An open letter to Steve Smith Sr.
The only other player like him in NFL history is simply an alter-ego, and it’s one he owns.
He ran defenders wild, and he continued even after the whistle. His epic post-game quotables will forever live among the great statements in league history.
The man was more than the average receiver, yet more than some of the great receivers. His physical limitations were never an obstacle in his mind, yet by typical football standards, he should have never been able to record a snap in the big leagues.
After he tore his Achilles Sunday, Steve Smith Sr. may have played his final NFL game. Hopefully not, though, because there will always be a place for him in football.
He made statements with his play, gave people like myself someone to root for — just a shade under 5-foot-9 and with all of the talent — continuously underestimated on the field, whether it be asphalt mixed with skin and blood, or the normal grass surface.
He drives you to say “I told you,” whether it be with thought or with words.
If there’s a knockout, obviously before concussion protocol became a thing in the NFL, it means he will return when he can stand up. The rest will work out once the ball is in the air.
He’s still going to record a 100-yard ballgame, score a pair of touchdowns, and talk trash after the game. Even for the ultra politically correct, he’s more than likable.
The sportsmanship nuts will have plenty of highlights that show what not to do, but secretly want to be him.
Only because he made a habit of playing with ailments like broken arms, and still made plays. Even when the game was out of hand, and favoring his team in this case, he still gave everything in every moment of every play of every game.
He played 205 NFL games like this. 205 games not giving a damn about his own, only about making the play. 205 games not giving a damn about who he was going against. 205 games not giving one damn about what anyone thought of him.
He set his young quarterback straight on a few occasions when the fire he felt didn’t appear in the eyes of a rookie out of Auburn.
He didn’t make any bones about what he was doing. And that quarterback, with a lot less to work with than he used to have, is playing into the next level of professional quarterbacks.
He’s reached deep into the heart of football at any level, and made it a life’s mission to let everyone know: I told you.
He’s reached an untold hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, with charitable work off the field. Like when he walked through Raymond James stadium one week after battling a foot infection, in an effort to raise enough cash for 500,000 pairs of sneakers to give away.
His stance against domestic violence, and his efforts to help dissuade from such acts, occurring before the NFL decided it was important.
Right around that same time, he faced off against the team who chose to release him. The team that doubted his ability at 34 years old.
Smith torched them for 139 yards and two touchdowns, nearly 20 yards on each of his seven catches.
When he broke away from the attempted tackles of six Texans defenders, spinning twice, knocked around three different ways, and still taking it the distance.
After Adam Jones tried to tackle him, and he grabbed the interior part of Jones’ shoulder pads, tossed him to the ground, and pranced into the painted area.
After beating the Saints in front of the nation on Monday night, he told reporters:
“I kind of tried this thing this offseason, made a pact with myself. I look in the eyes of all my victims before I take their lunch money.”
And when he followed up on his promise to have a big game against his first of two teams in a storied career, he provided more all time great audio:
“Put the nails in the coffin, take your ass back to Carolina. And while you’re there, mow my lawn.”
His competitive spirit mesmerizing statisticians and analytics experts, providing an element that cannot be quantified nor accurately measured in words.
His game is something of folklore, on the level of David and Goliath but still closer to tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table.
His various touchdown dances which were as entertaining and exciting as the touchdown.
Smith planned on finishing one final season before retiring. That plan didn’t go like he wished, tearing his Achilles and likely done for the year.
Wishful thinking heads somewhere in the direction that he won’t retire now, because his mission is now incomplete, something that he surely holds deep in his stomach.
There is always a place for him in football. From his time playing in his hometown of Los Angeles, to the few seasons he played in Utah.
That’s not forgetting the seasons spent in Carolina and Baltimore. And hopefully, 16 more, whether it be with the Ravens or any other team lucky enough to have him around.
So, Steve Smith Sr.: Ice up, son. Ice up.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.