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Playing With Fire

June 12, 2006
June 12, 2006

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June 12, 2006

SI Players: Life On and Off the Field
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Playing With Fire

The intensity that made Carolina's Steve Smith an All-Pro wideout has also earned him a reputation as a hothead. He's trying hard to harness the heat

STEVE SMITHstands in the middle of a soccer field in Charlotte's McAlpine Creek Park on asunny spring day, his right foot resting atop a scuffed blue soccer ball. Sixboys, including Smith's son Peyton, age 8, sit cross-legged in a circle as thecoach of the Dragons barks instructions for a new drill. ¶ "When you see acrowd on the right," Smith says, "where are you going?" ¶ "Theother side," the boys say. ¶ Smith nods, then dispatches the kids tovarious spots on the field. He passes the ball to an offensive player and tellshim to let his defender steal it. Corralling the ball, the defender boots it 10yards left to a teammate, who knocks it downfield. "Good, good, good,"Smith says, high-fiving the grinning young defender. ¶ The flawless executionby his players doesn't last long, however, and when one boy kicks the ball thewrong way, Smith snaps at him, "You need to look." Then he lowers theboom. "Everybody take a lap. Your teammate messed up too much." TheDragons begin to sprint around the field--all, that is, except the goalkeeper,who's trying to hide his toothpick frame behind the right post. But his auburnhair and knee-high yellow socks blow his cover. ¶ "Everybody take alap," Smith repeats, shaking his head. ¶ For anyone who's seen or playedalongside Steve Smith on a football field, the notion of him as teacher anddisciplinarian might seem incongruous, if not laughable. From his earliest daysin football, the Carolina Panthers' 27-year-old All-Pro wide receiver has beenas hard on his coaches and teammates as he's been on hapless defensive backs.Since entering the NFL in 2001, the 5'9", 185-pound Smith has shown animpatient and impetuous side, as well as a penchant for flamboyant touchdowncelebrations. The enduring image of him from the past NFL season? Ranting at aPanthers coach on the sideline during Carolina's NFC Championship Game loss tothe Seattle Seahawks in January.

This is an article from the June 12, 2006 issue Original Layout

So how toreconcile that scene with the image of Steve Smith as doting family man andmolder of young athletes--a soccer dad who coaches his son's games and watcheshis daughter, Baylee, 4, from the sideline with his wife, Angie, and theirone-year-old son, Boston? The answer is simple. Smith has found that hisfootball persona is useless when dealing with rambunctious children."Sometimes when I get on my kids, my mom says, 'That's payback for all theheadaches you used to be for other people,'" says Smith with a laugh."But I've got to try to help them not make the same mistakes Imade."

While Smith'sstubbornness and fiery temperament may not serve him well as a parent, they'vehelped him flourish as an undersized NFL wideout. Last season, his fifth in theleague, he led all players in receiving yards (1,563) and tied for tops inreceptions (103) and touchdown catches (12). Those numbers were all the moreremarkable considering that the Panthers lacked a consistent running game and astrong No. 2 receiver. (They've since signed veteran Keyshawn Johnson.)"Steve's success is a result of his intensity," says Carolina coachJohn Fox. "It's a fine line--that emotional, competitive mix. I don't wanthim to eliminate that part of him but to funnel it."

Teammates got ataste of vintage Smith as the Panthers trailed 17-0 early in the second quarterin Seattle on Jan. 22. Following a failed possession that ended with a sack ofPanthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, Smith--who had just one catch to thatpoint--trudged off the field flashing four fingers to indicate the number ofdefenders on him. On the sideline he got in the face of quarterbacks coach MikeMcCoy, gesticulating frenetically, until Fox walked over, whispered to Smithand nudged him away. To TV viewers, it looked as if a petulant Smith wascomplaining about not getting the ball; Smith, however, says he was merelyupset with the Panthers' lack of intensity. "One game away from the SuperBowl and we had a nonchalant attitude: 'Hey, guys, we're still all right,'"says Smith. "Well, we weren't, by any stretch of the imagination. We werebasically getting our lunch taken from us. So I was voicing myopinion."

