CHARLOTTE – Signing with the Panthers is a dream come true for defensive end Chris Smith, who proudly hails from Salisbury, N.C.
"We say it's just down the street as country people," Smith joked. "Playing for the home team – a lot of guys don't get that opportunity. I'm blessed."
Smith said he grew up watching Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl. He remembered his dad buying around 300 wings for a celebration after Carolina claimed the 2003 NFC Championship.
"Everyone was so happy," Smith said. "I loved watching the Panthers."
When asked if he recalled watching any of the stud defensive linemen on those Panthers teams, Smith admitted he was more focused on the offensive side of the ball.
"At the time, I wanted to be a quarterback," he said with a big laugh. "That didn't work out as you can see."
The quarterback dream may not have panned out, but Smith excelled as a defensive end. He played college ball at Arkansas and proved he belonged in the SEC. Then the Jaguars drafted him in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
He spent three years in Jacksonville before taking his talents to Ohio. Following one year with the Bengals in 2017, Smith signed with the Browns. He was a rotational defensive linemen quietly carving out a nice career.
Then came September 11, 2019.
Smith's girlfriend Petara Cordero was killed in a disastrous traffic accident. She exited Smith's vehicle after it had become disabled and was struck by a passing car.
Smith was distraught. He told reporters he was "ready to give up" after it first happened. Grief was within him and all around him.
"It was tragic," Smith said. "People thought I was supposed to die, too."
He decided to return to the team for the next game. He did so because he felt it's what she would want him to do.
Smith played in nine games for Cleveland before he was released on December 3.
"People were asking me, 'Are you going to play again?' In football and life, you are going to have adversity, but it's about how you respond to it," Smith said. "I feel like she would want me to continue playing, especially with the Panthers."
Smith always talked with Cordero about how nice it would be to return to his home state and play for the Panthers.
"I think she had something to do with this," he said with a smile. "I'm going to live to honor her."
He's taking action as well.
Smith said he recently signed a deal to work with Emergency Safety Solutions, all in an effort to prevent tragedies like the one that took the life of his girlfriend.
"To give a short summary, hazard lights have not been updated since 1951. We are working to get every car updated hazard lights," Smith said. "We want that in every car around the world."
As Smith explained, most people blow right vehicles with hazard lights on. By enhancing them a with a strobing effect and higher flash rate, drivers are notified to exercise caution more effectively.
It's a way to turn tragedy into triumph.
Smith hasn't allowed this nightmare to tear down his jovial persona. As a player, he describes himself as a spark. He says he's a people person, always smiling and looking for the next laugh.
And he's ready for the next chapter.
"You have to live and enjoy each and every day," Smith explained. "You don't know when it's your last moment. It made me even more happy-go-lucky, because we don't know when that moment is going to be. Even in football, you don't which play is going to be your last."
View photos of newly-signed defensive lineman Chris Smith throughout his time in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Jacksonville.