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Who's Sorry Now?

Charlotte Observer

IF YOU DIDN'T know what happened , you'd never guess that Ken Lucas had a broken nose a dozen weeks ago.

There's no scar tissue. Neither of his nostrils sits sideways. The bridge looks as it does in the year-old head shot from the Panthers' media guide.

"Here," the cornerback says after a recent win over the Saints. As he stands in front of his locker, he makes a quick head turn to the right, revealing his profile. "Make sure you get my best side."

Lucas glances six stalls down to a crowd of TV cameras, recorders and elbow-throwing sportswriters. Steve Smith, the man who leveled Lucas with two shots heard 'round the training-camp world, is surrounded. And he's tiptoeing through all the questions, waiting for the inevitable topic to come up.

"Steve, how are things between you and Ken Lucas?" a reporter finally asks.

"We're good," the Pro Bowl receiver replies. "See?"

Smith waves to Lucas with a smile.

"Old news, y'all. Next question."

That little wave might seem like nothing, just a sly gesture by a guy playing to the crowd. In reality it symbolizes the act that saved Carolina's season. After their fight, Smith and Lucas could have been TO or Pacman, locker-room wrecking balls. Instead they are key, happy parts of a playoff-bound team. All Smith had to do was utter two words that have always been so difficult for the NFL's biggest egos to say with sincerity: I'm sorry. All Lucas had to do was overcome a player's fighting instinct—and accept. "It's completely healed," Lucas says. "And I'm not just talking about my nose."

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IT IS A WONDER to observe. The NFL locker room, packed with oversize egos and immovable physiques, is in reality a study in psychological frailty. Multiple groups of loyalties form around superstar personalities, ethnic and regional similarities and, most commonly, positions. Even the tiniest wave can end up capsizing the ship. Just look at recent Bengals and Raiders teams, where tensions ignored sank entire seasons.

Following a recent practice, Carolina fullback Brad Hoover tries to discount the idea that teams are susceptible to the-sky-is-falling sickness, attributing much of that perception to writer-created hype. Then the nine-year veteran stops himself. "You know what, there are people and moments that can make all that doomsday stuff become real," he says. "It's like in a movie when you have to decide which wire to cut before the bomb goes off. Smitty and Lucas are the guys who kept that bomb from going off."

The fuse was lit on Friday, Aug. 1, the result of two dynamic tempers slow-cooked in the South Carolina sun. Anyone who has ever attended an NFL practice session (or watched HBO's Hard Knocks) knows that no single activity whips up anger like the one-on-one drill between wideouts and defensive backs. Those showdowns typically take place at the end of the day, on display for the entire team. The No. 1 men from each side of the ball hover at the front of their line, making sure they're matched up. That's how Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice did it. That's how Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin did it. And since 2005, that's how Lucas and Smith have done it.

Three summers ago, Lucas arrived in Charlotte as a $36 million free agent. The Seattle import thought he was ready for the razzing that came with the big check, but he wasn't. Some Panthers went after him because they didn't think he should be making more money than safety Mike Minter, the defense's vocal leader. Others were put off by Lucas' Rolls-Royce Phantom and self-designed zoot suits, excesses that belied his painfully quiet personality.

Smith's motivation was purer than that. He wanted this guy he'd heard so much about to prove his worth. Thus began three years of shirt-tugging, helmet-smacking showdowns. "Steve had an infatuation with Ken Lucas," says ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson, a receiver with the Panthers in 2006. "For some reason, he was always picking on him."

On the eighth day of 2008 training camp at Wofford College, the top finally popped off the pressure cooker. Between sessions the two rivals talked on the sideline, Smith standing and Lucas kneeling. Their last matchup had been particularly raw, and even though the volume of their conversation never rose, the tension was obvious in the stillness. Then Lucas made one last comment. Witnesses say it had something to do with "a cheap shot," a thinly veiled reference to Smith's 2002 arrest for breaking a teammate's nose during a film-room session. (Both players declined to confirm this part of the story.)

That's when the pause came. A split second where both men's brains raced a hundred times faster than their expressions could register. This was the moment when Lucas thought it was over, just the end of another round of their daily jabbing match. It was also the moment when Smith veered into the intersection of "walk away" and "attack." He attacked.

There were two punches before Lucas knew what had happened. One of those two broke his nose, pushing a piece of his nasal bone into his left eye. In a flash, Smith and Lucas were on the ground, tangled. After coach John Fox and receiver Muhsin Muhammad helped break it up, the training staff gathered around Lucas while Smith was encircled by Muhammad and kicker John Kasay, the spiritual centers of the locker room. Smith cooled off for a few minutes, then came over to Lucas to apologize, but the corner wanted nothing to do with it. By day's end, Lucas was in the hospital and Smith had been sent home until the team could decide how to penalize him, ultimately settling on a two-game regular-season suspension.

