Steve Smith remains as fiery as ever

Ice cream wasn't helping.

Little Stevonne had never lost a flag football game. He had never felt the sting of defeat. He was 9, maybe 10 years old, fast, passionate and fiercely competitive, and after his Van Ness Recreation Center team in inner-city Los Angeles lost to a crew from West Wilshire, Stevonne couldn't stop crying.

"Look," his coach, Brian Cox, remembers telling him, "there are going to be many days you're going to come out here and win these games. But you understand it's not a bad thing to hurt when you lose. There will come a time when you overcome this."

The tears kept falling.

"You need to understand, everyone is not going to play at your level," Cox continued. "And one man does not make a team."

Oh yeah? Stevonne would show everyone. He would defy the odds. He was probably too young to understand exactly how hard it is to avoid the gangs or drugs that are rampant in South Central L.A., to overcome the anger of not having a father present every day. But he could fiercely protect and care for his little brother and love his mother. He couldn't foresee the path: junior college, the University of Utah, the NFL as a third-round draft pick -- the most prolific receiver in Carolina Panthers history -- and ultimately the Baltimore Ravens. But he would prove wrong all the doubters who said he was too short, too small, too whatever to make it.

But before Stevonne could become Steve Smith Sr., a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro, he had to exact revenge on West Wilshire.

"We really beat them bad when we played them again," Cox recalled.

Let the Panthers be warned.

• • •

It's almost here. The game in which "there's going to be blood and guts everywhere." Smith has had it circled on his calendar since this season's schedule was released in April: Week 4, Sept. 28, 1 p.m., Carolina at Baltimore in M&T Bank Stadium.

"I think he's calling it something," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I don't know if it's appropriate."

Smith said he doesn't have a name for this game, but it would be understandable if he did. He played 13 seasons in Carolina and grew from being a self-described knucklehead from L.A. who didn't know how to balance his checkbook to a millionaire many times over with a wife and four children and a football scholarship he endowed for nearly $300,000 at his alma mater.

Along the way, Smith made his share of mistakes, like getting into fights with teammates, publicly criticizing the Panthers organization and once lobbying to be traded. In 2002, he punched teammate Anthony Bright during a film session, fracturing Bright's orbital lobe and drawing a one-game suspension from the team. In 2008, Smith broke teammate Ken Lucas' nose during practice at training camp, drawing a two-game team suspension.

In addition to occasionally acting combative, Smith always spoke his mind. He was a tireless worker who demanded the same ethic from his teammates. He did not tolerate weakness, indecision, stupidity or laziness.

"His competitiveness and emotional personality is a lot of the reason he's been as successful as he has, but it also has hurt him at times," said a source who worked closely with Smith in Carolina. "He reacts very quickly, and that has gotten him in trouble. He is a very dominant personality, but gosh, he gives you everything he's got on the field."

The 5-foot-9 Smith was brash from the jump with the Panthers. While his agent was negotiating his rookie contract in 2001, Smith went to Marty Hurney, then a front-office executive with the club who later became general manager, and said he wished to play his entire career with the Panthers but that their initial contract offer was too low. Before playing a game, he went to team owner Jerry Richardson and asked why his jersey was not being sold in the team's store.

That season, Smith was the only rookie selected to the Pro Bowl. The next, his jersey was indeed available for purchase in the team store. Smith went on to become the franchise's career leader with 836 catches, 12,197 receiving yards and 67 receiving touchdowns.

Smith posted seven 1,000-yard seasons. He helped Carolina win the NFC championship in the 2003 season and caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme in a 32-29 last-second loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The next season, Smith broke his left leg in the Panthers' season opener against the Packers. In 2005, he rebounded to lead the league with 103 catches, 1,563 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns, and he shared the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award with New England's Tedy Bruschi.

In 2008, Smith led the league with an average of 101.5 receiving yards per game, and in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, at age 32 and 33, he produced a combined 2,568 receiving yards. He also authored the most memorable play in Panthers history, as voted by ESPN.com readers, with his 69-yard, game-winning touchdown catch against St. Louis in the 2003 playoffs.

But after his production dipped significantly to 64 receptions for 745 yards -- an average of just 11.6 yards per catch -- last season, the Panthers cut him in a move general manager Dave Gettleman foreshadowed at the scouting combine weeks earlier. Gettleman talked about Smith's career in the past tense, and coach Ron Rivera subsequently made vague comments about Smith's future with the franchise. Smith claims he was left in the dark.

