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No Longer a Fight Risk

Smith always had great hands, but as a young player in the Southland he often used them for punching, not catching

January 20, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

The breakaway speed and ever-present big-play capability.

The impetuous behavior.

The clutch performances.

Marshall Jones and Robert Taylor saw it all long ago from Steve Smith, the swift, sure-handed wide receiver who has helped push the Carolina Panthers to within one victory of their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons.

They marveled at his ability long before he caught 12 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 29-21 playoff victory over the Chicago Bears.

Jones and Taylor nurtured the Los Angeles native through his formative football years, before he was an All-Mountain West Conference return specialist at Utah and a third-round pick of the Panthers in the 2001 draft.

Before he was the only rookie picked for the Pro Bowl in 2002.

Before he beat up a teammate so badly a few months later that the injuries ended Anthony Bright's NFL career.

Before he turned a short pass into a 69-yard touchdown in the second overtime of an NFC divisional playoff game against the St. Louis Rams two years ago, landing the Panthers in the NFC championship game on their way to their first Super Bowl appearance.

Before he became the focal point of the Panther offense this season after sitting out 2004 because of a broken leg, leading the NFL with 1,563 yards receiving and 12 touchdown catches and sharing comeback-player-of-the-year honors with linebacker Tedy Bruschi of the New England Patriots.

Before the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith became "the best offensive player in the league," as linebacker Brian Urlacher of the Bears called him Sunday.

They knew him as Stevonne, before he shortened his name.

Jones coached Smith at University High in West Los Angeles, where Smith was "a little guy faster than all dickens," his coach said, but a reluctant participant one gray December afternoon when rain soaked the practice field.

A two-way starter on a team that unexpectedly reached the City 3A division semifinals in 1996, Smith was an All-City wide receiver but made a greater impact as an aggressive free safety who led the team in tackles for loss.

Taylor coached Smith at Santa Monica College, where Smith worked at a nearby Taco Bell after practice to make ends meet. Smith, who signed a $26-million contract extension in 2004, might still be stuffing burritos if he hadn't overcome a penchant for trading punches with teammates, eventually developing into a second-team All-Western State Conference receiver and earning a scholarship to Utah.

"If you had asked me when he was in high school if I thought he could make it to where he is now," Jones said this week, "I'd have probably told you it was an extremely long shot just because he was a little guy. I don't know if he weighed 150 pounds as a senior."

Smith, bused to University from his home in the Athens Park neighborhood in South Los Angeles, was so small as a freshman, Jones said, it was difficult fitting him into a helmet that didn't rattle around his head.

"Very few kids wear a small helmet," Jones said, "and I had to put the largest pads possible into a small helmet just to get it to fit him."

But he was always fast and quick, Jones said, and in his only varsity season Smith showed off the game-changing ability that would become his hallmark. In one game, his coach recalled, Smith scored all three of the Warriors' touchdowns -- on a long pass reception, a reverse and a kickoff return. And in a triple-overtime victory over Bell in a playoff quarterfinal, he intercepted a pass in the end zone in the first overtime, blocked a potential game-winning field-goal attempt in the second and blocked another field-goal attempt in the third.

"He was an explosive, explosive player," Jones said.

The coach described the Smith he knew as "spirited and outgoing

But Smith still found a way to try his coach's patience.

On the Monday after University had reached the playoff semifinals, Smith didn't want to practice because it was raining. Reluctantly, he finally agreed to participate, but not before carrying an umbrella onto the field and announcing to his coaches that he wanted to be switched from safety to cornerback.

"It's funny now," Jones said, "but then it drove me nuts."

Smith, his high school grades so poor that he didn't even bother taking college-entrance exams, left his umbrella behind but retained his practice-disrupting ways when he showed up at Santa Monica College in the summer of 1997.

By Taylor's count, he got into seven fights in four months.

"Every week, just about," said Eugene Sykes, another former Santa Monica receiver and Smith's teammate for two seasons. "He was just so intense about the game. If a new receiver came to the school and he wasn't working hard, he'd get on him real quick. And a lot of people didn't know that was just his passion for the game. ... That's how he ended up in a lot of fights."

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