Few players in American sports are as connected to the word “misunderstood” as Steve Smith Sr., Baltimore’s volatile, funny, defiant, spiritual, trash-talking wide receiver. And yet, there’s no reason to misunderstand Smith; he, like so many, has an active Twitter account. He explains himself daily.
This is the first: Say what you want. Today, that lion is awake. And it ain’t nothing you or anybody else can do about it.”
And this is the second: “He will be our peace.”
* * *
Football, because it’s so good on television, offers illusions. Distance. But if you stand close when the wide receiver catches a football, you hear sounds. Unforgettable sounds. You hear shoulder pads and helmets and bodies crashing. You hear a compression of breath, like all the air in a tire being released at once. You hear grunts, groans, rasps, roars and a sound that might roughly be spelled “UUURRRGH.”. When the play ends, you might hear the “whoo” of the predator, or the defiant “first down!” of the prey.
Then, the wide receiver gets up, perhaps spins the football, and goes back to the huddle to do it all again.
To do this again and again – to run into the middle of a football highway, to lock your eyes on the ball and turn away from players the size of trucks closing in, to pull in the ball knowing that the next thing you see might be a doctor flashing a light into your eyes – it takes an audacity that’s hard to describe. Is insanity a better word?
Then, you stand close as Steve Smith walks off the field in Pittsburgh with his quarterback Joe Flacco … and there are no illusions left. Steve Smith is small. Ludicrously small. Flacco towers over Smith so completely, the scene conjures the image of a big brother taking a little brother for ice cream after the game.
Smith is small, and he walks with a slight limp, perhaps from the time his leg was snapped in half. He raises his arm (twice broken) to wave to someone. He turns to catch your eye, and maybe you see a few stray ghosts in his eyes from the concussions.
No illusions. Steve Smith Sr. is one of the great wide receivers in the history of the NFL. He pulled off this miracle with deep faith – faith in God, in himself, in the power of fury.
* * *
Steve Smith collects quotes. Here are four pulled from Steve Smith’s recent Twitter feed.
“Sometimes it’s to your advantage for people to think you’re crazy.”
— Thelonious Monk
“Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”
— Vincent van Gogh
“It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.”
— Mother Teresa
* * *
One more year, and Smith will get to 1,000 NFL catches. Think about that number for a minute. Steve Smith, all 5-foot-9 of him, all 185 pounds of him, all 35-plus years of him, will soon have 1,000 catches in the NFL. He has 915 now in the regular season, add another 56 in the playoffs, that’s 971 times that he has caught a football and endured the blurry moments that come after.
He doesn’t just catch footballs; he runs after. Only 13 players in NFL history have more than the 13,262 receiving yards Smith has rolled up. All 13 of those receivers were bigger than him. Many of the 13 were faster than him. It’s hard to imagine that any of the 13 had quite the series of devastating injuries – the broken neck, broken leg, the broken arm, the continuing concussions …
How has he done it? How has Steve Smith Sr. kept coming back — from the injuries, from the fights, from the doubts, from the knockout hits? How does he come back still? Less than a year ago, the Carolina Panthers – the only NFL team he’d ever had – cut him. He heard about it on the radio.
At first it seemed that the Panthers cut Smith because they thought he was finished as a good receiver. He quickly signed with Baltimore – Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome saw his hunger – and prepared to prove that he still had some game left in his body. Then, anonymous people with the Panthers clarified: They didn’t cut him because he couldn’t play. No, they cut him because he was too expensive. Then the anonymous people clarified again: They cut him because he was a divisive character and was preventing quarterback Cam Newton from becoming the team’s leader.
Each clarification stoked his rage; and Steve Smith was angry enough in the first place.
From the Twitter account: “Making this drive to Baltimore. If you think I had a chip on my shoulder, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
He caught seven passes for 118 yards and a touchdown in his first game with Baltimore. He caught 11 more passes over the next two weeks and then, Week 4, the one he was waiting for, he blitzed his old team, Carolina, scoring two touchdowns, and contrary to what anyone expected, he didn’t rub anyone’s face in it. He didn’t jaw at defenders like normal, didn’t even spin the football in the end zone like usual after those two touchdowns. He decided the best way to show his disdain was to show nothing.
“They didn’t even deserve me to spin the ball on them,” he said dismissively. “I just caught it and put it down and went about my business.”
In all, Smith became just the 13th receiver to go for over a 1,000 yards in a season after turning 35. Then, against Pittsburgh last week, he became just the third player his age to have a 100-yard receiving day in the playoffs – Cris Carter and Jerry Rice are the other two.
After the Steelers game, he was asked if his play inspired his teammates. He was asked if he could be the difference in the Ravens playoff game at New England Saturday. He was asked if he felt like he had once again proven the critics wrong.
