No Longer a Fight Risk

Times Staff Writer

The breakaway speed and ever-present big-play capability.

The impetuous behavior.

The clutch performances.

Marshall Jones and Robert Taylor saw it all long ago from Steve Smith, the swift, sure-handed wide receiver who has helped push the Carolina Panthers to within one victory of their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons.

They marveled at his ability long before he caught 12 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday's 29-21 playoff victory over the Chicago Bears.

Jones and Taylor nurtured the Los Angeles native through his formative football years, before he was an All-Mountain West Conference return specialist at Utah and a third-round pick of the Panthers in the 2001 draft.

Before he was the only rookie picked for the Pro Bowl in 2002.

Before he beat up a teammate so badly a few months later that the injuries ended Anthony Bright's NFL career.

Before he turned a short pass into a 69-yard touchdown in the second overtime of an NFC divisional playoff game against the St. Louis Rams two years ago, landing the Panthers in the NFC championship game on their way to their first Super Bowl appearance.

Before he became the focal point of the Panther offense this season after sitting out 2004 because of a broken leg, leading the NFL with 1,563 yards receiving and 12 touchdown catches and sharing comeback-player-of-the-year honors with linebacker Tedy Bruschi of the New England Patriots.

Before the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Smith became "the best offensive player in the league," as linebacker Brian Urlacher of the Bears called him Sunday.

They knew him as Stevonne, before he shortened his name.

Jones coached Smith at University High in West Los Angeles, where Smith was "a little guy faster than all dickens," his coach said, but a reluctant participant one gray December afternoon when rain soaked the practice field.

A two-way starter on a team that unexpectedly reached the City 3A division semifinals in 1996, Smith was an All-City wide receiver but made a greater impact as an aggressive free safety who led the team in tackles for loss.

Taylor coached Smith at Santa Monica College, where Smith worked at a nearby Taco Bell after practice to make ends meet. Smith, who signed a $26-million contract extension in 2004, might still be stuffing burritos if he hadn't overcome a penchant for trading punches with teammates, eventually developing into a second-team All-Western State Conference receiver and earning a scholarship to Utah.

"If you had asked me when he was in high school if I thought he could make it to where he is now," Jones said this week, "I'd have probably told you it was an extremely long shot just because he was a little guy. I don't know if he weighed 150 pounds as a senior."

Smith, bused to University from his home in the Athens Park neighborhood in South Los Angeles, was so small as a freshman, Jones said, it was difficult fitting him into a helmet that didn't rattle around his head.

"Very few kids wear a small helmet," Jones said, "and I had to put the largest pads possible into a small helmet just to get it to fit him."

But he was always fast and quick, Jones said, and in his only varsity season Smith showed off the game-changing ability that would become his hallmark. In one game, his coach recalled, Smith scored all three of the Warriors' touchdowns -- on a long pass reception, a reverse and a kickoff return. And in a triple-overtime victory over Bell in a playoff quarterfinal, he intercepted a pass in the end zone in the first overtime, blocked a potential game-winning field-goal attempt in the second and blocked another field-goal attempt in the third.

"He was an explosive, explosive player," Jones said.

The coach described the Smith he knew as "spirited and outgoing

But Smith still found a way to try his coach's patience.

On the Monday after University had reached the playoff semifinals, Smith didn't want to practice because it was raining. Reluctantly, he finally agreed to participate, but not before carrying an umbrella onto the field and announcing to his coaches that he wanted to be switched from safety to cornerback.

"It's funny now," Jones said, "but then it drove me nuts."

Smith, his high school grades so poor that he didn't even bother taking college-entrance exams, left his umbrella behind but retained his practice-disrupting ways when he showed up at Santa Monica College in the summer of 1997.

By Taylor's count, he got into seven fights in four months.

"Every week, just about," said Eugene Sykes, another former Santa Monica receiver and Smith's teammate for two seasons. "He was just so intense about the game. If a new receiver came to the school and he wasn't working hard, he'd get on him real quick. And a lot of people didn't know that was just his passion for the game. ... That's how he ended up in a lot of fights."