Says Delhomme,"That's his nature. That's what makes him a great player. As soon as hedoesn't do that on the field, he's not the same guy."

Smith has alwaysbeen passionate. Growing up in South Central L.A., he was prone to outbursts onand off the playing field. In one youth baseball game he was berating histeammates so relentlessly that his mother, Florence Young, came out of thestands, halted play and scolded her son. "I told him, 'Stop it. Those kidshave parents,'" Florence recalls. "He was more intense than he is now.It's always been with him."

When Smithenrolled at Santa Monica College in 1997--where he lined up alongside anotherfuture NFL All-Pro, Chad Johnson--his habit of excoriating teammates andoverreacting to slights sometimes led to fights. After one particularlycontentious week, coach Robert Taylor called him in for a private meeting."Steve was an angry young man," says Taylor. "I asked him why hewas so mad. He said he didn't know. I said, 'Well, until you find out, I'mgoing to sit your ass.'"

After a one-gamesuspension, Smith was able to control himself for the rest of that season, butthere were more fights with teammates after he transferred to Utah and againwhen he joined the Panthers as a third-round draft pick in 2001. During a filmsession in his second NFL season, Smith and practice-squad receiver AnthonyBright got into an argument, and Smith pummeled his teammate so viciously thatBright was hospitalized, requiring plastic surgery for a broken nose, brokenbones in his cheek and a damaged eye socket. Carolina suspended Smith for aweek and fined him. (Bright, who played in the Arena League this year, filed acivil suit in 2004, alleging that Smith derailed his NFL career. A settlementwas later reached, and under its terms Smith is not permitted to discuss thefight.)

After that uglyincident, Smith knew he needed to change. He began seeing a sports psychologistfor sessions that included anger-management therapy. "It was helpful,"Smith says somberly. "Understanding that sometimes the way I take things[negatively] is not really what people mean. I thought about what happened whenI didn't control my temper. Do I want to go through this every time someonedoes something that I don't appreciate or I disagree with?"

There were alsovisible changes. When Smith attended University High in Los Angeles, he got atattoo on his left arm that read ROUGH AND NASTY, 100 PERCENT FOOL. In 2003 hereplaced it with the more innocuous image of a bull. (His astrological sign isTaurus.) "Now he thinks before he reacts," safety Mike Minter says."Last training camp he was about to get into it with [a defensive back],but he stopped, thought about it and apologized."

In the 2004season opener Smith broke his left fibula. His season was over, and his longrecuperation gave him plenty of time for introspection. "That really mademe look in the mirror, when I lost what I loved," says Smith. "It waslike, Come on, Smitty. Wake up."

A more matureplayer emerged after a season away from the game. "Getting hurt helped himgrow up so much," Minter says. "He realized football would go on if hewasn't on the field. Now he's at that point where he's a veteran guy that wecan call one of our leaders."

Driving home froma photo shoot at the Panthers' facility on a spring day, Smith pilots his BMWLi past sprawling fields where horses saunter. His 7,800-square-foot house in asuburb of Charlotte sits on a quiet cul-de-sac; a black gate guards theentrance to his drive, with two white pillars, each engraved with a blacks.

From his backyardSmith watches a neighbor's horses grazing. "In the morning I get a littlegust of wind, and [the smell is] just as potent as coffee," he says,laughing. But the trade-off is worth it. "You wake up and sometimes seethem galloping. That's a cool little sight. I didn't see that growing up inL.A."

Last October,during a bye week, Smith returned to his hometown. Drawn by an urge to connectwith his past, he pulled his rented Range Rover into the parking lot of a TacoBell on the corner of Pico and Bundy--the same fast-food joint where he workedduring high school and college, earning $5.50 an hour preparing burritos,running the cash register and mopping floors--"multitasking," he quips.For 15 minutes Smith, who's entering the second year of a six-year, $26.5million contract, watched as cashiers took orders and a worker swept thedrive-through lane. As a teenager Smith would go to classes in the morning,work a three-hour midday shift, then return for another shift after footballpractice. "I was proud of that," says Smith. "I still am. That jobpaid for my senior prom, my tennis shoes, my socks. I learned that if you wantsomething, you have to work for it."