He smiled slyly.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just got here.”
* * *
From Steve Smith’s Twitter feed:
“Every time u tell me I can’t, I won’t, or NO!!!! That fuels my YES I can, and I will!!!”
“Too many people want the fame. Without the journey, doesn’t work. Pack your bags if you really want it.”
“I’m glad God doesn’t treat me the way I act sometimes.”
* * *
Yes, he’s gotten into fights. A lot of fights. There was the time he broke teammate Ken Lucas’ nose in a fight (later, though, Smith gave Lucas the game ball he’d earned) and the fight in the dorm and the fight in the film room. Those were the ones that made the papers.
Then there were other, smaller fights, too many to count, several fights every game, he jawed with defenders, pushed back, pushed first, took an extra shot, trash-talked with anyone he thought was listening.
People think he’s that guy. Well, they’re right. He is that guy.
Then, yes, Smith is powerfully driven by his Christian faith. He says the church turned his life around. He reads the bible a lot. He reads inspirational prose. He spreads the word.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. Romans 8:28.”
“The further we are from God, the bigger your Goliath looks!!!”
“Mightier than the waves of the sea is His love for you.” Psalms 93:4.
Smith lives the life too. His family foundation works with children in need and, especially, with victims of domestic violence – this was an important cause to Smith long before the Ravens were dealing with Ray Rice. And he did not back down from the cause even while the Ravens were dealing with Ray Rice:
“You know it’s not that hard to get!!! Keep your damn hands off of women!!!! God made women for you to Lean on them, Not beat on them.”
He is that guy, too.
Smith contains multitudes. All he ever wanted to do when he was growing up in Los Angeles was become a football player. He had a lot of anger in him. He would tell ESPN’s David Newton: “When I was growing up, the people that had the greatest opportunity to lift me up, to tell me I could be anybody I wanted to be, I never heard (from). I never received it. … I felt like those people that could impact me most didn’t, so I couldn’t depend on anyone else.”
And he would tweet this: “Most of the time we quit when it gets too hard. Little do we know we are almost there. Don’t quit today!!!!!”
He had even more hunger than anger. He worked his way through Santa Monica College, a junior college a few miles West of LA, and he found his way to Utah, where he promptly became a star wide receiver and, in a moment that would foreshadow his career, promptly broke a vertebra in his neck returning a punt. He came back to play at Utah the next year and, while not quite as dazzling, showed enough drive and force to be a third-round pick in the NFL Draft by Carolina.
The rage never seemed to ease in him. It took him just a year to work his way into the starting lineup, and then in 2003 he had 1,110 yards receiving, was a huge threat as a punt and kick returner, and helped lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl. Then he broke his leg. So he clawed his way back up again, in 2005 he led the league in catches, receiving yards and touchdown receptions. And then there were more injuries. And he caught more footballs. And he got hurt more. And he caught more footballs.
* * *
From Steve Smith’s Twitter Account:
“What’s inside me is greater than any workout. I will look into the eyes of all my victims.”
“Why do I take things so personal? Why am I so intense? Because I seek greatness. You will not outwork me.”
“Feed your faith and your doubts will stave to death!!!”
* * *
Steve Smith isn’t much for explaining. People come up to him sometimes, and they say, “You’re not at all like the person you play on the football field.” People also come up to him sometimes and say, “You shouldn’t act the way you do on the field.”
He isn’t much for either exchange. This is who he had to become. He wanted to become a great receiver, a truly great one, and people just don’t know how ludicrous that was. He wasn’t born with Randy Moss’s body. He wasn’t given Terrell Owens athletic gifts.
People talk about how hard Jerry Rice worked – and Rice worked insanely hard – but Jerry Rice was five or six inches taller than Steve Smith, weighed 15 or 20 pounds more, had Joe Montana and Steve Young throwing to him. Do you know who Steve Smith’s quarterbacks have been before this year? Rodney Peete. Jake Delhomme. A 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde. Jimmy Clausen. The young Cam Newton.
Steve Smith Sr. – he’s been going with Senior ever since his son Stevonne Smith Jr. was born in July – has needed all of his passion and fury and faith and contradictions to play remarkable level.
He tweets: “When you’re pursuing greatness, you don’t know what your limits are and you act like you don’t have any.”
He tweets: “Do not go where the path may lead. But go where there is no path and Leave a trail.”
So, no, he doesn’t have time or patience for people who don’t understand, doesn’t have use for those who won’t feel with him. He’s still here, Steve Smith, now with a Sr. after his name, still emptying all his strength and belief and wrath on the football field after all these years. Here he is, still facing the double teams and the boos and the doubters and the safeties who will try, once and for all, to shut him up.
Only, Steve Smith Sr. won’t shut up.