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Panthers-Ravens: Steve Smith’s fire still burns

TIMONIUM, Md.

The Padonia Ale House offers four pool tables, keno, television screens large, medium and small, framed pictures of former Baltimore Ravens stars, the smell of chicken wings and a wooden dance floor with a John Travolta disco ball hovering above.

At a long table next to the wooden floor sits WNST Baltimore sports talk show host Nestor Aparicio. Next to him, wearing jeans, a cap and a long-sleeve T-shirt, is his paid celebrity guest.

Aparicio opens the show by saying, “Let’s give it up for STEVE SMITH!”

Fans do.

Smith’s former team, the Carolina Panthers, will play his current team, the Baltimore Ravens, at 1 p.m. Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

There are games on the schedule that players circle and games fans circle. They all circled this one.

Smith is without question the best player in Panthers history, one of the most popular and one of the most controversial. He twice punched teammates, the first with the back of his fist and the second with the front of it. But let’s be fair. The latter was six years ago.

Smith also offers kids who can’t pay a chance to participate in his football camp. He doesn’t watch from the sidelines. He plays. One summer a kid simply couldn’t catch the ball. So Smith took him aside and softly tossed passes until he did.

Last year the Steve Smith Family Foundation, which he began with his wife, Angie, entertained women and children at a shelter for battered women. He washed their feet, offered them new shoes and hired a magician to entertain their kids.

On Tuesday, Smith will receive the Stewart B. McKinney Award, which is conferred by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The award acknowledges the help the Foundation offers to people who need it most.

He plays football, too. At 35, Smith probably has been Baltimore’s best player this season. No new receiver in Baltimore history has amassed as many receiving yards – 290 – in his first three games.

“Do I want to show certain individuals that I can still play?” Smith asks. “Honestly, I don’t have to.”

Of course Smith wants to show the Panthers he can still play. He wants to show them he still can’t be covered and he still remains the talent who was selected to five Pro Bowls.

Smith loves challenges. Show me a challenge greater than taking on a former employer that dumped you.

The Panthers released him in March, after which Smith said about playing the Panthers: “Put your goggles on because there’s going to be some blood and guts everywhere.”

A popular myth is that the Panthers cut Smith because he refused to take a pay cut and/or is too old and too slow.

Back at the Timonium, Md., Ale House, Smith tells Aparicio he never was asked to take a pay cut.

A Panthers source confirms what those of us who don’t deal in myths know. The Panthers cut Smith because as long as he’s in the huddle, the locker room and the meeting rooms, the offense is his. He might be 5-foot-9 but his presence looms. The Panthers wanted to entrust their offense to 25-year-old quarterback Cam Newton. So they did.

It’s that simple.

I wrote almost daily columns saying the Panthers should keep Smith. But would Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin – who has 253 receiving yards, 37 fewer than Smith, and two touchdowns, one more than Smith – be the league’s leading rookie receiver if Smith still were on the team?

Some fans were happy to see him go. Some drop to one knee when they hear his name. Many Carolina fans will wear Smith’s jersey Sunday whether they watch the game at home or in Baltimore.

Smith says this season would have been his last had he stayed in Carolina. It will not, he says, be his last with the Ravens.

Smith did not want to leave Charlotte, not with his family there. He has four children, the youngest an infant son.

Smith tells the media after practice Wednesday he wishes the week was over because he never envisioned playing for another team. He was moved by the retirement ceremony of Carolina tackle Jordan Gross, who was a Panther for life.

A guess: The Baltimore offense, rather than the defense, will be introduced Sunday, and Smith will be the last player out of the tunnel

Some Ravens fans, in the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence controversy which has engulfed the franchise and the league, desperately need a reason to cheer. Smith has provided one.

Watch him. Does he look, as he moves onto the field, as if he wishes he didn’t have to play against his former team?

Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith says Steve Smith claims the Carolina game isn’t special.

“But he’s angry all the time when he plays,” says Torrey Smith. “So I don’t really know – is there another level to it? I mean you would think there would be. But the fact of the matter is you just don’t know.

“He’s going to be out there and these are guys he’s played with for years and he still has great relationships with plenty of the players.”

Says Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco: “You guys have seen (Smith) for a couple weeks now. Can he be crazier?”

