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Tuesday, July 10, 2012
STEVE SMITH'S ENGINE EARNED HIM A FANTASY LIFE. BUT CAN HE IDLE DOWN ENOUGH TO ENJOY IT?

By David Fleming

Steve Smith just wants to get home. .. It's 1:35 p.m., 30 minutes after a Panthers minicamp practice, by the time Smith drives off in his gold Porsche Cayenne. The wide receiver has less than two hours to run errands, fight Charlotte's awful midday traffic and get to his house 30 miles outside of town in time to join his kids by 3:30. That's start time for The Wiggles, an irritatingly upbeat children's sing-along show starring four Australian twits. .. The trip begins poorly, with Smith arguing by cell phone with his wife, Angie, about bringing home company with so little warning. For several blocks after the call, Smith unclenches his jaw only long enough to challenge everything said to him, even the compliments. The vibe inside the Porsche is-how to put it?- a bit nerve-racking. And his company thinks: this must be what it feels like to be locked in man coverage with an NFL speed demon who never runs from a fight, a guy one teammate described as a firecracker that might explode on you at any minute. "He can be a bit, uh, intense," says backup quarterback Chris Weinke. "But if you're looking for a guy to stand next to you in a dark alley when there's gonna be trouble, Steve Smith is your guy."

He certainly was that guy last season. In Carolina's run-heavy offense, Smith managed to amass huge receiving numbers (88 catches, 1,110 yards, 7 TDs), becoming the first player since the AFL-NFL merger to gain 1,900 all-purpose yards in each of his first three seasons. He boosted those numbers-and his rep as a clutch, if volatile, playmaker-during the Panthers' unlikely run to the Super Bowl. The team adopted Smith's junkyarddog swagger as he seared The Tuna with five catches for 135 yards against Dallas, roasted the Rams with a 69-yard TD grab in double overtime and singed New England for a 39-yard TD in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Panthers rewarded their play-maker with a five-year, $27 million contract in February, a sign that coach John Fox considers Smith's troubles-most notably an arrest two years ago for assaulting a teammate during a film session-ancient history.

Smith is young, rich and happily married; it's May, and the sky is as blue as a Panthers jersey; the traffic, while frustrating, can't possibly get worse; and The Wiggles await. So his passenger wonders, then asks, can't he just chill? A little?

"You don't understand," Smith says, squeezing the steering wheel in a death grip. "I can't. I didn't do anything in practice, didn't make any big plays. It gets to me. You saw it, right? Back there, the way I was talking to my wife? She worries that I just can't relax and enjoy all of this."

She's not the only one.

If the Panthers personify the NFL's constant state of flux-10 of their games last season were decided in the final two minutes-then Smith is the franchise's flux capacitor: an energy source who, when properly channeled, generates touchdowns and wins, but when out of control leaves a trail of scorched earth. That's why, even after a career year, Smith says he faces more uncertainty than ever. He can't let go of the anger that's driven him from a tense adolescence in South Central LA to the pinnacle of the sport, even as he realizes it could push him right over the edge.

THE GOLDEN Porsche wends its way down College Street, just in front of the opulent Westin Hotel, where the Panthers stay before home games. His teammates travel the four blocks to the stadium by chartered bus, but Smith walks. Alone. It clears his head before kickoff, he says, and helps him remember his past, a past that made him hate buses. Santa Monica Junior College was a two-hour ride from Smith's South Central home, and it was anyone's guess when the so-called 6 a.m. blue line would show. Rather than wait at a bus stop where a classmate had once been shot, Smith would walk two miles to the next stop.

