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Each off-season for five years wide receiver Steve Smith has gone to the base of a 100-foot sand dune in Southern California, pulled off his shoes and socks, surveyed the ascending line of orange traffic cones, dug the balls of his feet into the granular surface and run fly patterns uphill.
The first time, as a junior at USC trying to keep pace with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Falcons linebacker Coy Wire, Smith finished two sprints up the dune, skipped the third and threw up after the fourth. ("The secret to climbing Sand Dune Park," says Polamalu, "is to never look up.")
When Smith runs the dune now—he can go up to 90 minutes before quitting—he mostly blends in with other locals who are exercising and sunbathing. On the occasion he is recognized, though, it is for his play against crosstown rival UCLA and not his first two seasons in the NFL.
"I told him," says Matt Kerstetter, Smith's strength and speed trainer, "if they're still thinking of you as a USC Trojan and not a New York Giant, you haven't made it yet."
Now comes Smith's chance. Eighteen months after exceptional play by the Giants' pass catchers keyed the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLII, the team's receiver corps is younger and largely unproven. The wideout with the biggest opportunity is the 5'11", 195-pound Smith, a third-year player whose latest challenge is an uphill run at replacing Plaxico Burress.
After Burress accidentally shot himself in the thigh in a New York City nightclub last November, the franchise seemed to buckle and shift course. One of the most prolific quarterback-receiver combinations in the NFL had been shattered, a fact that was never clearer than in the Giants' divisional playoff loss to the Eagles last January. Without the 6'5" Burress, Eli Manning threw for 169 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Though Burress was released by the team in April, the reverberations from the shooting remain. Last Thursday, as players completed their morning workout at training camp in Albany, word spread that Burress had pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon and faced two years in prison. The news was a reminder of what the Giants had lost and what their remaining receivers had to achieve.
"When I think about what he threw away just by making some poor choices, hopefully it's a lesson for the rest of our players," said Giants co-owner John Mara. "He was part of the family, and I know a lot of the players are hurting right now."
Defensive end Justin Tuck said of Burress, "He's one of the reasons I can say I'm a Super Bowl champion."
Smith played in that game too, lining up in the slot and catching five passes for 50 yards—a sidebar to David Tyree's miraculous football-to-helmet catch and Burress's game-winning touchdown reception. When he heard about Burress's plea bargain, Smith, carrying a Styrofoam platter out of the camp cafeteria, bowed his head slightly. "I think they wanted to set an example, which sucks," said Smith, who was held up at gunpoint in front of his house in Clifton, N.J., and robbed of cash and jewelry just days before the Burress incident. "He did something to himself. He didn't hurt anybody else."