He’ll retire from the NFL after this, his 15th season. The star receiver looks back on lessons learned, the legacy he’ll leave behind, and why he doesn’t fear what’s next
My name is Steve Smith Sr., and you might know me as an undersized wide receiver who played 14 NFL seasons. You’ve seen a lot of me on TV, some of it unflattering. And as I step away from the fame and the media and a life captured on SportsCenter, there are a few things I’d like you to know about who I really am.
I’ll start with this: I’ve always been a big reader. I encourage young players to find something that moves their needle in the same way football does. Find something that can challenge you and make you think. Our game is so consuming and you can fall into the trap of being a one-dimensional human being. Don’t let that be you.
I’m big on informational books, and books that speak truths. I want to finish a book having new knowledge and a new outlook on life. In 2008, I began reading The Last Lecture, the best-seller by Randy Pausch, a professor who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had only months to live. Pausch’s last lecture is about achieving your childhood fantasy. He asks if you are spending time on the right things, because time is all you have. He talks about overcoming obstacles, seizing every moment and doing everything you can to live life to the fullest. The book speaks to everyone, but really, it is the lessons he wanted to impart on his children.
When I showed up for training camp this season, I put a copy of The Last Lecture in my locker. I want to read it again, because it reminds me that you shouldn’t have to wait for something significant in your life to consider what’s important. You don’t have to stare down death to know what values you want to instill in your kids.
I have decided that after this season, my 15th in the NFL, I will retire. It was a decision I made with my wife and my four children this offseason. I’m 36, and I know I can still play at a very high level, but it’s time for me to move on. I don’t want to miss my children growing up. I want to be able to build a life outside of this game.
I decided to announce it now not because I wanted a sentimental farewell tour, but because I’m confident in my choice. Sometimes when you hold a secret, it grows. I didn’t want to let this one fester inside me, simmering until it caused pressure or doubt.
I’ve thought a lot about my legacy, and what my last lecture should be. I want to be remembered as a hard-nosed football player. Throughout my career, especially in the beginning, I’ve had my run-ins and disagreements. I’ve been called a hot head. Some dirty laundry has been aired. When I leave this game, I just want people to remember Steve Smith Sr. as a guy who left everything he possibly had on the field. He played hard, he cared about his teammates and he never gave up. I don’t think anybody can take that away from me.
When you retire from football, you don’t die, you don’t stop breathing, you don’t stop being a person. You have a whole life ahead. These are glorious years, but you can have many more. I tell young players, you need to know that you’re vulnerable. You need to find someone that you trust, someone who can express to you what you don’t do well and teach you what you don’t know. John Kasay, my former Panthers teammate, was that person for me. Kasay was someone I regarded, not only as a teammate but also as a husband and father. I remember around 2005, he asked me if I knew what was in my portfolio, and did I understand it? Of course, like any other young guy being asked, by an older coworker whom he respects, a work question that he has no idea how to answer, I lied through my teeth. I felt uneasy going home that night and for the next few days wrestled with the facts: I was absolutely clueless and didn't understand what the statements that came in the mail each month meant.
Once a week, for the next few months, Kasay tutored me on finances. I took an internship at Morgan Stanley for two years. Everybody believes they’re not going to be “that guy who goes broke,” and they don’t have to be that guy as long as they do something about it.
Kasay gave me a book, The Richest Man in Babylon, which offers commonsense financial advice. To this day, I pass it along to teammates.
I’m going to miss the people in football, I’m going to miss the game, but I’m not going to miss the pressure. I remember 2005 was one of the best years I had, but also one of the toughest mentally. One moment in particular stood out. We were in he huddle, late in the season, and a call was designed for me. Jordan Gross said, ‘Hey Steve, we need a play from you.’ Travelle Wharton looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Hey Steve, let’s go.’ That moment resonated. I sensed their urgency and their expectations. I felt the weight of not wanting to let them down. I don’t remember how that play turned out, but I remember that moment. Grinding through that pressure for 15 years, 16 games a season, for multiple plays a game is mentally and emotionally exhausting. Finally, now that I know I am done, I feel like I can play freely. I am liberated.
When you do something for 15 years, there’s a part of you that’s going to miss it. Sunday game days, training camps, mini-camps, early morning lifts and late-night film sessions—that’s not only all I know, but all my children know. Walking away, I will teach them that life goes on.
I am also going to teach them that you can take control over your life. You make decisions every day that shape your future. I’ve learned this by seeing so many of my friends have circumstances outside of their control dictate when their careers ended. While many see free agency as an opportunity for a player to get paid, the flip side is, it’s also a window for guys to be told they are no longer good enough. Whatever insecurities they had are heightened. You are no longer wanted. If I keep playing, at some point, it’s not going to be on my own terms. Hey Steve, we love you, but we’re going in a different direction.
Right now, I’m going in a different direction, on my own terms. I don’t know where my journey will go next, but I'm ready for what most people shy away from when they get older: change.