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Playing With Fire
NUNYO DEMASIO
June 12, 2006
The intensity that made Carolina's Steve Smith an All-Pro wideout has also earned him a reputation as a hothead. He's trying hard to harness the heat
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June 12, 2006

Playing With Fire

The intensity that made Carolina's Steve Smith an All-Pro wideout has also earned him a reputation as a hothead. He's trying hard to harness the heat

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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 s.

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 L.A."

Last October, 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."

Neatly displayed 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 the others."

Ten receivers 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."

Smith's greatest 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."

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