Some moments in sports history have a peculiar habit of falling into an entrapping black hole that escapes memory and time.
Take Super Bowl XLII as a concrete example. Pop in a DVD of America's Game: The 2007 New York Giants, and you'll notice that David Tyree's yet to be named but rightfully immortalized helmet catch leads directly to Plaxico Burress' game-winning touchdown.
Missing in between is one of the most unheralded clutch plays in Super Bowl history, from a wide receiver who somehow flies under the radar in the NFL's massive national landscape and New York City's blinding lights despite 107 catches, 1,220 yards, seven touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl appearance last season.
Then rookie Steve Smith lined up as the slot receiver next to Amani Toomer. After the ball was snapped, Toomer got in cornerback Brandon Meriweather's way as Smith broke free for an eight yard out. Eli Manning fired the ball into Smith's breadbasket near the sideline, and Smith immediately looked for the first-down marker. At this juncture, Smith needed to have the balance of an Olympic gymnast and the elusiveness of Barry Sanders to stay in play, avoid a hard-charging Meriweather, get the first down, and run out of bounds to kill the clock.
He did just that, with one yard to spare.
Yet this hidden gem of a play is buried amidst the on- and off-field soap opera drama from that night and season.
That Super Bowl moment serves as the defining symbol for Smith's career. Smith does all the little things that need to be done on the football field without the adulation of other wide receivers in this "me-first" generation, yet does not receive the fanfare that the statistics and hustle he displays on the field say he rightfully deserves.
After missing 11 regular season games in 2007, Smith had 14 catches in the 2007 playoffs as the team's third receiver. The following year, Smith led the 12-4 Giants with 57 catches despite starting only four games. After Burress' nightclub incident, Smith received more playing time and became the team's No. 1 wideout in 2009. He had a monumental season, highlighted by a 10-catch, 134-yard performance at Dallas in the first regular season game at Cowboys Stadium. His 107 catches broke the Giants' single-season mark for receptions by a staggering 25, and his 1,220 yards were second-highest in team history behind Amani Toomer's 1,343 yards in 2002.
Want more proof that Smith is the most underrated player in the NFL today? The 5'11", 195 lb USC product was second in the NFL last year among No. 1 wide receivers with a 68.2 catch rate percentage. That number is even more impressive considering that he was targeted for 29.4 percent of the Giants' throws last season, a number that also ranks second in the league. His 107 receptions ranked fourth, and after four games last season, he had accrued 34 catches, 411 yards, and four touchdowns. For good measure he also converted 61 first downs, tied for seventh among wideouts.
His most impressive statistic, however, occurred in the last game of the season and defined both the player on the field and the man off it.
With the Giants having been eliminated from playoff contention in Week 16 following a loss to Carolina and a Dallas win against Washington, New York went into Minnesota with nothing to play for but pride. The Vikings thoroughly out-played the Giants, winning 44-7, but Steve Smith still caught 10 tough passes for 57 yards, playing with the same intensity and emotion as he did in Super Bowl XLII.
Smith has developed into an elite possession receiver with velcro-grip hands and a great awareness of his surroundings. He runs over the middle of the field with total fearlessness and dances along the sidelines to make tiptoe catches in double coverage.
Furthermore, Smith has excellent horizontal and vertical elusiveness, and is one of the shiftiest wideouts in the league. He can burn two cornerbacks down the sideline for a jump ball or find a miniscule seam in the middle of the field after juking a defensive back to convert a third-and-10.
And he does this all with his head down.
Smith isn't the fastest WR in the NFL. He isn't the tallest or most athletic. With all the talk about Chad Ochocinco and T.O. and Miles Austin and the other Steve Smith, he isn't the most well-known either.
No, but Smith's superlatives are far more important.
He ranks among the best wide receivers in the league in fearlessness, awareness, humility, dependability, and perseverance, traits that have marked the physically and mentally strongest wide receivers to ever play this sport.
Maybe this year football fans will take notice of this sleeping Giant.