- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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Steve Smith had hoped to spend last Sunday playing in the NFC Championship Game, proving prophetic his Week 1 statement that the Carolina Panthers would meet the Seattle Seahawks again late in January.
Carolina's all-time leading receiver had hoped to spend Sunday showcasing his passion and talent while trying to reach the Super Bowl, the NFL's biggest stage.
Instead, he spent it on a stage in South Charlotte, N.C., at Elevation Church's Blakeney campus, talking about how the passion that makes him such a force on the football field has impacted his life, both positively and negatively.
There was no football helmet or shoulder pads to protect him. It was just Smith, his wife, Angie, and Elevation pastor Steven Furtick in front of about 1,000 in attendance and those who watched on projection screens at other church campuses or online.
"I offered to let him just preach the whole sermon," Furtick told the congregation. "He didn't agree to that."
Said Smith, "I came up with a lot of excuses."
Responded Furtick: "Not just excuses. You actually threatened me."
When the conversation became serious, the Smiths said Steve's lack of spiritual direction almost destroyed their marriage, and that redirecting his passion changed his life. Smith told of how he started an Elevation branch in Uptown Charlotte so he could attend on home game days. He also talked about his difficult upbringing in Los Angeles.
"When I was growing up, the people that had the greatest opportunity to impact me, to lift me up, to tell me I could be anybody I wanted to be, I never heard [from]," Smith said. "I never received it. For me, I worked to get that.
"It also made me a loner. I felt like those people that could impact me the most didn't, so I couldn’t depend on anyone else."
Furtick then referred to a quote that said the "greats are trying to prove something to someone who is not even paying attention."
Smith agreed, referring to his initial plans to return to his 10-year high school reunion a few years back.
"I was hyped," he said. "High school reunion. I was, 'Yeah, I’m going to go back and show some folks ... the girl, that individual or that guy that said, aww, you're just a short kid.' My wife checked me and said, 'Are you going with the right motives?'
"And so I had to really be honest with myself. And I didn’t go. ... The reason I was going was not to reconnect with friends or people. I was going to boast and show up."
Furtick then asked if there were times when Smith made the other decision and suffered the consequences.
Smith smiled and said, "I can't remember."
Smith later admitted to being so focused on trying to accomplish goals that he never stopped to appreciate the journey. He referred to the frown shown in a highlight video of him playing football.
"Obviously, we’re not out there exchanging cookie recipes," said Smith, who once was suspended for two games for breaking a teammate's nose during a fight in practice. "It's a high-impact, intense, hand fight, mental fight game out there."
Furtick interrupted: "Yeah, sometimes I'm trying to read your lips when you're on TV and it looks like you’re saying, 'May the Lord bless you and keep you. Make his face shine upon you.' Is that what you're saying? 'Cause that's what I sense?"
Smith: "Sometimes I'm saying that. ... It's just, at times you just get caught in the moment.
"Football is such an intense game. A lot of people will say, 'Oh, it’s just ball.’ But for me, it’s how I feed my family. And now that I’m 34 years old, for the longest time it’s been my identity; it's been my value."
Angie joined Smith on stage as the conversation turned to passionate people fighting to "finish in the battles that matter the most." She talked about how that pertained to their marriage, which she described as a "battle" for the first decade. She talked about how they split up for a short time.
"A few years ago, we came to kind of a breaking point," she said. "Our whole world came apart. I was trying to decide could we move forward, could we stay married. We both knew a lot needed to change."
Furtick reminded her that she almost gave up.
"Yeah," Angie said. "It was close. But I'm thankful that we didn't."
Furtick asked, "What was the turning point?"
"We came back together," Angie said. "We were hesitant at first. We weren't sure where things were going to go. It took a lot of faith, a lot of work. Ultimately it came down to God working in our lives, changing our hearts, really restoring and bringing us out of that pit and putting our feet on solid ground."
Furtick noted that Angie once told him it was a miracle that Steve had anything to do with a pastor. He asked what changes she had seen in her husband.
"He's a different person in so many ways," she said. "One of the things I remember saying to him a lot was I just wanted him to have peace. He just would seem like he wasn't at rest, had turmoil, struggled with things. Now he has peace that only comes from God.
"He is a patient person and father. He's really thoughtful in the way he responds to things, moreso than he used to be. And his relationships and the way he impacts people has become so important to him."