Lucas accepts Smith's apology as players return to Panthers camp

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Steve Smith apologized and talked about winning back the respect of his teammates, coaches and fans. A battered Ken Lucas accepted Smith's apology and discussed his impending surgery.

And the Carolina Panthers' coaching staff tried to keep the team together after an ugly incident involving two of its highest-paid players.

A subdued, apologetic Smith returned to practice Monday, three days after the three-time Pro Bowl receiver punched Lucas in the face at practice and two days after he was suspended without pay for the first two regular-season games.

"I'm completely wrong," Smith said in a rambling, four-minute meeting with reporters that ended with him declining to answer questions. "It was an asinine decision. And I'll move forward better than I probably have ever had to. It's the first time in my life that I really haven't forgiven myself."

Lucas also appeared on the field for the first time since Smith slugged him while he was on one knee and not wearing a helmet.

The starting cornerback, with a black left eye and swelling near his nose, rode a stationary bike while the team worked out, thanks to the broken nose that will sideline him two to three weeks.

"Depending on the surgery," Lucas said in his first public comments since the incident. "We're still waiting on the doctors to give us the timetable on when we're going to have this procedure done."

"I feel like what happened was a blessing in disguise," he added. "This is something I think has brought this team closer together. You may think [I] sound crazy for saying that, but I really think this is bigger than me and Steve.

Lucas said he forgives Smith, who apologized to him in a face-to-face meeting.

"I think that was a big step for this team to accomplish the goals we wanted to accomplish," Lucas said. "Because I felt like if I didn't forgive him, then it would divide the team up and we could pretty much throw this season away."

Smith never mentioned Lucas by name. Nor did he explain the incident. During a break in Friday morning's practice, the 5-foot-9 Smith hit Lucas after a heated discussion over a previous play.

"I will not put myself into a position where I have to defend myself, to state my side of the story. There's no side," Smith said. "There's only one side, a lack of judgment on my part.

"I have no excuse. All I have is the opportunity to gain the respect of my fans, to gain the respect of my family, gain the respect of my co-workers and gain the respect of the organization," he said.

Smith was sent home from training camp after the incident and did not practice Friday night or Saturday morning. He rejoined the team Sunday night and apologized in a team meeting.

"He was very remorseful, and we accepted it," safety Chris Harris said. "We're moving on. We've got our eyes looking forward."

Lucas acknowledged he's had a running feud with Smith since shortly after Lucas signed with Carolina in 2005. They've gone against each other in practice almost daily.

"He expects to catch every ball and I expect to defend every ball," Lucas said. "When you have those two types of individuals, something has to give. When it's 100 degrees out there and you're tired and you're frustrated, sometimes emotions get involved.

"I'm sure if he had a calmer head he would have made better decisions. I don't fault him for that. There are times where I may want to hit somebody, but I control myself. I tell some of my other teammates you have to learn to keep your composure. Typically people do crazy things they regret when they're emotional. I think he just got too emotional at the time."

Smith, the team's top receiver the past three years, worked with the first team at Monday's practice. But it was clear things had changed.

Smith, who led the NFL in catches, yards receiving and touchdowns in 2005, didn't talk trash with defensive players. He never spun the ball on the turf after making catches, as he's done in the past. He said little to teammates.

It was a major setback for Smith, who had seemingly overcome the anger issues that defined him early in his career. Players had talked about Smith's maturity in recent years. He was even voted an offensive captain last year by his teammates.

Just last week Smith chastised reporters for continually bringing up the past, including the 2002 incident when he punched practice-squad player Anthony Bright in a film session, earning him a one-game suspension.

"I'm a fallen man. I'm a man that made a mistake," Smith said. "I plan to mend the bridges that I've burned and help rebuild the bridge -- if I need to all by myself."

Smith will be allowed to practice and play in preseason games before his suspension goes into effect a week before the Panthers' season opener. Smith will miss games at San Diego on Sept. 7 and the home opener against Chicago on Sept. 14.

"The good thing is that we were both man enough to come face to face and talk without any other kind of altercations," Lucas said. "We're bigger than that. Sometimes when emotions are involved, you do stupid things. ... For me being a Christian, I have a forgiving heart and I'm willing to move forward to help this team win this year."

Coach John Fox said he'll have Smith work with the second team in some practices to get ready for his absence. Offseason acquisition D.J. Hackett is expected to replace Smith in the starting lineup.

"We've been through this before with other players," Fox said. "We've got to get him ready for the season and we have to get other people ready for the season, also."

With Fox's job on the line after missing the playoffs in 8-8 and 7-9 seasons, Lucas and Smith understand they need to mend their differences quickly to save this season.

"We still have some more things to talk about as far as what we can we do to be able to go out there and coexist on the same field, same team and be productive and help this team win this year," Lucas said. "Only two men can do that, and we feel like we have what it takes in order to do so."