Says Baltimore linebacker Courtney Upshaw: “Man, he makes that catch and goes crazy and does his little thing, and that fires everybody up. I know I’m ready to get back on the field and try to make a play on my own.”

But Smith is more than crazy. Who among us is limited to a single quality?

Torrey Smith, like Steve Smith a new father, says they talk about fatherhood and religion and every other subject they can think of.

Michael Campanaro, a former Wake Forest star, is a rookie receiver on the practice squad.

About Smith he says: “He’s 35, he’s been in the league forever, and he’s coming out every day of practice like he’s a rookie. You hear a lot of stories about vets who chill, take reps off, and Steve’s not like that at all. I’ve learned a ton on and off the field with Steve.”

Campanaro and Smith had a relationship before they met, although Smith wasn’t aware of it. Growing up in Clarksville, Md., Campanaro was a fan of Smith and loved to go to him in the John Madden NFL video game.

“I can remember playing Madden (using Smith) when I was in fifth grade,” says Campanaro, 23.

You tell Smith?

“He cracked up,” Campanaro says.

Holding court

The Ale House’s big room seats 422 and it’s close to full. During a break, Smith orders wings and says a prayer before he eats.

Worried that the wings will brush against his broadcast equipment, Aparicio moves Smith’s plate. You do not touch Steve Smith’s plate. Smith tells this to Aparicio. Aparicio doesn’t know if Smith is kidding. But Smith’s plate is not touched again.

Among the subjects they discuss:

Smith says that when he enters a room in his house the TV remote is his.

He quotes the Bible, Exodus.

He says he spins the ball after a catch because the spin lasts longer than most celebrations. The ball continues to spin as he walks away.

He says his kids can only use electronics on the first floor. On the second floor, video games and other electronics are off limits.

Fans cheer as he says this, the older ones, anyway.

Smith says he does not play all-out all the time. If a player attempted to, he says, his body would break down.

“He’s a hell of a football player,” says Korey Olsen, 26, who works in heating and air conditioning. Olsen sits at a round table 20 feet from Smith, his right hand around a Coors Light. “He still has it. They should go to him even more. Every time the ball is in his hands you expect something to happen.”

During breaks, fans line up to meet Smith and get an autograph or take a picture. Near the front of the line is a man in a 58 jersey, and the jersey is not Carolina’s Thomas Davis. It’s Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil.

The line is a testament to Ravens purple, although one man has a Smith Carolina Panthers action figure he wants Smith to sign. One woman wears a Cape May T-shirt. If this were Charlotte, her shirt would say The Salty Dog.

But the evening is not about clothes or colors. Smith is at his charming best during the first break and the three that follow. When with a serious-face Smith jokes with the fans, some worry he’s angry. Then he laughs and they decompress and they laugh, too.

Smith steps away from the table and drops to the floor to talk to a woman on a scooter with a cast on a leg.

One college-aged student poses with Smith, takes a picture with her cell phone and asks, “Can I hold the remote?”

Constantly judged

Smith signs and poses after the 90-minute show ends and he finally leaves. We walk out the door into light rain and I forget to ask a question Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had suggested. When a Panther gets in trouble, Richardson invites the player to his house. Invite, however, is the wrong term.

“Ask him if he’s been to the (Baltimore) owner’s house yet,” Richardson said, smiling.

Smith walks past a fan standing on a patio who earlier told me that Smith is cocky but pretty cool, and a good asset. The fan asks Smith to come over and pose for a picture. Smith keeps walking, says he has to go.

We stop at Smith’s car, the rain beginning to pick up, and he says suddenly he’s tired of being judged. He says public figures are constantly judged; he says he sees it on the news all the time. We don’t really know them, he says. We don’t really know him.

Smith is right. Writers and broadcasters often think they know. I’ve been in Smith’s house, eaten lunch with him, have run into him at restaurants and events. To say I know him is erroneous.

What I know: He’s smart, he’s funny and he’s willing to talk about subjects other than football.

He’s mercurial. Some people are not the same Tuesday as they are on Monday. Smith might not be the same at 12:05 as he is at noon.

He’s compelling, he’s controversial and he was ours.

Smith drives off and, on the way to my car, I pass the Ravens fan on the patio.

“He wouldn’t take a picture with me,” the man yells about Smith. “I want to change my quote.”

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