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He Name Him

Who is Rod Smith? Carolina's special teams don't need a bio to recognize the ex-XFL player known as 'He Hate Me'

September 28, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Ah, those three little words. Fans long to hear them. Rod Smart longs to say them. So every time the Carolina Panther special-teams player is asked for an autograph, he proudly scrawls them next to his name:

"He Hate Me."

That's what Smart wore on the back of his jersey when he was playing for the XFL's Las Vegas Outlaws, and it's still how he's best known, now that he's making plays for the undefeated Panthers, who arguably have the best special-teams units in the NFL.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Smart said at the suggestion. "The best in the world."

Why stop there? Statistics show that kick-blocking numbers are down throughout the rest of the solar system this season. But not in Carolina, where the Panthers have blocked five in two games, matching the best start since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

Smart, an undrafted running back from Western Kentucky who failed to make a Canadian Football League roster, has found a home with the Panthers (2-0), who play host to Atlanta today.

Signed shortly before the 2002 opener, Smart led the Panthers in special-teams tackles last season and showed enough promise as a returner and running back that Carolina cut Pro Bowl returner Michael Bates and reserve running back Dee Brown, who started four games last season.

In this season's opener, Smart helped the Panthers overcome a 17-0 deficit against Jacksonville with two big plays in the second half. He returned a kickoff 43 yards to set up one touchdown and blocked a punt that resulted in a safety in the fourth quarter.

The next week, the Panthers pulled off a stunning 12-9 upset at Tampa Bay by blocking two field-goal attempts and an extra-point try. In that game, Smart had a pair of special-teams tackles and downed a punt at the Buccaneer three.

"He's really developing," said Scott O'Brien, who coaches special teams for the Panthers. "This game isn't for the faint of heart, and Rod will lay it on the line. You're either an 18-wheeler or a Volkswagen out there. Rod is an 18-wheeler most of the time."

That figures. Smart knows all about moving vans. He was signed by San Diego as a rookie free agent in 2000 and released three weeks later. He moved on to the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos, but, again, didn't make it past training camp.

"I was thinking, 'Man, am I just sorry?' " he said. "It's not like they had any outstanding backs in Canada. I thought I had competed real good. I guess they thought otherwise."

That's when the XFL came along and gave him new hope. Smart landed a tryout with Las Vegas and wound up as the league's second-leading rusher -- 555 yards in 146 carries -- and the Outlaws' most prolific receiver.

He was better known, though, as "He Hate Me," a spur-of-the-moment nickname that turned out to be a brilliant way to promote himself.

"It's self-explanatory," Smart said. "Go out there, beat your man and make him hate you. At the same time, you've got to have fun doing it."

He thought about putting Hot Rod on his XFL jersey, the nickname he had at Lakeland High in Florida, or maybe The Rocket, in honor of Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, his favorite player. But "He Hate Me" stuck.

"It was something new and different," Smart said. "Like, 'Who is this guy?' And then my performance made it spark even more. Marketing myself like that paid off."

He heard his share of taunts. A favorite of lava-lunged fans: "I hate you, He Hate Me!"

When the Outlaws played the Los Angeles Xtreme, two L.A. linebackers wore jerseys reading "I Hate He" and "I Hate He Too."

"They were trying to mimic me," Smart said. "I don't remember their names. I don't even know where those guys are now."

After the XFL folded, Smart went back to his college to stay in shape and lived on what was left of his salary -- $7,000 for each victory, $4,500 for each loss. He was signed to Philadelphia's practice squad in 2001 and appeared in six games for the Eagles later that season.

The Panthers claimed him on waivers last September, days before their opener. He played in all 16 games and made a special-teams-leading 24 tackles.

He wears his real name on the back of his jersey now, but he stands out in a crowd when he removes his helmet. He hasn't cut his hair in more than 18 months, so his Afro is at least six inches long.

He's built like a pro football player, so people often approach him and ask his name. When he says Rod Smart, he's met with blank stares. But when he says He Hate Me, instant recognition.

"You can see the light bulb go on in their heads," he said.

All that tickles his mother. It never bothered her that her son didn't go by his real name when he was in the XFL.

"That's who he is," Valerie Smart said. "He's so crazy."

Makes sense that a mom would say that. She Love He.

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