Can you remember the NFL before Steve Smith Sr.? I struggle to. Smith played for the Carolina Panthers from 2001 to 2013 and for the Baltimore Ravens last season. He has told his Baltimore teammates that this season would be his last.
Smith is the best player Carolina has ever had. He assembled numbers that should get him a long look from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Smith’s departure from the Panthers was rough and Smith was angry about it. The young offense was entrusted to quarterback Cam Newton, and Smith, the veteran, departed, quickly signing with Baltimore.
But before he was a Raven he was one of us. Smith, 5-9, came to Charlotte with a series of hard edges. But he found himself here. He became a family man, and committed to several charitable endeavors, notably the Steve Smith Family Foundation.
I went to the first gathering the foundation hosted. Smith didn’t publicize it. I asked if he had anything coming up and he said he did. Held at a center for battered women behind a series of locked doors, he hired a magician to entertain kids, washed the feet of women (as did Steve’s wife, Angie) and gave the women new shoes.
That was private. The touchdown he scored against St. Louis occurred in front of everybody. Jan. 10, 2004, a playoff game, double overtime, Smith isolated over the middle against safety Jason Sehorn and a pretty pass from Jake Delhomme.
Smith grabbed the ball and was gone, 69 yards for a touchdown and a 29-23 victory. If there’s a bigger play in Carolina Panthers history, I don’t remember it.
You know what coaches and teammates often remember about Smith?
“The biggest thing I learned from Steve is how to practice,” Carolina center Ryan Kalil says Monday. “Say what you want about him, he was one of the hardest practicing guys I’ve ever met. The guy went full-go every single practice. It didn’t matter what part of the season.”
Kalil says it will be tough to see Smith go but he knows where Smith’s Charlotte home is.
Perhaps a retired 89 jersey will appease fans who don’t know where Smith lives.
“Yeah, I think so,” Kalil says about Carolina retiring Smith’s jersey. “I think he’s definitely in that conversation. He’s had tremendous accolades. He’s very well respected with current and former players. The fans love him here. He’s won a lot of big games for this team and played in a Super Bowl and a couple NFC Championship Games. Yeah, absolutely.”
Smith said last September that, had he stayed with the Panthers, the 2014 season would be his last.
We get another season of him. It will be interesting. He always is.