Neatly displayedin the basement of Smith's house are prized mementos of his football labors.There's the number 89 jersey he wore as a rookie special-teamer in the 2002 ProBowl, after a season in which he returned two kickoffs and one punt fortouchdowns. And there's the Panthers uniform bearing the patch from Super BowlXXXVIII, in which he caught four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown inCarolina's 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots. But Smith's favorite relicis the football that commemorates his first NFL touchdown reception, a14-yarder during a Sept. 22, 2002, victory over the Minnesota Vikings. "Icame in known as an undersized receiver who was never going to make it,"Smith explains, "so I had to get that [touchdown] before I could get allthe others."

Ten receiverswere drafted ahead of Smith in 2001, and scouts considered him too small to beanything more than a returner. But they failed to account for his will."What I see now on Sunday--breaking tackles and doing all thatcraziness--he was doing in junior college," says Chad Johnson. "He wasa dog on the field and hungry about the game."

"His body andmind are tremendously competitive, as good as anybody I've ever beenaround," says offensive coordinator Dan Henning, who has coached in the NFLfor 27 years. "If you're going to beat him, you're going to have to fighthim to the death because he seems willing to go that far."

Smith also hasphysical abilities envied by many receivers: a 40-inch vertical leap, greathands (he dropped just six passes last year), quickness and agility. Afterrecovering from the broken leg, Smith ran a 4.38 in the 40. Following his firstpractice with Smith, new Panther Keyshawn Johnson was impressed. "I waslike my little daughter looking at Allen Iverson on the basketball court. Iknew he was good but was amazed at some of the things he's able to do."

Smith's greatestweapon may be his ability to run with the ball. Last season he led the NFL with7.9 yards after the catch. According to the Panthers, on 33 of his 103receptions he caught the ball within two yards of the line of scrimmage, butthose 33 catches ended up going for a total of 400 yards. "He lives onafter-the-catch," Henning says. "You give him the ball on a quick pass,and all of a sudden everybody's holding their asses."

Steve Smith isback on the soccer sideline. It's Saturday--game day--and Smith, in a grayT-shirt, gray sweats and blue cap, nervously chews and spits out sunflowerseeds while hollering instructions and encouragement to the Dragons.

"Are you allright? It's boring out there?" he says to his goalkeeper during a slowpoint in the action. But as the opponents go on the attack, Smith implores hisplayers, "Defenders, let's defend! Back up, back up!" A Dragon gets theball and kicks it toward Peyton at midfield--away from the crowd. Steve jogsdown the sideline as his son dribbles in alone on goal and shoots past thekeeper, into the net. Steve leaps, then slides on the ground and rolls.

"Goodjob!" he calls out to his son.

Then, as abeaming Peyton pumps his fists and soaks up the adulation, Smith--CoachSmith--cuts the celebration short. He calls out to his son, "Go give allyour teammates high fives."

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"He lives on after-the-catch," says Henning."You give him a quick pass, and suddenly everybody's HOLDING THEIRASSES."
"What I see on Sundays, he was doing in juniorcollege," says Johnson. "He was a dog on the field and HUNGRY about thegame."
PHOTOPhotograph by Allen Kee/WireImage.comPHOTOJEFFERY A. SALTER MOOD SWING Smith admits he has to alter his persona for his Dragons, switching from NFL hellion to patient teacher.PHOTOGRANT HALVERSON/WIREIMAGE.COMLEARNING CURVE After missing the 2004 season recovering from a broken leg, Smith returned as a more polished receiver.PHOTOJEFFERY A. SALTERFAMILY GUY Watchful over Baylee (left) and Peyton, Smith says, "I've got to help them not make the same mistakes I made."