I stand in a scrum in front of Steve Smith’s locker after Carolina’s dispiriting loss to Seattle Sunday and can’t think of a decent question to ask.
After everybody else leaves I tell Smith that if I can’t come up with a question maybe it’s time for me to walk away.
Smith says he sometimes feels the same way about football.
Can you really envision yourself leaving?
“You’d be surprised,” he says.
Smith is 33, and he’s playing his 12th season in the NFL and his 12th with the Panthers. He’s the team’s oldest player, a month older than defensive tackle Ron Edwards. In April he signed a three-year contract extension.
Carolina’s season and Sunday’s 16-12 loss are such that I can understand a player slamming a hand into his locker, sitting numbly in front of it or wondering if football is how he wants to make a living.
Smith had grounds to be frustrated. He was thrown 13 passes, nine more than any teammate and seven more than any Seahawk. He dropped the first. He caught four for a quiet 40 yards.
But we’d talked before the season about his legacy. It isn’t as if he hasn’t considered life after football before.
“I don’t feel like I have to be around the game,” Smith said Sunday.
He asks how he’s supposed to generate the passion football requires when life off the field is so good.
“For the first time, I’m at peace,” Smith says.
For the first time in your life, even when you were a kid?
He talks about where he came from.
“My life has always been chaotic,” he says.
Smith’s encounters with Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman Sunday were chaotic. On at least one play Smith didn’t exactly turn the other cheek. He might, however, have turned Sherman’s. You couldn’t describe what Smith did as blocking. It was more of a tackle/takedown/figure-four leglock.
Smith says Sherman was talking and taunting. Smith said he didn’t respond.
Off the field Smith says he’s found peace through his family. On Sunday Smith and his wife, Angie, would celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary. In front of his locker is a backpack with a card for her.
The gift is a bye-week trip to Los Angeles, and tickets to Cirque Soleil, and their three children staying in Charlotte.
“Just me and my girl,” Smith says.
He sits in front of his locker, seemingly in no rush to clean up. He looks around the room at some of the same signs and walls he’s been looking at since he was drafted in 2001.
“I enjoy it and I love it,” Smith says about his football ife.
But there’s also a post-season trip to Jerusalem and an opportunity to go to China.
And there’s the charity work that he says won’t end when his NFL career does. One of those charities is Charlotte-based Samaritan’s Feet, which provides shoes for children who lack them. His work is hands on. In Tampa, Fla., before Carolina’s season opener against the Buccaneers, Smith and Angie and their children washed the feet of children before fitting them with shoes.
Smith said when he stops playing he might try radio.
“Or maybe I’ll walk into the sunset,” he says, “and you’ll never hear from me again.”
When – after this season?
“I don’t know,” he says.