In the 2004
season opener Smith broke his left fibula. His season was over, and his long
recuperation gave him plenty of time for introspection. "That really made
me look in the mirror, when I lost what I loved," says Smith. "It was
like, Come on, Smitty. Wake up."
A more mature
player emerged after a season away from the game. "Getting hurt helped him
grow up so much," Minter says. "He realized football would go on if he
wasn't on the field. Now he's at that point where he's a veteran guy that we
can call one of our leaders."
Driving home from
a photo shoot at the Panthers' facility on a spring day, Smith pilots his BMW
Li past sprawling fields where horses saunter. His 7,800-square-foot house in a
suburb of Charlotte sits on a quiet cul-de-sac; a black gate guards the
entrance to his drive, with two white pillars, each engraved with a black
From his backyard
Smith watches a neighbor's horses grazing. "In the morning I get a little
gust of wind, and [the smell is] just as potent as coffee," he says,
laughing. But the trade-off is worth it. "You wake up and sometimes see
them galloping. That's a cool little sight. I didn't see that growing up in
during a bye week, Smith returned to his hometown. Drawn by an urge to connect
with his past, he pulled his rented Range Rover into the parking lot of a Taco
Bell on the corner of Pico and Bundy--the same fast-food joint where he worked
during high school and college, earning $5.50 an hour preparing burritos,
running the cash register and mopping floors--"multitasking," he quips.
For 15 minutes Smith, who's entering the second year of a six-year, $26.5
million contract, watched as cashiers took orders and a worker swept the
drive-through lane. As a teenager Smith would go to classes in the morning,
work a three-hour midday shift, then return for another shift after football
practice. "I was proud of that," says Smith. "I still am. That job
paid for my senior prom, my tennis shoes, my socks. I learned that if you want
something, you have to work for it."
in the basement of Smith's house are prized mementos of his football labors.
There's the number 89 jersey he wore as a rookie special-teamer in the 2002 Pro
Bowl, after a season in which he returned two kickoffs and one punt for
touchdowns. And there's the Panthers uniform bearing the patch from Super Bowl
XXXVIII, in which he caught four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in
Carolina's 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots. But Smith's favorite relic
is the football that commemorates his first NFL touchdown reception, a
14-yarder during a Sept. 22, 2002, victory over the Minnesota Vikings. "I
came in known as an undersized receiver who was never going to make it,"
Smith explains, "so I had to get that [touchdown] before I could get all
were drafted ahead of Smith in 2001, and scouts considered him too small to be
anything more than a returner. But they failed to account for his will.
"What I see now on Sunday--breaking tackles and doing all that
craziness--he was doing in junior college," says Chad Johnson. "He was
a dog on the field and hungry about the game."
"His body and
mind are tremendously competitive, as good as anybody I've ever been
around," says offensive coordinator Dan Henning, who has coached in the NFL
for 27 years. "If you're going to beat him, you're going to have to fight
him to the death because he seems willing to go that far."
Smith also has
physical abilities envied by many receivers: a 40-inch vertical leap, great
hands (he dropped just six passes last year), quickness and agility. After
recovering from the broken leg, Smith ran a 4.38 in the 40. Following his first
practice with Smith, new Panther Keyshawn Johnson was impressed. "I was
like my little daughter looking at Allen Iverson on the basketball court. I
knew he was good but was amazed at some of the things he's able to do."
weapon may be his ability to run with the ball. Last season he led the NFL with
7.9 yards after the catch. According to the Panthers, on 33 of his 103
receptions he caught the ball within two yards of the line of scrimmage, but
those 33 catches ended up going for a total of 400 yards. "He lives on
after-the-catch," Henning says. "You give him the ball on a quick pass,
and all of a sudden everybody's holding their asses."