It was a game of greatness and disaster for Stevonne Latrall Smith, Sr. On the same day that he passed Cris Carter for tenth all-time in NFL history in receiving yards, Smith tore his right Achilles tendon in a 29-26 win over the Chargers. It was a fairly meaningful win for a Ravens team that's trying to fight off irrelevance at 2-6, but the loss of the 36-year-old Smith for the season—and perhaps for his career—was devastating in a personnel, and personal, sense. That's the effect he's had on the Ravens franchise that signed him to a three-year, $10.5 million deal in March of 2014, after the Panthers deemed him over the hill.
“He’s pretty shook up about it,” Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said after the game. “Shook up is not the right word; he’s hurting. I have a feeling Steve Smith will be back. I love him, respect him, admire him. I told him that. That’s the kind of man he is, and he’ll be back.”
That's not a sure thing, of course. Smith said before the season that the 2015 campaign would be his last in the NFL, though he's certainly come back from longer odds. Nobody expected much out of him after he went to Santa Monica College following his time at University High in L.A. He transferred to Utah after two years in junior college, and did enough to merit a third-round pick by the Panthers in 2001. He returned a kick for a touchdown on his first NFL play, and he was off to the races from there. Smith is one of three players (Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe are the others) to lead the league in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in a single season—he put up that “receivers' triple crown” in 2005, when he had a legitimate shot at the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. And while Rice had Joe Montana and Steve Young, Smith did his most damage with Jake Delhomme as his primary quarterback. Carolina fell to the Seahawks in the NFC championship game that year, and the only way that happened was for Seattle to employ a “box-and-one” coverage on Smith—basically employing anywhere from two to four defenders against him on any given play.
Smith ended his 13 years with the Panthers with some serious all-time numbers: 836 catches on 1,440 targets for 12,197 yards and 80 touchdowns. Things went south after the Panthers looked to trade Smith and then released him on Mar. 13, 2014. Smith caught just 64 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns in that final Carolina season, and it was clear that the team he defined more than any other single player assumed he would go quietly.
A foolish assumption at best—Smith has never gone quietly.
“I would have wished that I would have been afforded the opportunity to be given a heads-up by our GM and also with coach [Ron] Rivera,” Smith told WBT-AM in Charlotte on Feb. 26 of that year. “When I did my exit meeting [following the 2013 season], no one spoke to me about it in that manner, so the unfortunate part of it is I had to hear secondhand. We have to read into things and we try not to, but when we speak of an individual’s career in the past tense, I think ultimately it would suggest that a team is moving on, and that’s all I can do. No one has still reached out to me and told me anything.”
The Ravens had him within 24 hours, and Smith went back to work with a vengeance. He caught 79 balls for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns last season, and appeared to be tougher, more consistent, and more dangerous as a target than he had been in years. He was a perfect fit for Baltimore's offense, and Joe Flacco was the best quarterback who had ever thrown to him. Though the off-season transition in offensive coordinators from Gary Kubiak to Marc Trestman did not bode well for Baltimore's offense, Smith hadn't lost a step—he had caught 41 passes for 588 yards and three touchdowns coming into Sunday's game, and before his injury against the Chargers, he had a 46-yard reception against double coverage.
And that, in the end, is why I think Harbaugh is right. Smith will reconsider his retirement, work harder than ever in the offseason, and come back for a 16th season in 2016. He has never meant to go quietly, and he will not start now.
“I can’t make any announcements for Steve,” Harbaugh concluded. “I guess I’m commenting more on who he is, what he’s all about. When he first came here a year and a half ago, he and I had a conversation at my house and we talked about … He had brought this up, but it was my thought. I said it to him that, ‘You’re going to write the final chapters of your career in a way that nobody expects. Nobody’s going to write these final chapters for you.’ So, I’m just looking forward to seeing how this story ends.”
Smith has written unconventional chapters for a long time. He's the only receiver under 5’10” to amass over 13,000 receiving yards, he's one of the most notable JUCO success stories in NFL history, and he's become known as much as anything for his ability and willingness to do the dirty work. Yes, he's a flashy receiver with a big personality, but he'll also block the crap out of a linebacker or do whatever decoy duty he must—as long as it makes sense to him.
And while Smith is known as a contentious sort who's more than happy to mix it up with his own teammates when the occasion arises in his mind, he's also got a more charitable side that comes out in some pretty interesting ways. I discovered this in 2012, when I talked with Smith about his involvement with an organization called “Samaritan's Feet,” a charity with the goal of putting 10 million pairs of shoes on the feet of 10 million people over a 10-year period. Smith told me that before the 2012 season, he decided that he would remove his shoes with a mission after games.
“At the end of games, I take off my shoes to represent people who have no shoes. I haven't always understood it or thought about it. I'm trying to change that, and you change it one shoe, and one foot, at a time.”
The more interesting part of the story came when Smith told me that he washes the feet of those who receive shoes from him.
“The first time I washed somebody's feet, it was a little girl, and she was 10 years old—the same age as my daughter at the time. I said, ‘I won't go past your kneecap.’ You have to be prepared to walk them through the steps, so they'll be comfortable and understand.
“It doesn't get any realer than that.”
Smith understood that reality. He knew what it was like to grow up poor, hungry, with the odds against him. It molded him into the force he became in the NFL, and it is, I believe, the impetus he will use for one more try at the game he loves.
It would be an appropriate conclusion for a man, and a player, who has been more complex and interesting than most.