SPARTANBURG The taunting grew intense. Steve Smith remained calm.
DeAngelo Hall, then a defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons, figured he could get under the skin of Smith, the Carolina Panthers' mercurial receiver, in a game at the Georgia Dome early in the 2007 season.
So Hall began needling Smith, hoping to throw him off his game – maybe even goad him into a physical confrontation. As Smith recalled afterward, Hall boasted to Smith that he made more money than he did. Hall said the two had played in the same number of Pro Bowls.
But Smith wouldn't respond to Hall's verbal jabs.
Unfazed, he just played.
And Hall, frustrated by Smith's unwillingness to return the trash-talking, was eventually penalized on three key plays on which he defended Smith – a pass interference, personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct – as the Panthers rallied for a 27-20 victory.
It appeared Smith had finally proven he had overcome a reputation as one of the NFL's most temperamental players.
“I told him … ‘Old Steve' might have negated some of those penalties,” Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said after the game. “But that's why we love him, he's fiery.”
But this week, Smith begins a new struggle to overcome that status, after the volatility that defined his early years in the NFL erupted again in a training camp fight Friday with teammate Ken Lucas.
Smith punched Lucas, breaking his nose, and was suspended for two regular-season games by the team.
There's little doubt that Smith wouldn't be the player he has become – a 5-foot-9, three-time Pro Bowler who helped the Panthers to the 2003 season's Super Bowl and the NFC Championship Game two years later – without a barely controlled intensity that bubbles just below the surface.
“Steve has a lot of fire,” Robert Taylor, Smith's coach at Santa Monica (Calif.) Junior College, told The Observer in 2006. “It's like he thinks, ‘You don't think I can do what I'm doing. But I'll show you. You don't think I can but I can.' ”
Smith developed that attitude growing up on the gritty streets of South Central Los Angeles, where as an undersized but lightning-fast teenager, he talked – and sometimes fought – his way through his high school football career.
Then came two seasons at Santa Monica, before landing at Utah for his final two seasons of college football.
He got into a fight in his first day of practice with the Utes.
Smith's anger continued to get the best of him when he was drafted by the Panthers in the third round of the 2001 NFL draft. He punched teammate Anthony Bright in the face in a team meeting room in 2002, earning a one-game suspension and a civil lawsuit that was eventually settled out of court.
His on-field demeanor also was revealing. He yelled at opponents and often jumped up suddenly after being tackled, twirling the ball fiercely on the ground.
But, Smith, now 29, had appeared to be mellowing, as his turn-the-other-cheek attitude in Atlanta last season indicated.
Married and a father of three, Smith looked toward the end of his career last week, talking about his dreams of finishing as the NFL's leading pass catcher.
He's active in community work – often without the public's knowledge. He formed an organization called “Athletes United For Youth” with former basketball players Jay Bilas and Dell Curry.
Earlier this summer, he threw out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. He took an offseason job as a financial planning intern at Morgan Stanley, a global investment firm.
Said Smith in May of the way his life has turned out: “It's just been unbelievable.”
David Scott: 704-358-5889