"I think the thing that hurt the most wasn't being cut," Smith said. "It was the way it was done, and almost it felt like the justification behind closed doors, and that was the part that really kind of was a hard pill to swallow. All the leaked stories about why I was cut and the reasoning behind why and what I was. I was this, and I was that, instead of just being ..."

He stopped.

"Nah, I can't even say that," Smith said. "Just how it was done."

After cutting Smith, the Panthers released a five-paragraph statement from Gettleman, who said "to move on from a storied veteran player is probably the most difficult decision of all" for a general manager to make. Gettleman did not specify why it was time to move on from Smith, but in the statement he said, "After much thought I feel very strongly it's the right" decision.

In an interview last month, Smith did not opine about why he was released. Rivera denied many times that Smith's fiery disposition was the reason. There is also speculation in Charlotte that it was because the Panthers want the team to belong to fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton. Given Smith's dominating personality and willingness to criticize anyone in the organization when he felt it was warranted, that would have been difficult if Smith were still on the roster.

Smith felt he deserved better, from Gettleman and from Rivera, for whom he played for three seasons.

"But, you know, I had a closed-door meeting with Mr. Richardson, and after I had that, I was cool, because the people that I respected and that respected me I was cool with," Smith said. "I was fine. And all the other people that didn't have respect for me, I tried to maintain respect for them despite how they acted publicly and privately.

"When that time comes, I'll be able to walk back in those doors and retire as a Panther and have the respect and not have such a split and not allow the few individuals in their temporary residence there to alter a decade of what I've done and experienced in that great organization. ... I was there 13 years, and the way I look at it and what I was told, I'll be there a lot longer than they will."

For their part, the Panthers say they know what to expect from their former teammate but that the game is bigger than Smith alone.

"He's going to be the same Steve Smith -- ragin' Cajun, same guy, going out there and playing with emotion and playing with everything he's got," Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said Wednesday.

Said Rivera: "We're playing the Baltimore Ravens. Steve plays for the Ravens, and that's just the way it is. This game is not about one guy."

Smith has also mellowed on the subject of facing his former team -- at least publicly. He chided reporters on a conference call Wednesday for trying to create bulletin board material.

"You all are going to make something up anyway, so what's the sense?" Smith said.

• • •

In the summer of 1998, Cox took his wife and kids to the Santa Monica Pier and heard a voice from the past.

"Coach Cox, Coach Cox," said the young man.

It was Stevonne Smith.

Smith was working as an amusement park ride operator at the pier. He had not seen his former rec center coach in years and had just finished his freshman year at Santa Monica College, where he played football.

"What schools are you looking at," Cox asked.

"I don't know," Smith said.

A native of L.A., Cox had played quarterback at New Mexico State while Fred Graves was an assistant coach. Graves later became the offensive coordinator at Utah and recruited in Southern California for the Utes. Cox put Smith on Graves' radar.

"I needed somebody strong to hold on to this boy, and he did, thank God," Cox said.

Graves, also an L.A. native, knew about two of Smith's teammates at Santa Monica: Chad Johnson and Demetrius Posey. When Graves watched film of those two, Smith also jumped out. At the time, Johnson didn't have the grades to move up to Division I. Posey committed to Utah. Smith was close friends with Posey and committed to Utah too.

Posey didn't make it to Utah, but Smith did. During one of his first practices, Smith kept running his mouth, talking trash and taunting defenders who tried to cover him. Graves told Smith to stop, but when he didn't, Graves threw him out of practice.

Smith stood at the end of the field near the locker room, his helmet still on, and cried.

"I don't have nothing else but football," Smith told Graves.

"And that's when I knew he loved the game of football," Graves said.

Smith didn't have much at Utah. He rode a bike to practice and worked at a restaurant, where he washed dishes for close to minimum wage.

He caught 43 passes for 860 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior at Utah but broke a vertebra in his neck in the final regular-season game that year. At the following season's Mountain West Conference media day, Smith was asked repeatedly about his neck. He calmly answered question after question, but when interviewed late in the day, he snapped at yet another question about his neck, said Liz Abel, a longtime spokeswoman in Utah's athletic department.

