Ice Up, No. 89 – It’s Been an Awesome Run


HMP
HMP

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.

By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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!”

By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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!”

steve smith2
By Keith Allison from Baltimore, USA (Steve Smith) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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!”

hamilton
photo credit: phil dokas via photopin cc

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.

Exhale.

# # #

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?

smitty quote

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39 Replies to “Ice Up, No. 89 – It’s Been an Awesome Run”

  1. I’ve never followed a team in any sports Eli. *gasp* I have a great respect for Grace however in standing her ground and getting the autographs, flickering eyelashes will do it every time.

  2. I was waiting to see if Heath Miller would be re-signed with Pittsburgh. He’s not a favorite of all time, but he’s part of the team as my kid knows it.

    Great memories in this post!

  3. I was a Radio Guy for about 15 years….I smoked a fattie with Willie Nelson on his bus, gave Hank Williams, Jr my autograph, stood back stage with Garth Brooks and talked like we were old friends (just the two of us) and some other stuff.

    Terrific story, Eli!

      1. I told the Willie-Joint story once in a post. I may just have to conjure up some old memories about those days and make a story about ’em.

        Or write a song. 😀

  4. So…you working on a book yet? Good for Grace. Rock on, girl! We’ll see how he fares as a Raven. I’ll be watching for sure. I particularly love, “Sometimes, it’s just time to say good bye.” A perfect message! Thank you.

    1. I have some lines scribbled in a steno pad, actually – not sure it can be rightly called a book, but it probably would like to be someday.

      I don’t care for the Ravens, but I’d root for Steve Smith.

      Yeah, sometimes it’s just time. But the hole someone like this leaves is pretty significant. You don’t realize until you try and fill it, I think.

  5. he sounds like a great guy and every so often, there is an athlete like that. for me it was steve yzerman, always the nice guy, always gave back to the city. fair with the media and generous with fans. loyal as hell. ps – just to show how old i am, when my friend was a t-ball coach and i went to the games, alex karras was a father who stood in the shadows to watch his child play on the team. (and not easy for such a big guy to stand in the shadows i must say)

    1. He wasn’t without flaws, but I’ll always admire his courage and heart. You want this guy on your team. Steve Yzerman was such a great guy, he should have even played for the Colorado Avalanche.

      Alex Karras was quite the imposing figure. I know players today are bigger and maybe stronger; but give me guys like guys like Merlin Olson, Fred Dryer and Alex Karras blocking for me any day of the week.

  6. I don’t follow pro football much so I didn’t know Steve Smith but I loved reading your interactions with him! He sounds like the kind of example that we all want these guys to be for our kids!!!

  7. These are some stories!
    I love good job stories. Mine were kinda lousy last week.
    I don’t really have any favorite players at all, but I’m feeling this one!

  8. Patrick Roy. The Montreal Canadians.
    I’m still not ready to talk about it.
    And don’t even get me started on the Great One and Edmonton.
    So wounds never heal.

    1. You’re right about wounds not healing. And I won’t bring up Patrick Roy, because without him, we’d have never won the Cup. And Wayne Gretzky in Kings black and silver felt like seeing Jesus in an oakland raiders jersey.

      and I’m American.

  9. I’ll admit I didn’t know who Steve Smith was when he signed with the Ravens, but my son and husband do. And I’m glad to hear he is one of your favorites. Every year we have to say goodbye to some of our favorite players and hope some of the new ones fill the holes they left.

    But for me, as a football fan mostly because my family is, to hear stories of Smith as a man who you’d want on his team – that’s good enough for me.

    1. You are not going to have a grittier player than Steve Smith. The dude is as real as it gets. Free agency makes it tough to get attached to your team’s stars like you once could.

      I think if your kid wants an 89 jersey – you can feel safe about it. I know I would.

    1. Thanks Michelle! Some athletes realize that one moment a kid has with them will shape how they feel about them – and they’ll tell everyone about it.

      Or their dad will blog about it.

  10. You AND Radio Chick with your sports posts! You know I heard the “teacher noise” from the Charlie Brown specials, right? I am a proud sports spaz and did my best to follow along here. We (New Orleans) would be very upset to lose Drew Brees down here but time dictates that that’s probably coming soon. Does this mean I actually understand something you wrote about sports, Eli? (Please nod your head.)

    Thanks for always linking up with KetchupWithUs. See you again on the 1st! 🙂

  11. I’ve already used up my one staple response to a football post. What do I say here, Eli? WHAT DO I SAY?

    WHERE THE HELL IS MEL WITH HER FANCY PIGSKIN LINGO?!!?

    Thanks for linking up with Ketchup. Keep on Ketching up with Us. Next up? May 1st!

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