Steve Smith Sr. was favoring his right leg when I saw him in South End on Wednesday afternoon, as he stepped away from his burnt-orange Bentley and climbed a set of steps.
“It’s been a long journey,” said the Baltimore Ravens wide receiver , who had surgery last November to repair an Achilles tendon tear he suffered in a game against San Diego. “I’ve never met anybody that said, ‘Man, that rehab was pretty easy!’ ”
But although Smith’s body may not yet be back to full speed, his mind seems to be racing.
He’s agreed to this interview to talk about his third annual Lace Up Son Family 5K. That race, coming up on Memorial Day in Matthews, will be hosted by his Steve Smith Family Foundation, which supports child health and wellness. But over the course of 40 minutes, Smith – now 36 and widely regarded as the most beloved former Carolina Panther in franchise history – speaks passionately about a variety of projects he’s working on, causes he supports, and proms he’s going to.
That’s right: He recently sent a video to a North Gaston High teenager asking if he could escort her to the school’s spring formal. (He’d received a request from the Harrisburg-based Dream on 3 organization, which is kind of a sports-focused version of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.) And, Aubrey Bridges said yes.
Bridges, 18, has a rare form of autism that gives her tics, seizures, auditory processing disorder and a speech disorder. But in Smith’s view, her condition isn’t important.
“I really disliked how people were describing her as a word and leaving out her name,” he said of the media reports. “They were saying, ‘Steve is taking autistic teen’ ... no, I’m taking Aubrey. I think we really fall into the labels too much.”
As for how he’s approaching his brief dip back into high school, Smith said the goal is to keep his attendance from becoming too much of a distraction.
“Being in the public eye, I try to be more conscious and not make things like this happen to where it feels like a political stunt or something that’s beneficial to me,” Smith said. “We just try to do it the right way. So is it cool? Yes. It’s a great honor and opportunity to do it, but it’s not an opportunity (for me to) shuffle her around and exploit her.”
Without question, it’s been a busy offseason for Smith.
There’s the rehab, which should help him to play one final season, which should help him eclipse 14,000 receiving yards, which should help him earn a spot in the Hall of Fame someday.
There’s his family (wife Angie and kids Peyton, Baylee, Boston and Steve), which fills his schedule with baseball games and soccer games and birthday parties and trips to Disney World for spring break.
There are also the various charities he works with – not just “writes checks to,” but actually works with: the homeless-needy-and refugee-focused Project 568 here in Charlotte, where he continues to live and raise a family when he’s not on the job; the end-domestic-violence-focused House of Ruth in Baltimore, where he plays; and Shelter Care Ministries in Chicago, where his oldest (Peyton) will live this fall as a freshman at DePaul University.
While Smith is on doctor’s orders not to run that 5K in Matthews on May 30, he said he’ll “have my customized golf cart out there with a bullhorn – I still get to have fun.” The rest of his family also will once again participate, just like the whole family participated in the Strike Out Domestic Violence Bowling Event in February at 10 Park Lanes.
And the wide receiver doesn’t merely put his money where his mouth is; he puts his mouth where his money is. Earlier this month, he used Twitter to dispute former Panthers teammate Greg Hardy’s claim that he has never laid a hand on a woman.
“So I guess she Tripped on the carpet or something... my mom is a Survivor #DV and I am advocate against #DV,” Smith wrote, atop a screenshot of an excerpt of Hardy’s interview with ESPN.
Smith didn’t talk about Hardy on Wednesday, but he had plenty to say regarding domestic violence.
“It isn’t a cause that we support because it sounds nice; it’s a cause because I lived it. My mom is a survivor of domestic violence – not by my dad, but by her husband, who she was married to at the time. So with me going through it, the days that I’m tired, I focus and I remember when I was 10-years-old and dealing with seeing my mom being berated at 2 in the morning and being stood over, and she’s crying for her life. That’s where I get my energy from. It’s something at soon-to-be 37-years-old,I can remember it when I close my eyes. So (the charity work I do), it’s not something I mark off my list. It’s who I am.”
Lace Up Son Family 5K
When: 8 a.m. May 30 (Memorial Day).
Where: Stumptown Park, 120 S. Trade St., Matthews.
Registration: $45 per individual, $35 each for teams of four or more. $50 on race day.