Malcolm in the Middle

Feb. 10, 2014
Feb. 10, 2014

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Feb. 10, 2014


Malcolm in the Middle

Seattle's D deserved a collective nod, but the forgotten man in the thick of it—nine tackles, a fumble recovery and a pick-six—got the MVP award. That'll do fine

O.K., SEAHAWKS, we get it. At manifold points during your journey to New Jersey you were dissed, undervalued, overlooked. No matter how often you take part in the meditation sessions made available by your team's New Age management, those slights still rankle. You remain pissed. Someone has to pay.

This is an article from the Feb. 10, 2014 issue

Among this band of grudge-bearing overachievers, this collection of late-round picks and undrafted free agents, one player traveled the hardest road to stardom. Twenty minutes after Super Bowl XLVIII ended, sitting at the riser reserved for the MVP, outside linebacker Malcolm Smith was asked by SI how fast he'd run the 40 at the 2011 NFL scouting combine. He answered quickly, a trace of spite in his voice: "I wasn't invited to the combine."

Late in his sophomore season at USC, in 2008, Smith began to experience difficulty swallowing. He was diagnosed with achalasia, a rare condition that causes the esophagus to shut down. Eventually Smith required surgery and dropped 30 pounds. After regaining his weight and strength, Smith racked up 150 tackles over his final two seasons with the Trojans. But his ailment had been duly noted by NFL scouts. He plummeted to the seventh round and was relegated primarily to special teams duties for his first two seasons in Seattle.

Smith's fortunes rose as Bruce Irvin's dipped. Irvin, the incumbent strongside starter, opened 2013 with a four-game suspension for PEDs. Between Irvin's poor judgment and injuries to other linebackers, the 6-foot, 226-pound Smith started eight games and played in seven more. "He's a weapon with his speed," says 'backers coach Ken Norton Jr. "And he's very smart, able to play multiple positions."

The game certainly seems to be slowing down for Smith, who had zero interceptions in his first 41 NFL appearances but now has four in his last five. While this one got off to a catastrophic start for Denver—botched snap and safety; slashing, 30-yard pickup by Percy Harvin; tone-setting, molar-vibrating tackle of Demaryius Thomas by safety Kam Chancellor, followed by Chancellor's own interception of Peyton Manning—it was Smith's second-quarter pick-six that served as the shockingly early coup de gr√¢ce at MetLife Stadium. The question thereafter was not whether Manning could lead Denver back so much as it was, How ugly is this going to get?

With 3½ minutes left in the first half, the Broncos were still in it. Trailing 15--0, they had converted four third downs in the course of a 15-play drive that was kneecapped by a flagrant tripping penalty on guard Zane Beadles. Now, on third-and-13 from Seattle's 35, Manning took a shotgun snap and felt almost immediate pressure from both sides. Closing in from his left: Chris Clemons, whose speed rush put tackle Chris Clark on roller skates. To Manning's right: Cliff Avril on an outside release, redirected into the sternum of tackle Orlando Franklin.

"He just went speed to power," a despondent Franklin explained. "It was a great move."

Avril got there first, clubbing downward on Manning's throwing arm, making contact at the elbow.

Having scanned the receivers to his left, Manning "was working his way back when [Avril] got his arm on the ball," Smith recalled. Mesmerized, perhaps, by the gruesome-looking, end-over-end aerial, Denver's Knowshon Moreno simply stared at it, flat-footed, whereas Smith, in his own words, "attacked it and took it home."

Pirouetting gracefully, 6'2", 297-pound defensive tackle Clinton McDonald made a key block on Franklin. Avril recalled blocking Manning, although their clinch looked more like a slow dance. ("I stayed up high on him," he explained, " 'cause I didn't really want to get a flag.")

While he didn't run at the combine, Smith did clock a 4.45 40 at USC's 2011 Pro Day. That's superb speed for a linebacker, though it wasn't in evidence during his 69-yard touchdown return. "We'd been on the field for a while," Smith said in his own defense. With ponderous, 335-pound guard Louis Vasquez bearing down on him, Smith was able to find fifth gear, then the end zone. His ill-considered attempt to dunk the ball over the crossbar was sure to be a subject of mockery at the team's final film session.

Smith's second takeaway came with six minutes left in the third quarter. The real hero, in that case, was cornerback Byron Maxwell, who alertly punched the ball from the left arm of tight end Julius Thomas at the end of a 23-yard catch-and-run. Smith's scoop and seven-yard return put him over the top to become the third linebacker to be named Super Bowl MVP. It seemed silly, somehow, to honor a single member of Seattle's suffocating D, which has earned its place among the best the game has ever seen: Minnesota's Purple People Eaters, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defenses of the mid-1970s, the '85 Bears and the 2000 Ravens. To his credit, Smith grasped that, saying repeatedly that he was merely "representing the defense" in accepting the award.

Not far away his brother beamed at him. Steve Smith, like Malcolm a former Trojan, played seven NFL seasons at wide receiver and won a Super Bowl with the Giants six years ago. "We never envisioned this," he said, speaking of Malcolm's entire family. "We just wanted him to be healthy."

With his ailment Malcolm must chew his food painstakingly and swallow slowly. "It's hard. It sucks," says Steve. "I watch and I worry about him. But now I'm just really happy for him. He's fought through so much. Even Coach [Pete] Carroll overlooked him." Steve was implying that his kid brother should have been on the field sooner, taking starter's snaps—especially since Carroll had recruited him at USC. Yes, Steve was thrilled for Malcolm, but also still marinating, a tiny bit, in previous slights.

Make this guy an honorary Seahawk.

PHOTODONALD MIRALLE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDTROPHY LIFE Smith became the first defensive player to win Super Bowl MVP since safety Dexter Jackson (XXXVII, in 2003) and just the ninth overall.PHOTOJOHN IACONO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]