CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As a rookie out of Utah three years ago, Steve Smith wanted to be more than a returner. So he became an All-Pro returner. In his sophomore season, he wanted to be more than a fill-in receiver. So when Patrick Jeffers suffered a career-ending knee injury, the 5-foot-9-inch Smith, who grew up in a tough neighborhood of central Los Angeles, became a starter.
He was a decent starter (54 receptions, three touchdowns, and a 16.1-yard average per catch) but he had problems with running routes, and he had to deal with problems off the field.
There was the issue of beating up a practice squad receiver, Anthony Bright, in the film room following a loss to Tampa Bay Nov. 17, 2002, which resulted in Bright being hospitalized with a broken nose. While the receivers and position coach Richard Williamson were watching game video, the coach twice replayed a mistake Smith had made. Bright asked that the play be shown a third time. Reportedly, Smith turned on Bright and lost it. Smith was ordered into anger management counseling by the Panthers and suspended for the next game against Atlanta.
Smith has mellowed, though he has had two other incidents this season. One came late in a game against Houston Nov. 2, when he felt Texans defensive end Jerry Deloach was intentionally twisting his ankle in a pileup. Smith kicked the player in the head and drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. He was fined $7,500 by the league. Also, after the Panthers started 3-0, Smith spoke out against management for not taking care of him with a contract extension as it had defensive lineman Kris Jenkins.
Yet Smith seems to have moved on. He had a breakout season, catching 88 passes for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns, and proving a quality bookend to Muhsin Muhammad.
In his first playoff game, a 29-10 win over Dallas last Saturday, Smith caught five balls for 135 yards. He caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme and embarrassed Cowboys rookie cornerback Terence Newman to tears in their man-to-man battles.
"I don't want to be a one-season wonder. I want to play a long time and hopefully make it to the Hall of Fame one day," Smith said. "But going to the Hall and being one of the greatest receivers doesn't happen overnight. Especially after one good season."
Married and a father of two, Smith has certainly showed maturity. He used to engage in what many Panthers observers called "over-celebration" after a big catch or return. Now, he simply hands the ball to the official.
He has showed no fear as a returner, which led to his opportunity as a starting receiver. Smith was the only rookie voted to the 2001 Pro Bowl after returning two kickoffs for touchdowns (one for 99 yards) and a punt for a score. Last season he returned two punts for scores, one for 87 yards. Smith's special teams duties were scaled back this season, but he still managed to add another punt return for a touchdown.
"It's real satisfying," said Smith of his new role. "All the hard work is paying off. I can't be satisfied completely yet because it's not over yet. I can't go around and think that all of a sudden I've arrived. You just have to play and at the same time enjoy myself and have fun. I think that's the thing I'm learning from my rookie year. In my rookie year, I was ready to do this and ready to do that, but now I'm just worried about doing my job and have fun and absorb it all.
"You kind of get tired of being all emotional all of the time. Off the field, I'm real private and reserved. I'm just trying to let that seep into the field. You get hit by these guys, you have to have fire inside, but now I just let it go and go back and sit down and think about the things I need to do, run the plays over in my head. And if you do that, you don't have time to think about anything else."
He remembers impatience almost eating him up inside.
"I wanted to play receiver. Like most rookies, you want to come in and do everything now," Smith said. "You have to learn to wait. Even going into my second year, I still wanted to do everything. That was part of my problem -- I didn't want to have to wait for anything. I was in a hurry. Now it's, `I'll get to it when I get to it.' I need to relax. Everything will come to me in time. I can't press it. Because if I press it, like trying to get that extra yard and somebody knocks the ball out, or add a little extra to my route and the quarterback's not expecting it and he gets picked off, then what have I done?"
The impatience and anger were replaced by determination. Like on Saturday night, when the Cowboys decided to cover Smith man to man. The younger Smith would have taken that as a slap in the face. This year he's taken it as a challenge.
"I got more determined," Smith said. "I always knew I was a receiver. I was always sure about what I wanted to do. I worked hard to get what I wanted. I wasn't going to go back home to where I left. I didn't know when or where it was going to come, but I knew it was going to come."
He does not consider himself a big name yet. He knows that will come with more strong postseason performances. Tomorrow afternoon, a national audience will see the Panthers, NFC South champions, front and center in St. Louis. They are a team that in the past has made news for all the wrong reasons, such as Rae Carruth's murder trial or the death of running back Fred Lane, who was shot by his wife in a domestic dispute.
"We're the only team in our division to make the playoffs," Smith said. "That should tell you something right there. The NFL has quality guys, and I'm just trying to get into that. I just wanted to do it myself. Just make changes in general. Biggest thing now is, I don't worry about how fans perceive me, but I just worry about going home to explain to my kids when they ask, `Daddy, why did you do this and why did you do that?' "
When asked about the bad karma and misjudgments in Carolina the past few years, Smith said, "You can't think about the past and you can't live in the past. If you do, the present is going to pass you by."
Right now he's passing defensive backs at an impressive clip.