. It’s what many love about him. It’s also what many hated about him. Smith knew he couldn’t please everyone, so he seldom tried. He just did what his instincts told him to do. Streetwise and headstrong, there was no other way Smith could have made it to this point doing it any other way.
Smith’s legacy is complex because of his short wick and a couple of notable spats with former Carolina Panthers teammates in his days there, plus dozens more of on-field scraps and debates with opponents since entering the league in 2001. Smith’s competitiveness and fire made him who he was as a player. His smallish frame at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds gave him a chip on his shoulder, and any perceived sleight from the media, fans or opponents served as further motivation to push him to exceptional heights.
A few days before the game, Smith announced that he’d be playing the game with cleats featuring the names of people in his life — both good and bad — who meant the most to him. It was classic Smith, showing both sides of his personality. Hug those close to you. Call out the haters. Each are offered the same stage.
Decided to honor some folks that have been in my life thru the yrs good & bad football & non football! My thank you 2 U. My cleats 4 Sunday pic.twitter.com/nFO6qOs29J
— Steve Smith Sr (@89SteveSmith) December 30, 2016
With Smith, there’s always two sides to consider. Moody, impulsive and recalcitrant one day, charismatic, thoughtful and vulnerable the next. I first came to know him in February 2006 at the Ed Block Courage Awards in Baltimore following his “triple crown” season the year before following a season-ending leg injury in 2014. I cracked a joke with him I assumed would be met with a laugh; instead Smith shot me a death glance that has been embossed in my brain since.
That was the hardscrabble Los Angeles version of Smith. He grew up in the toughest parts of town with little money and less trust. The Rodney King riots were his adolescence. Smith built up layers of skin as a kid and shed only a few even as he built himself up into an NFL superstar with a silver tongue and a hilarious but sometimes jaded perspective on life. But his heart was always big, even in his toughest times, and it’s why he’s and one of the more philanthropic men in the NFL a great father away from football.
And yes. Funny. Disarmingly so even.
“Playing this game and the expectations that are expected from you, there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “The pressure I’ll have now is getting kids to school on time. Do I eat a pint of ice cream or a gallon of ice cream? It’s going to be different but it’s something I look forward to.”
In some ways, Smith has never lost where he came from. He might always be the L.A. kid who had seven different addresses in a decade and once was abused by his mother’s ex-boyfriend for taking the last can of clam chowder in one of those houses. Even with all of his successes, he has lamented not being able to fully let go of some of the things he experiences he had growing up and appreciate the great things he’s had since then.
“For a long time, football has been PCH [Pacific Coast] highway where I just kind of gone and done it over and over and over,” Smith said. “Yet very rarely have I pulled over and appreciated the sunset with my wife, with my kids.”
But as I got to know Smith over the years together, he lowered his guard — sometimes — as we worked together for more than a year on a book about his fascinating life. That was almost 10 years ago, and he’s had a million more things happen to him since then. Some good, some bad, all part of what makes Smith one of the more interesting athletes I’ve ever covered.
The book never came to fruition, and though we parted our working relationship amicably, we spoke far less often over the years. But watching Smith from afar, I appreciated how he had matured as a player, as a man and as a father. And that, ultimately, was the reason he walked away now with a few gallons of gas left in the tank.
Smith and his wife, Angie, have four children — three boys and one girl. His daughter Baylee is Smith’s baby girl, and she’s the one who probably is closest to his heart. She was the one, Smith said this past week, who wanted home most, along with his youngest boy, Steve Jr. Angie was willing to let Smith do what he wanted in 2017. But now that Smith is walking away from the game that defined him publicly, he can convene on the life that he himself believe is more of who he is: Dad.
There will never be another Steve Smith in the NFL — not as a player or as a competitor. No matter how many undersized playmakers come along, no matter how many brash and loquacious competitors put on a uniform, Smith stands alone. That’s quite the football legacy to leave behind. But you can’t forget about the rest of him.
– – – – – – –
Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!