Steve Smith, then a Carolina Panther, was standing alone in front of his locker, and I walked over and asked if his foundation had anything coming up. It did. The Steve Smith Family Foundation was putting on its first event that Saturday. I asked if I could come, and he yes. I was the only media member there. Smith had issued no press release.
Smith gave me the wrong address and I went at the wrong time and when I finally found him, we laughed. The event was in a triple locked shelter for women who had been beaten. Smith and his wife, Angie, hired a magician to entertain the women’s children. As the magician did, Smith and Angie, both smiling, washed the feet of women and slipped new shoes onto their feet.
Sometimes we write about a person as if he is this, as if he is one thing. I don’t know anybody in or out or sports who is.
Smith, 37, played 16 NFL seasons, 13 for the Panthers and the past three for the Baltimore Ravens. He announced his retirement Sunday.
He is unquestionably the best player Carolina has ever had. Who is close? Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil, Julius Peppers? I can fling out names but none of them are or were as effective as Smith was for as long as Smith was.
He played as if he was trying to make the team. He became a very good blocker, outran the fastest defenders and, at 5-9, leaped over taller cornerbacks and safeties to make a jump ball his.
Breaking news: Smith can be a bit intense. A Carolina teammate of Smith’s once told me that Smith was like a cousin who came to your house once a year. When he showed up you were thrilled because you knew he would make things interesting. But after four days, you were so worn out you’d think, “Isn’t it time for him to go home?”
Some people are different on Monday than they are on Tuesday. Smith can be different at noon than he was at 11:55 a.m.
With kids, however, I’ve never seen him deviate. One summer at Smith’s football camp there was a child, about 8 years old, who couldn’t catch a football. Most of the kids caught the soft passes with ease. But the 8-year-old continued to drop the ball. Smith got very close to him, not more than 3 feet, and with an underhand motion tossed the ball. The kid dropped it. Smith repeated the motion and the kid caught it. Smith backed up perhaps 2 yards and tossed the ball. The kid caught it. Smith continued to work with the kid, and only with the kid. When Smith finally finished the kid smiled the way Smith does when he talks about his family.
Sportswriters often make a mistake when they claim to know an athlete. I’ve stood on the side of a soccer field with Smith and have been twice been inside his house. But he never calls and says, “What are we doing tonight?”
So I know him the way a sportswriter knows an athlete, and believe I have a feel for who he is.
I suspect he’ll find a new way to compete. Can you imagine lining up for a touch football game and seeing him on the other side of the line?
I hope Charlotte remains the Smith family home. As long as they are here, so is their foundation.
For more information, go to stevesmithfamilyfdn.org.