"I always felt one of the reasons why he didn't get many all-conference accolades was he didn't quite make it through the media days being polite," Abel said.

Smith made the all-conference team as a senior with 35 receptions for 743 yards and four TDs, but the knock on him heading into the 2001 NFL draft was that he was too small and too temperamental.

The first round of the draft passed without Smith hearing his name called. Then the second.

"I told him, 'Hey, this ain't got nothing to do with the long journey you're going to make,'" Graves said.

Graves had left Utah a few months earlier to become wide receivers coach for the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo held the 14th pick in the third round, and Graves said he had convinced Bills management to use it on Smith. Carolina picked him two spots before Buffalo got the chance.

• • •

The Ravens had just defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night to kick off Week 2. It was three days after Baltimore released Ray Rice in the wake of the TMZ video that showed Rice knocking out his then-fiancée. The franchise was in crisis.

But on a short week, amid the chaos, Smith helped settle the team. He has a swagger that is infectious. He signed a three-year deal with Baltimore a day after Carolina cut him, and he has become a mentor to Ravens receivers, telling them their position group must set a tone. He said he has encouraged them to bring something to the table, either something they've seen on film or a way they think they can exploit a matchup.

"He teaches us how to play smashmouth football as a receiver," Jacoby Jones said of his new teammate.

John Harbaugh, Baltimore's head coach, has long been a Smith fan. While the special-teams coordinator for the Eagles in 2001, Harbaugh said he lobbied head coach Andy Reid to select Smith, a prolific punt and kickoff returner, with the first pick in the third round of the draft. The Eagles instead selected Ole Miss defensive end Derrick Burgess. The Panthers took Smith 11 picks later.

After Smith's rookie season, Harbaugh coached Smith in the Pro Bowl. The two remained friendly throughout Smith's tenure with Carolina, and when Smith became a free agent in March, Harbaugh insisted the Ravens try to sign him.

Even at 35, Smith hasn't lost his edge. He got into a skirmish with Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb in training camp and took an emotional shot at the Panthers on camera a few weeks later.

In a Week 1 loss to Cincinnati, Smith scored a touchdown and then shouted into a television camera: "Hey, if you f---ing think I can't play, you're gonna find out in Week 4, m-----f-----!" Smith finished that game with seven catches for 118 yards. Against Pittsburgh, he had six receptions for 71 yards and several key downfield blocks. In Week 3's win over Cleveland, he caught five passes for 101 yards.

"He's a competitor," Harbaugh said. "He just fights. He's like an underdog. He loves being underestimated. The biggest mistake you can make is to underestimate him."

Which is exactly what Smith thinks his former team did.

Smith has kept his home in Charlotte. His wife, Angie, and children, Peyton, Baylee, Boston and Steve Jr., remain there. Smith said he will continue to play for as long as the Ravens want him, and when it is time to retire, he will do so in Charlotte, where he has firmly established roots. After his release, Smith took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer to thank Panthers fans.

But this season, he is adjusting to his new normal. Instead of heading down Interstate 85 south to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for Panthers training camp in late July, he traveled up I-77 north through Virginia to the Ravens' practice facility in Owings Mills, Maryland.

"I'm not going the way I want to go, but I'm here and I'm enjoying it," Smith said after an August practice. "I'm going to enjoy the journey and be appreciative and know I've had some great memories in Carolina, had some fun times. Just because things didn't end well isn't going to change or leave a sour taste in my mouth for an organization or people who did so much for me."

The kid who grew up as Stevonne dreaming of one day joining the 1,000-yard club made it. It wasn't easy, and Smith admits he didn't always do the right thing.

"We all have our past," he said. "I came into this league not understanding a lot of things, a typical egotistical young man. The unfortunate part is I've lived my life in front of people, and people evaluate and write about things. The thing is, people look at it and say I'm feisty or I have a chip on my shoulder. You know what other people call those individuals? Passionate."

Smith is all of that. Passionate. Emotional. Competitive. It will all be on display Sunday.

"Hopefully he doesn't wear himself down," said Graves, who was reunited with Smith as Carolina's receivers coach in 2011 and '12 and now holds the same position with the San Diego Chargers. "He's going to play like Steve Smith. He's going to be aggressive. He's going to be angry. He's going to be focused in on what's going on. To him, it's about pride."