Steve Smith: Still Playing with a Chip on His Shoulder

David ScercyCorrespondent IJune 17, 2009

Throughout professional sports today, we see many examples of how greed can take over and play a prominent role in how athletes carry themselves on and off the playing field.

Most sports fans in the country today wake up to watch all the sports news we can before the day at the office begins. The headlines, especially in recent years, have us baffled at some of the actions of athletes who sign their contracts, then threaten holdouts and demand trades as their lives become unhappier. We, as fans, struggle to understand the reasons why athletes become so unhappy with their status.

There is no doubt that, behind the scenes, fans don’t know everything that goes on. Agents throughout the NFL go to battle for their clients, while general managers fight back with the organization in their best interest. It’s a war that gets played out behind closed doors, and when the news breaks that holdouts and trade demands are expected from athletes who are paid seven figures to play a game, the fans' initial reaction is anger. As a fan, we dream of looking the players in the eyes and telling them, “Just shut up and play ball.”

Carolina Panther fans are blessed to have one of the game’s top wide receivers on the roster, and even though his numbers become outrageous as the years go on, Steve Smith has never publicly threatened a holdout or demanded a trade from the team that drafted him.

It's often said that Smith plays the game with a chip on his shoulder. That is an understatement to say the least when we use this term to describe an athlete who screams with excitement after every catch, even the standard 12-yard post pattern that gives the team a first down. As a fan of the game, the emotion and energy that Smith plays with is addicting to watch.

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Growing up on the streets of Los Angeles, Smith was an only child to a single mother. He often went to work with his mother, Florence Young, who was a drug counselor. Smith was horrified at the addicts his mother counseled, and he credits those days at his mother's office for why he never ventured into a life of crime and drugs.

Smith lettered in football and track and field at University High School in Los Angeles. He played tailback and defensive back in football. In track and field, Smith excelled as a high hurdler and broke many school records. Smith also made a name for himself as an excellent triple jump and 300-meter hurdler.

Although his speed could have carried Smith to an Olympic career, Smith’s passion was in football. And in 1997, Smith graduated from high school with no scholarship offers from major universities. Many believed at 5’9”, Smith was too small to make an impact on the football field at the college level. That year, 1997, was when the chip began to form on Smith’s shoulder.

Smith decided to attend Santa Monica College. Smith and college teammate Chad Ocho Cinco were advised by Santa Monica football coach Robert Taylor to play for future Division-I scholarships and not for riches or fame. Taylor knew he had something special in the two outstanding athletes, and he took the opportunity to council his football stars and lead them in the right direction. During Smith’s two years at Santa Monica, he never missed one day of classes.

Smith’s hard work eventually paid off, and he was offered a scholarship to play at the University of Utah. Utah ignored Smith’s size, a move that ultimately paid off for the program, as well as Smith himself.

At Utah, Smith exploded as a wide receiver. He averaged an unbelievable 20.6 yards per catch. He learned how to catch balls in traffic and invited linebackers to hit him. He taunted linebackers and challenged them to defend him in the zone, rarely losing a fight for the ball. The chip was beginning to grow, and so was Smith’s confidence.

At the 2001 NFL Combine, Smith was described by many as the most “explosive” player in the building. His numbers ranked Smith high in most categories for wide receivers, but Smith wasn’t the fastest player as most people anticipated. He ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash. Although that number is staggering, Smith expected better.

Smith made enough noise that he was all but guaranteed to make an NFL roster as a rookie kick returner. With the 77nd overall pick in the third round, the Panthers drafted Smith.

As a rookie, Smith excelled on special teams as he returned seven kickoffs past 40 yards and returned two 99-yard touchdowns. As a punt returner, Smith had one touchdown. Smith received many accolades in 2001-02 for his special teams work, but his most astonishing achievement was being one of only two rookies to make the 2002 Pro Bowl.

Smith was becoming a star overnight, but he never threatened a holdout after his first season as an All Pro. He just kept playing.

During the next few years, Smith became recognized as one of the best receivers in the NFL. Although Smith became a role model in the Charlotte community with his work at the Carolina Panthers Courage House, a foundation dedicated to help abused and neglected children, he became best known for headlines he made on Nov. 10, 2002, when he had an altercation with fellow Panther teammate Anthony Bright, an altercation that left Bright with a broken nose and a two-night stay in the hospital. Smith was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault, and he later apologized and admitted to having a temper issue.

In 2005, Smith exploded with a year that included 103 catches, 1,563 yards, and 12 touchdowns. By this time, Smith was a three-time Pro-Bowl player, yet he never publicly complained about his role with the team or his contract. After the 2005 season, the Panthers rewarded Smith with a contract extension through 2012.

Although Smith’s current contract makes him one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL, he continues to play every down with the chip on his shoulder. The ball is never too high or too far out in front for Smith to attempt making a play on it. At 5’9”, Smith continues to prove doubters wrong every time he takes the field.

In a world of economic struggles and superstar greed, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith carries the advice of former college coach Robert Taylor with him every day. He also continues to carry that chip around with him, a chip that encourages Smith every time he takes the field to just “shut up and play football.” And boy does he do that so well.


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