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Carolina Panthers’ Steve Smith: ‘I’m not ready to not play’

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
PANTHERS_GROSS_07
John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
Steve Smith (right), who was at the retirement news conference for Jordan Gross (left) on Wednesday, said he hoped his legacy would be as great as Gross’ when he retires. But he says he’s not ready for that day to arrive.

The Carolina Panthers selected Steve Smith in the third round of the 2001 NFL draft, immediately after Jacksonville took linebacker Eric Westmoreland and immediately before Kansas City took defensive tackle Eric Downing.

Smith is by far the most accomplished player in franchise history and has played professionally for nobody else.

So, who will he play for next season?

At the NFL Combine last week, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman said: “Steve’s had a great career, he really has. None of us are here forever.”

Gettleman added: “He’s part of the evaluation process. That’s just the way it is.”

The Panthers are trying to free money to sign free agents, including their own. There are multiple scenarios: If we pay this guy, we can’t pay that guy; If we retain one, we can’t afford another. Perhaps all the scenarios include Smith. Perhaps only some of them do.

I see no justification for letting Smith go. Yes, he can be volatile. But when the Panthers draft a receiver and add one in free agency, wouldn’t you want Smith to influence them?

Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera told me independently at training camp last summer that Smith practiced harder than any player on the roster. When the best player the franchise has ever had works harder than any player the Panthers have, that is probably good.

If you think Smith would be threatened by a receiver as good or better than he is, there’s this. Smith called me at Daytona International Speedway in 2010 to lobby for his employer to sign a top receiver.

Do the Panthers plan to ask Smith to restructure his contract and accept less money? If so, wouldn’t Gettleman approach Smith privately rather than say it publicly from a NFL draft combine lectern and repeat it to an Observer reporter?

What was your reaction when you heard the quote?

“I don’t really have one, you know?” Smith says Thursday from the sofa in his living room, wearing a white Under Armour T-shirt and sweats. “People think I’m trying to avoid (talking about) it. But the honest truth is the (Gettleman) statement has been made and everything is a process. When you hear something, you have to process it. And that’s what I’m doing.

“But I’m also being a dad, being a husband. I have soccer games to attend and appointments with my wife (Angie). I have lots of things going and I look forward to what the next day presents because it’s pretty good, the foundation, my wife. My son (Peyton) is driving now. There’s a lot of stuff.”

How many times have you heard: “Dad, can I borrow the Bentley?”

Smith laughs. He hasn’t – yet.

Angie is pregnant with their fourth child.

The Steve Smith Family Foundation will make its public debut with an event entitled Strike Out Domestic Violence. It’s from 4-7 p.m. Sunday at Ten Pin Lanes, 1700 Montford Drive, Charlotte. A variety of ticket packages are available. For more information, go to stevesmithfamilyfdn.org/.

I attended a private event the Foundation sponsored. It is hands-on, and it is real. Smith has yet to receive 501(c)(3) nonprofit status so there’s no tax write-off. Government can move as slowly as a pulling guard.

As the foundation attests, Charlotte is where the Smiths have dug in. They have a great house in a neighborhood they like, and he has talked about doing Charlotte sports talk radio when he retires.

On Wednesday, Smith’s friend Jordan Gross retired. A Panther for life, Gross and Smith played together at Utah.

Some of us were surprised Gross was emotional; we had never seen that part of him.

Says Smith: “I think why guys get emotional is everything flashes before you – the relationships, the experiences, all the work you put into it. Jordan has been playing 11 seasons (in the NFL) and then four years of college and he played two to four years of high school and he’s played probably some Pop Warner. Now that part of your life is no longer. That’s kind of emotional, I think.”

You think about where you’ve been and who you’ve been there with.

“It’s people you’ve had drag-outs with, it’s people you’ve had great memories with, it’s people that you’ve done unbelievable things with and been unbelievable places with,” says Smith. “It was a great day for Jordan, but it’s always sad to see a friend go.”

The ceremony was emotional, funny and warm.

“Let me tell you,” says Smith. “If you’re a guy and you think about your legacy you would say, ‘Man, I hope it is as good as that for me.’ I don’t care what profession you have.”

When’s your ceremony?

Smith doesn’t answer.

After two more seasons?

“I don’t know,” he says.

Three?

“I don’t know,” he says.

Are you ready to go now?

“Today?” Smith asks. “No, I’m not ready to not play today.”

Can you see yourself finishing your career with a team other than the Panthers?

“I’m not even going to think that far ahead,” he says.

What do you think about?

“Man,” says Smith, “I’m trying to get through this third trimester with my wife.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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