made the biggest play of his life on the biggest possible stage. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was the kind of play that every NFL player dreams about, and so few ever get a chance to live. And for Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, there have been several of those moments in the last month. Smith was on the receiving end of the Richard Sherman tip drill that ended the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, and he picked off a Peyton Manning pass that had been altered by the pressure of defensive end Cliff Avril, and returned it for a 69-yard touchdown with 3:21 left in the first half of Super Bowl XLVIII. Then, with 6:08 left in the third quarter, he recovered the fumble caused by cornerback Byron Maxwell after receiver Demaryius Thomas caught a pass from Manning.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ended the subsequent drive by throwing a 23-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jermaine Kearse, so Smith was as responsible as anyone for 14 of Seattle's points in the Seahawks 43-8 thrashing of the Broncos. The Seahawks won their first NFL title, and Smith became the fourth-youngest Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl history at 24 years and 212 days, behind Tom Brady, Lynn Swann, and Marcus Allen.
Not bad for a guy who was selected in the seventh round of the 2011 draft and may not have been drafted at all had Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll not tried to recruit Smith's older brother, Steve -- not the longtime receiver for the Carolina Panthers -- years ago. At that time, Carroll set his eye to the younger brother, and set Smith on the path.
Those in the know would not be surprised that the younger Smith was able to make such an impact in the biggest game of his life. Throughout the 2013 season as an injury replacement and positional addition, Smith became an invaluable player in coverage -- he picked off the most passes of any of Seattle's outside linebackers in the regular season (two) and impressed his head coach at the NFL level just as he had before.
“No, Malcolm hasn’t surprised me; I’ve known him since he was about ten, it seems like." Carroll told me in late January. "Coming out of fifth grade or something. He has tremendous skills and he’s really fast, and he’s fast like a defensive back or running back, and he’s a natural athlete as well so it comes really easy to him. He’s really grown in his toughness and his tackling and his aggressiveness playing block protection and all of that stuff. He’s always been a great athlete, a speed athlete, with quickness and all of that.”
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As Smith told me after the game, his relationship with Carroll started with family, and became a different kind of family.
"He was recruiting my brother, obviously," Smith recalled. "I was just there hanging out. He didn't pay too much attention to me -- I was just a kid who went to practice and stuff. But I loved football, and his enthusiasm was just magnetic. I've learned so much from him. To be with him this long -- I just appreciate it more and more. The things I might have heard earlier ... they just make more sense now.
"Just to be a competitor in life -- it definitely gives you an edge."
And when the Seahawks needed that edge, Smith repaid Carroll's faith in him with the kind of game everybody who has ever loved football would love to play.
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