CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Scott Fowler | The Charlotte Observer) - Would you like to listen to Steve Smith talk for 45 minutes by candlelight?
That’s what a crowd of about 250 people at the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club did Friday, when the former NFL wide receiver’s appearance went on as scheduled in Charlotte despite weather-related complications from the previous day’s storms.
A power outage meant the banquet room at Carmel Country Club was shrouded in darkness. Someone found enough batteries to power up a single microphone.
One microphone has always been enough, though, whenever Smith has been in the mood to talk.
A Panther from 2001-13, a member of Carolina’s Hall of Honor and now an analyst for the NFL Network, Smith remains fascinating, talented, prickly and — at least for my money — the best player in franchise history and a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.
For a rapt audience, Smith answered questions from emcee and former Carolina teammate Kevin Donnalley and from several Panthers fans.
I’ve heard Smith, 40, give dozens of interviews over the past two decades. But much of this still sounded new, like:
▪ Smith’s view of the difference between Cam Newton and Jake Delhomme.
▪ Why Smith won’t go to Las Vegas to cover this year’s NFL draft.
▪ How his humble origins inspired the Steve Smith Family Foundation, which concentrates on helping victims of domestic violence.
▪ Why the wide receiver used to try to convince his coaches to substitute Jonathan Stewart into Carolina games to replace DeAngelo Williams.
▪ Why he still praises former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, a man whose #MeToo legacy has tarnished the team’s founder in the minds of many.
“I’m a very transparent and blunt person,” Smith said at one point before launching into another story.
Later, Smith was describing his love for his adopted hometown of Charlotte and how it differs from the poverty-stricken neighborhood where he grew up in Los Angeles.
“Charlotte is a nice, smiley-face city,” Smith said. “I’m a sweatpants, pack-a-pistol kind of dude.”
To laughter from the audience, Smith added about the pistol he had referenced: “It’s legal, though… I’ve got it registered.”
One note: The media wasn’t alerted to Smith’s appearance. But The Observer is a longtime member of the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club, so I was able to attend Smith’s talk.
Smith realized I was in the audience taking notes, and mentioned that fact several times while he was at the microphone. So he knew this wasn’t a secret talk — even though the semi-darkness, coupled with Smith’s level of honesty, sometimes made it feel like it was.
Let’s get right to Smith’s most interesting quotes, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
ON THE BEST QUARTERBACK HE EVER HAD
Smith: “The best athletic quarterback I played with is Cam Newton. The best quarterback I played with — the guy I grew up with, the guy I got paid with — (is Jake Delhomme).
“Cam is an excellent athlete. However, I didn’t learn from Cam and make mistakes with Cam. I grew up with Jake.... (My kids) and Jake’s kids grew up together. Invited each other to birthday parties.
“When Cam came along, I was (32 years old). When Jake and I played, we were two blind dogs in the meat house. And when you grow with people like that, it’s a different place in your heart than someone who’s just athletic and really gifted.”
ON WHY HE BEGAN THE STEVE SMITH FAMILY FOUNDATION
Smith: “I started my foundation with something that meant something to me — my mom is a survivor of domestic violence. My father never raised his hand to my mother. But she had men in her life that did not honor her the same way my dad honored her or the way I honor my wife (Angie; she and Steve have four kids).
“And so we started a foundation on domestic violence, because it’s something I remember. We do it based on what I experienced… By the age of Deuce (Smith’s youngest child, who is five), I experienced watching my mom get beat up. I remember (that was) the first time I wanted to hurt someone.”
Note: During his remarks, Smith said he would match a $1,000 scholarship that was being awarded to Gianna Wessler, a three-sport athlete at Butler High who was in attendance.
ON HIS LEVEL OF POVERTY GROWING UP
Smith: “I was an Angel Tree kid. I was a Salvation Army kid. We was on food stamps. We was on Section 8 (housing).”
ON HOW HIS BACKGROUND PROVIDES THE REASON HE WON’T GO TO LAS VEGAS
Smith: “We only work (at his foundation) with what I am: Battered, bruised, wounded, jacked up and trying to figure it out.... To me, it’s Biblical. We only want what Jesus hung out with: the knuckleheads (Smith then pointed at himself)....
“I still go to counseling (Smith has spoken publicly about his battles with depression). Because — just to witness some of the things I’ve witnessed, to see some of the things that I’ve seen — I’ve suppressed that…. There are certain movies with certain things in it that I can’t watch, because it reminds me of where I grew up…. The (2020 NFL) draft is in Vegas. I can’t go to Vegas. The drugs, the sex — it’s a trigger for me.”
ON FORMER PANTHERS OWNER JERRY RICHARDSON
Smith: “In my speech, I used a name that everybody else kind of ducked around (Richardson sold the Panthers to David Tepper under duress after an explosive Sports Illustrated story in 2017 chronicled Richardson’s extensive workplace misconduct, which later resulted in a record NFL fine).
“I’m not afraid to say that I’m indebted to Mr. Richardson because he gave me an opportunity, despite everything that’s happened. He gave an opportunity to a young, black kid not really understanding what it is to be a man. He changed my family’s future moving forward generationally.”
ON FORMER CAROLINA RUNNING BACKS JONATHAN STEWART AND DEANGELO WILLIAMS
Smith: “Jonathan (who attended Smith’s talk Friday) was a great running back. And Jonathan knew that there were certain points of the game — DeAngelo isn’t here so I’ll tell this one anyway — DeAngelo would tiptoe through the hole. And when he’d tiptoe, I’d look to the sideline and go, ‘Get his a--- out of here and put Stewie in, because I’m not blocking for free.’”
ON WHY HE PLAYED FOOTBALL
Smith: “I played ball for one reason — to beat the man in front of me. That’s really it. And if that man happened to be on my same team, I did not get that memo....
“I just loved taking a guy and just putting them in the dirt. And there was nothing he could do about it. Nobody could save him — not his mama, his wife, his girlfriend… I wasn’t in the sport to play and be friends. I wasn’t interested in friends. I don’t have many friends. Not because I’m an unlikable person, but because that’s the way I grew up. I thrive on being alone.”
ON THE FAVORITE PLAY HE EVER MADE AS A PANTHER
Smith: “My daughter was supposed to be born on September 11th (2001). But she was born on September 5th.
“September 5th was a Wednesday. And I kept the pink hospital band on and I said: ‘I won’t take it off until I score a touchdown.’ Well, I scored a touchdown on the first kickoff. And I remember that and I still have the ball, that’s in her room.”
(Note: Smith is referring to his rookie year, when he took a kickoff back 93 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota the first time he ever touched the ball as an NFL player).
ON WHY SMITH WANTS TO BE IDENTIFIED AS MORE THAN A FOOTBALL PLAYER
Smith: “I’m no longer a football player. I really don’t like the stigma of a football player because, I mean, be honest — Most people analyze it and think all football players are stupid.”
ON WHAT HE DOES WHEN HE GOES HOME TO LOS ANGELES