Sometimes, it’s just time to say goodbye.
It’s often not productive to try and figure out why when someone lets you go. Last week, the Carolina Panthers said goodbye to wide receiver Steve Smith, after 13 seasons. Some say he was a problem in the locker room.
Some critics feel he would have made too much money ($7 million) for a receiver his age (34). His fans say his inner fire and competitive spirit are irreplaceable.
Why he’s gone isn’t important. We now have to balance filling the void and appreciating that he was here in the first place.
My Mt. Rushmore of athletes who had an impact on me would include Steve Smith.
I grew up as a sportswriter with Steve Smith quotes in my notebook. For reasons I’ll keep to myself, I believe my gender and race helped me establish a sense of trust with Steve Smith. I’ll leave it at that.
Steve Smith’s daughter’s team played Marie’s team in soccer. He watched, incognito. He was just a dad, watching his kid. Like me.
Steve Smith signed a three-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens about 24 hours after Carolina cut him. He’ll do OK. He gave me unforgettable stories. I want to share a few.
2. “It’s 2 o’clock, people!”
Carolina granted media 60 minutes of access to players on Wednesdays, after practice. In typical media fashion, we often took 65.
Steve Smith quit interviews at 1:59. He’d snarl at the gaggle of middle-aged white men in loose-fit Dockers with their pens and notebooks. “It’s 2 o’clock, people!” he’d bark. Teammates cornered for questions would laugh and take his cue.
Writers would file out to their laptops.
In later seasons, Smith used an air horn to speak for him at 2 p.m.
Writers once cornered Smith at his locker. He looked up to see the clock tick to 2. He pursed his lips and listened to the overtime questions. One dude piped up on his behalf.
“It’s 2 o’clock people!” I yelled. Smith laughed, then hugged me. “Yeah!” he said. “it’s 2 O’CLOCK!” The writers snarled on their way out. At me, this time.
2. “It’s part of your job, man!”
I once wrote a weekly Panthers report. It included key matchups, analysis, and a prediction. I’d avoid all local media all week. No newspaper, sports radio, even water-cooler talk. I wanted to give unbiased coverage.
I approached cornerback Ken Lucas at his locker. Ken was a favorite. He always greeted me with a handshake and remembered my name. He was genuine thought and eye contact. This time, it was wide-open eye contact.
Like, social mishap wide, even.
“Ken, can I ask you about your matchup this week?”
Ken looked around. I felt the heat of TV cameras behind me and the rude nudge of the print media crowd as he stood. “Um, I …” he stammered. From three lockers down, Steve Smith stood and spoke. “I told you, man,” Smith said. “I told you.”
I wish someone had told me.
Steve Smith told Ken Lucas it was part of his job to talk to writers. “You just have to do your job,” he said. “Just like he is.” He pointed at me. I nodded like I knew what the hell was going on.
“You don’t have to like it. Hell, I don’t like it. But it’s what we have to do.”
Everyone got their Ken Lucas quotes – and a few of the fellas thanked me.
“Good job man,” said those who didn’t know who the hell I was.
“Way to get him to talk,” said the ones who I thought knew my name, but didn’t.
Ken Lucas had boycotted the media. Because I had too, I didn’t know. He was unhappy that a newspaper made a headline of a quote of his out of context. I had no idea. So I apologized to Ken.
That’s when Ken thanked me.
“I’ve been praying on this,” he said. “I didn’t want to stay silent. It was a rash decision. But how do you tell the media you’ll talk again? How do you say that when you aren’t talking to them? So, you helped me out. Thanks.”
Thank you, too, Steve Smith.
3. “That was awesome!”
Years caught up with Steve Smith’s legs. They couldn’t touch the scrappy part of him.
A rookie squared off with Smith during a preseason game. Once, Smith beat the kid for a big catch. He spun the ball on the grass at the rookie’s feet and roared something that began with F.
Later, Carolina threw Smith’s way again. This time, the kid stepped in front and beat Smith to the punch.
Smith tackled him, and the first of many scuffles between the two broke out.
If barbecue is a staple of Carolina tailgate parties, dustups with defenders are a staple of Steve Smith game days.
I expected vitriol, anger, harsh words from the rookie in my postgame interview. I got a kid in just his football pants and a smile.
“That,” he said, “was awesome!” He spoke of the honor of a matchup with someone he called a sure hall of famer. “He got me once, and it was sweet,” he said, shaking his head. “And I got him, too. Awesome.”
He slammed his palms on his knees and got up to shower.
4. “You better get your money!”
For FanFest, the Panthers let writers bring their kids into the press box during a preseason scrimmage. After a spilled Coke and hot dogs at press level, the girls and I headed to the field.
They brought pens and balls to collect autographs before the public at large could reach the players. My girls went from Cam Newton to D’Angelo Williams to Jon Beason with Sharpies in hand.
They reached Steve Smith as he made his way to the stands, where thousands of fans yelled for him. They strained against each other to shove footballs toward their favorite receiver.
One got wise.
“Kid,” the guy said to Grace. “I’ll give you 10 bucks if you get Smitty to sign this ball!”
She delivered, and a second guy with a second 10-dollar bill made the same offer. Grace delivered again.
Her next attempt aroused Smith’s suspicion.
He took the ball, and glared at Grace. She gave him that look I knew well. Hands caught in the cookie jar. Feet caught in fountains. Cash caught in transit.
I should mention Steve Smith isn’t a fan of those who sell his autograph.
I should mention Steve Smith, 5-foot-9, bristles at autograph requests of anyone taller than him.
And I should mention Steve Smith has punched a teammate. Twice.
“Sorry Steve,” I intervened. “I think people are paying her to get your autograph.”
Grace maintained her “hope you find this irresistible” doe-eyed look.
Steve Smith handed Grace the football.
“You better go get your money!” he said.
# # #
Steve Smith: I’m no NFL general manager. But I have won a couple of fantasy football titles. Without you on my roster, but that’s neither here nor there. I would take you on my team any day. As a receiver, or as a dad.
Sometimes, I guess it’s just time to say goodbye.
Thanks for being here in the first place.
# # #
Has your team ever parted ways with a favorite player?
How did you feel about it?