Said another former teammate, Anthony Cephas: "He was just trying to get the other guys to do right. He'll just tell you how it is, straight up. He won't try to talk to you all nice and soft. He'll tell you, 'You're playing sorry.' "

Finally, though, Taylor decided that enough was enough.

"I brought him into the office and asked him why he was having so many fights," the coach said. "He said he couldn't answer. I said, 'Are you mad at somebody?' He said, 'I don't know that either.' I said, 'OK, Stevonne, I'm going to sit you down this week. You're not playing again until we get this straightened out.' I said, 'I might lose a football game, but I'm not going to lose you.'

"And we lost. He came in that Monday and said, 'We lost, Coach.' And I said, 'Yeah, I told you we needed you. Are you going to have any more fights?' He said no, and after that it was smooth sailing, as you could say."

The Panthers suspended Smith and asked him to undergo anger management counseling after he pummeled Bright in 2002, and he is still prone to occasional outbursts, such as when he flung his helmet to the ground this season after being removed from a game by Coach John Fox.

But in November, referring to his younger days, he told the Rock Hill (S.C.) Herald, "If people think I've got issues now, they should have seen me then."

Smith, Taylor said, has learned to redirect his aggression. And Smith has said that marriage, fatherhood and sitting out last season made him realize how easily everything could be taken away from him because of one false move.

"I've got four people at home depending on me to do my job," he told reporters after Sunday's game, "so I can't come home with excuses."

Taylor, who has stayed in touch with Smith and was happy to have him speak to his team in October, said past slights still drive his former player.

"I may be wrong," Taylor said, "but I think Steve always feels like he's got something to prove. He's always on a track like, 'I told you so, I told you I could do this.' He wants everybody to know, 'I'm only 5-9, but I sure can play.' "

In his final game at Santa Monica, a 71-67 victory over El Camino in the 1998 South Bay Classic bowl game, Smith had nearly 300 yards in kick returns, helping to offset eight touchdown passes by El Camino quarterback John Leonard in what at the time was the highest-scoring regulation game in junior college football history.

"They kept kicking him the ball, and he kept running it back," Taylor said.

Said El Camino Coach John Featherstone, asked this week about that game: "That's how smart we were. We didn't learn our lesson."

Smith's teammates at Santa Monica included Chad Johnson, now a standout with the Cincinnati Bengals. Smith, Sykes, Johnson, Cephas and another receiver, Demetrius Posey, called themselves the "Fab 5." They remained close after leaving school, and Smith named his charitable foundation in honor of Posey, who was killed in a traffic accident in 2003.

Sykes and Cephas will be watching Sunday when Smith and the Panthers line up against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC championship game.

They each have Smith on their fantasy league teams.

Said Sykes: "He's been making a lot of points for me lately."

For the Panthers too.

SUNDAY'S GAMES

Pittsburgh at Denver

AFC championship, noon PST, Channel 2

Carolina at Seattle

NFC championship, 3:30 p.m., Channel 11

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Stevie wonder

Carolina's Steve Smith had a 12-catch, 218-yard performance against Chicago in the NFC divisional round:

Most catches in a playoff game:

13 Kellen Winslow, San Diego (1982, vs. Miami, OT)

Thurman Thomas, Buffalo (1990, vs. Cleveland)

Shannon Sharpe, Denver (1994, vs. L.A. Raiders)

Chad Morton, New Orleans (2001, vs. Minnesota)

12 Steve Smith, Carolina (2006, vs. Chicago)

Raymond Berry, Baltimore (1958, vs. N.Y. Giants)

Michael Irvin, Dallas (1995, vs. San Francisco)

Darrell Jackson, Seattle (2005, vs. St. Louis)

Most yards receiving in a playoff game:

240 Eric Moulds, Buffalo (1999, vs. Miami)

227 Anthony Carter, Minn. (1988, vs. San Francisco)

221 Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis (2005, vs. Denver)

218 Steve Smith, Carolina (2006, vs. Chicago)

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