Wide receiver Steve Smith retired from the NFL today. He'll end his career with 14,731 yards receiving and 83 touchdowns (plus 4 more on kickoff and punt returns), making him a lock for the Hall-of-Fame. But while fans will remember his exploits on the gridiron, I'll never forget the afternoon in late 2007, when he swaggered into the media room at Bank of America stadium, eating chicken wings from a Styrofoam container, looking damn annoyed to be sitting down with me for a one-on-one interview for an inspirational magazine.
I was still a relatively young reporter. Interviews were never my strong suit, they certainly weren't back then. So I was a bit nervous to speak with a guy known for often cursing out the press. Especially when the Panthers media representative warned me as we walked in, "Steve's not in the best mood today."
I told myself I had nothing to be nervous about. My publication featured true, inspirational stories--"puff pieces" in the industry parlance. I hadn't flown down from New York to Charlotte to ask any "gotcha" questions or make Steve look bad. I'd come to get Steve's story about how he'd matured-- from a rookie who had come into the league with a chip on his shoulder and sparred with teammates, into a respected team leader and all-pro. He'd previously spoken with the 700 Club, on the Christian Broadcasting Network, about his faith. My magazine wanted to know more about that.
Steve intimidated me from the start. Only 5'9" 185 pounds (I'm 6'0" and 200), he nonetheless seemed to tower over me. The guy was on my fantasy football team, and now I was actually meeting him. I tried warming him up with some small talk, some compliments. Then it occurred to me that he had better places to be on his day off. I got down to business. What was behind his transformation? What made him into a leader, a guy his teammates had voted team captain?
"I found Jesus," he told me.
I waited for him to elaborate. He didn't. I needed a bit more than that to write a story.
I tried a few different approaches. How did he find Jesus? Was there a specific moment that led him to believe? A mentor who introduced him to faith? After his rookie season, was there an experience he had which helped him re-evaluate what was important in his life? What came just before, just after? How did he change? "I found Jesus," he said, again.
I moved on, asked a few more questions, then circled back to ask him, "Steve, a lot of our readers would love to hear more about how you found Jesus.... what do you mean by that?"
He got angry. "I think we're done here," he said, glaring at me with a fierceness I thought he reserved only for opposing cornerbacks, pushing his chair away from the table with enough force that even the chicken bones in his Styrofoam tray quivered. I attempted to explain that I was just trying to get the details that would help readers understand his story.
"I can't explain it to you," he said. "Do you believe in Jesus?"
On the interview tape, there are a few painful seconds of silence in which I internally debated telling Steve that I am, in fact, Jewish, though I respect the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and humbly admit I have no way of knowing the truth, though I went to a Methodist high school and sat in chapel every week listening to the choir and Reverend Murphy... But... I caught the Panthers media rep in the corner of my eye, staring at me, gently nodding yes.
"Yes, I believe in Jesus," I said.
Steve sat back down. We continued the interview for about 10 more minutes. He didn't give me much to go on, and my magazine never ran the story. It would have been published just about the time Steve punched his teammate Ken Lucas in the face.
Looking back, I can't say I blame Steve for stonewalling me. I didn't understand back then that the apparent contradictions in his story--his aggressiveness on the field and his strong faith--weren't contradictions at all. That the real story wasn't how he'd "matured," but how he'd reconciled those parts of himself.
The only way a 5'9" 185 pound guy can become a Hall-of-Famer in a league dominated by modern-day gladiators is to become fierceness personified. To play with unrelenting anger. Soften up for a minute out there, and you're done. But while Steve Smith clashed with teammates and the media, he found a way to keep that fierceness from bleeding too far outside the lines and destroying his life and career.
Plenty of athletes claim to believe in God. But it's not just for appearances that Steve washes the feet of the homeless and has said that in retirement, he wants to continue his active role in a charity that provides footwear to those in need.
In his last game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Steve matched up against Pacman Jones and had a quiet day, 3 catches for 34 yards. The two have tussled for years on the field, fighting over every yard. But outside the lines, they couldn't be further apart. Two days after the game, Pacman would assault a police officer and spit on a nurse, most likely blowing his fifteenth chance in the NFL, after previously beating several women and shooting a man who became paralyzed for life.
Steve, meanwhile, seeks a more humble existence. "Can I play another year?’ I probably could, but what I lose, I’m not willing to risk," Steve told the media after the game. "You know playing this game and expectations that are expected from you, it’s a lot of pressure... The pressure that I’ll have now is getting the kids to school on time, do I eat a pint of ice cream or a gallon of ice cream?"
Now that sounds like someone who found Jesus. Even if he never wants to quite explain how.