During the 90 minutes that it took Smith to drive from Wofford to his Charlotte home, the Internet was electrified with bloggers eager to connect this incident with his 2002 fight. In the six years since the misdemeanor assault charge against Smith was dismissed, the receiver had worked tirelessly to overcome the image of his mug shot. He started a youth foundation and talked to kids about his childhood and how his mother, a school drug counselor, had introduced him to recovering heroin addicts and crackheads. "My mom exposed me to those people because they weren't afraid to admit their mistakes and were working to overcome them," Smith says. "That was real strength. I love telling kids about that."

By the summer of 2008, Smith had buried the film-room fight under a mountain of hard work and huge games. One punch dug it all back up. "As soon as I got back to Charlotte, it was that same feeling I hadn't had in years," Smith says about the day he was sent home. "Nobody had brought up my first mistake in so long. Then all of a sudden, because of my second mistake, that's all anyone wanted to talk about again. It was my fault, and I knew it. I was sick, man. I was already trying to figure out how I was going to apologize, especially to Ken."

What Smith didn't know was that during his drive home, he had already been forgiven. While Lucas was en route to the hospital, he'd quietly determined that there would be no charges filed, no press conferences, no blame. "Honestly, I forgave him almost as soon as he hit me," he says now.

Lucas knows that it might sound phony, but after Smith attacked him, he thought of the damage that striking back would do to the team's psyche. "I could have hit him back," he says. "I had to turn inside and convince myself not to." The next day, Lucas showed up at Bank of America Stadium for Fan Fest, signing autographs and posing for pictures with a black eye and broken nose. His teammates, blown away that Lucas hadn't retaliated and made a bad situation worse, lined up in the locker room to embrace him.

When Smith returned to camp, two days later, he stood before his teammates. During this closed-door session, anyone who needed to get something off his chest was allowed to stand and speak. Some asked Smith why he had always been so aloof, so reluctant to lead and seemingly so angry all the time. Linebacker Thomas Davis stood up and admitted that when he was drafted by Carolina, in 2005, his first thought was, I am going to get to play with Steve Smith! But he'd been disappointed that Smith was so reclusive.

Smith took it all on the chin, let everyone say his piece, then stood up and admitted his mistakes, just like his mother and the crackheads had taught. He promised to be a better teammate, to keep his anger focused on the other sideline. The Panthers were impressed by his sincerity. And they figured if Lucas could move on, so could they. "It isn't easy to be on either side of that—apologizing or forgiving," says linebacker Jon Beason. "You have to respect them as men."

Of course, there was no moving on just yet. The next day, Smith briefly met with the media and apologized to the public. Then he grabbed Lucas. For two and a half hours they sat in a corner of the Wofford campus and deconstructed three years of tension. They got angry and yelled, got serious and talked, even managed to sneak in a laugh or two. "We said it flat out," Smith says. "I told him I thought he didn't like me, and he told me he thought I didn't like him. And we didn't. But once we talked, we realized that we're from two different worlds but aren't that different."

Smith grew up between Crenshaw and Watts, Lucas in small-town Mississippi. In high school, the 5'9" Smith felt slighted by the lack of looks from big college programs, fueling what Muhammad calls "a serious Napoleon complex." Lucas was torn between his Southern Baptist roots and the raw locker-room atmosphere. Each became admitted introverts, even as they found success in the NFL. "The biggest thing we have in common is our goal," Lucas says, holding his hand up and grasping the finger reserved for a Super Bowl ring. "Once we let ourselves focus on that and put the misunderstandings behind us, we became friends."

Friends—really?

"Yeah, we're friends," Smith says with a grin. "We just didn't take the normal way of finding that out."

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HALF A SEASON removed from training camp, Panthers fans still spend every home game constantly locked in on the corner and the wideout, curious to see how they interact. How can anyone look away? In a Sept. 28 win over the Falcons, Smith handed his first TD ball of the season to Lucas on the sideline. Three weeks later, after Smith scored against the Saints, he found No. 21 waiting at the bench to congratulate him. Smith would return the gesture that same game following Lucas' second pick of the year.

"Sometimes it takes hard times to dig up the good times," QB Jake Delhomme says. "It was no fun while it was going on, but look at what's happened because of it all. It's all smiles in here. Nobody's walking on eggshells in this locker room, and that shows up on the field. Those two could have made it all a lot worse, but instead they showed us the way."

The numbers don't lie. Despite missing two games to suspension, Smith ranks seventh in the NFL with 613 receiving yards. Lucas anchors the NFC's fourth-best passing defense (194.5 yards per game). The standings don't lie either. The 6—2 Panthers stand atop the NFC South. In the locker room, the fight is now seen as little more than a footnote to a playoff run. "You have to have a short memory in this profession," says Muhammad after an October practice. "You drop a pass, miss a tackle or make a mistake off the field, you have to promise your teammates it will never happen again. Then you have to do everything you can to make sure that promise goes through. This group, they make sure their promises go through."

As Muhammad speaks, Smith and Lucas aren't at their lockers or on the field. They're hiding in an empty meeting room down the hall, two friends quietly playing a game of dominoes.