That was just the start of Smith's daily struggle to do the right thing-to do anything-to get out of South Central. He'd make it to class in the mornings, work a Taco Bell shift on his lunch break and attend football practice in the afternoon with future Bengals wideout Chad Johnson. Forget about relaxing. Smith's divorced mother, Florence Young, worked long hours as a drug counselor for the LA school system, and his dad was around only when it was convenient. After Smith's two-hour ride back to his ganged-up neighborhood, his younger brother, Ravonn, would be waiting for him to cook dinner. It was a perfect breeding ground for anger and insecurity-and, for Smith, ambition. Football was his way out. The only way, as he saw it. "It's why I pushed so hard so early," he says. "Too hard, I guess, because that was my downfall."

After starring at Santa Monica for two years, Smith transferred to Utah, away from the cousins back home who jeered, "We'll see you when you flunk out." He thrived in Mormon country, with a big-play knack that had some calling him the Peter Warrick of the Mountain West Conference. But there was no in-between for Smith: more success meant more pressure. Any letup in intensity, any sign of weakness, and he feared he'd be on the next bus to LA. Returning a punt in the final game of his junior season, Smith punched through the wedge and felt something behind his helmet crack. He ignored the pain in his neck, finishing the game and overdosing on Ben Gay for several days. When he finally submitted to X rays, they revealed a fractured fourth vertebra.

He spent 10 weeks in a neck brace, which didn't prevent him from returning the next season as the same swift, ferocious ballhawk he'd always been; he set Utah's all-time record for yards per catch (20.6). But at 5'9'' with a suspect spine, he fell to the Panthers in the third round of the 2001 draft-another excuse to get pissed off. Fast as he is, Smith has a hard time outrunning trouble, and often seems to head straight for it. Where most players would have been thrilled to make it to The Show, Smith was secretly terrified of being thrown out. So he styled himself the bully, talking smack to Panthers vets from Day One of camp, daring someone to say the wrong thing. Heading to meetings, he'd purposely knock playbooks out of people's hands, or tip their chairs over. Teammates called him Ritalin Child. "If guys don't like being around you," says Weinke, "and the coaches can't deal with you and you never ever shut your mouth, you won't be around very long."

Yet the 1-15 Panthers tolerated Smith because he was pretty much the only reason to watch them. Playing with an uncommon mixture of inner rage and fearlessness, he took the season-opening kickoff 93 yards for a score in the team's lone win, against the Vikings, and made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. But his high-octane emotional fuel was volatile. With his teammates getting fed up with his moody loner act, he tussled with receiver Guilian Gary during training camp in 2002. His attitude didn't improve when he earned a starting job before the season. He ran sloppy routes. He barely opened his playbook. He'd constantly yell out for the fast-forward button during film sessions. By his own admission, he was "just winging it." When he couldn't beat people, he'd lose focus. Raw skill had taken him as far as it could. "I felt inadequate as a player," he says, "and it was messing with me, really taking a toll."

Then, during a Monday-morning film session in November 2002, a brawl broke out between Smith and practice-squad wideout Anthony Bright. According to a recent civil suit filed by Bright's attorneys (who include Johnnie Cochran), the scrub had asked for a play to be run back. Smith took it personally, cursing at Bright, and the two men fought. Sources close to Smith say the players had already exchanged unpleasantries on the practice field, when Bright loudly turned down Smith's advice after a bad play.

Whatever the roots, Bright needed two operations to repair the damage to his face. "You'd have thought there was a bulldozer in Steve's fist," ex-Panthers WR Isaac Byrd told reporters after visiting Bright in the hospital. Bright spent the rest of the 2002 season on injured reserve, and the following year in the Arena League.

Carolina fined Smith and suspended him for one game. (Criminal assault charges were dropped in May, after Smith entered a deferred prosecution program.) The wideout didn't appeal. In fact, after apologizing to teammates, he didn't utter a word for two weeks. "I had gone from the Pro Bowl to an arrest warrant," he says. "That was a low point. I was a kid trying to get ahold of something for the first time in my life, barely able to keep my head above water. I needed some serious adjustments."

Soon after the fight, Smith underwent anger-management counseling, no small feat for a man who has a hard time revealing the roots of that anger. He's not the type to blame an absent father-or growing up small and vulnerable in a place where that makes you a target-for the me-against-everyone-else vibe that fairly radiates off him. Even Angie is hard-pressed to explain the dark side of her husband's personality. "When something needs to get done," she says, "his body just does it without even having to think. So in other situations, he's had to learn how to think before he reacts. He knew right away the fight was a mistake, but he's dealt with it and moved on."

For the most part, anyway. Smith is still capable of being the Panthers' problem child, a hothead who last October caused a ruckus in Charlotte when he accused the team of "spitting" in his face during contract talks; a meathead who kicked 315-pound Texans D-end Jerry Deloach in the back last November because Deloach held onto his legs too long after a tackle. "I love to play football," Smith says, "but sometimes the expectations and demands from outside the sport are more than I can live up to."

But he is trying. He and Angie started a foundation that offers support and recreational activities for needy families. And when he heard about Bright's lawsuit, an event that in the past would have set him off like a bottle rocket, Smith went into the bathroom and shaved off his cornrows, cutting away a reminder of the person he used to be. "He's always had God-given talent," Angie says. "He's just had to learn how to apply the right kind of mentality to it."

Smith is also seeing a sports psychologist, who advised him to turn the site of his worst moment, the film room, into a sanctuary. He's become more of a student of the game, and taken up a new personal mantra: Learn From Your Mistakes.

The learning process paid off in the divisional playoff game in St. Louis. In practice during the week before the game, Smith had blown a simple blitz-outlet slant to the X-receiver so many times, teammates started calling the route X-Clown. The morning of the game, while watching film of the Rams' Cover 2, Smith the speed demon finally began to grasp the counterintuitive notion that sometimes precision matters more than velocity. So when X-Clown was called on third and 14 at the beginning of the second OT, Smith used his crossing speed as a decoy to spread the safeties to the sideline. Then he cracked them in half, cutting up the field in a fluid burst that made Jason Sehorn look like, well, a clown. The 69-yard sudden-death stunner left the citizens of St. Louis wondering how some mouthy runt had just managed to fold up the tents of the Greatest Show on Turf.

SMITH MERGES onto the far right lane of the freeway, letting the traffic carry the souped-up wagon like a canoe on a fast-moving stream. He exhales, leaning back in his seat. The more the muscles of his face relax, the more Smith transforms into a different person, the big-hearted, paintballloving, go-kart-riding husband and father his wife knows. "He's grown so much," says Angie, who wishes the rest of the world would get past Smith's rep. She hates that she can't frame newspaper stories about her husband's playoff run because they all refer to his anger problems.

In his Porsche, as traffic opens up, Smith looks anything but angry. He even begins to hum. Louder now, and then the little roughneck breaks into a song by Kenny Rogers? "You gotta know when to hold 'em/know when to fold 'em/know when to walk away/and know when to run." Performance over, the crooner glances at his passenger and says: "It's my new motto."

Then, just as Smith turns into his cul-de-sac, a bulldozer nearly sideswipes him. He calmly waves to the sheepish driver, and pulls the Porsche into the driveway with eight whole minutes to spare. Just enough time to patch things up with Angie before jumping between Peyton (6) and Baylee (2) on the couch. Smith's TD ball from Super Bowl XXXVIII and several other football trophies sit in a glass case in the basement, but they're jammed into a middle shelf so Peyton can display his soccer trophies up top, hardware he won with his dad as coach. Around here, amid a decor of calming earth tones, kids come first.

So do The Wiggles. Baylee begins bouncing along to the music, her fluffy pigtails landing a second after she does. Then she head-butts her dad right in the kisser. She freezes. Tears fill her eyes. Peyton sucks in a mouthful of air through clenched teeth. Even the Wiggles stop singing. It's not just adults who know that Smith has anger-management problems.

"Oh no," says football's most volatile pass-catcher, his giggling face buried in his hands. "I sink you mocked out one of my toofusses!"