One of the biggest moments in Panthers history came on a Saturday morning in March, far from packed stadiums or network TV cameras.
Instead, it happened at a 7-Eleven somewhere in Utah.
“I was putting sugar and a non-dairy powdered cream in my coffee to try to wake up because I was on the West Coast,” said Steve Smith, Sr., who helped author so many of the most memorable on-field moments in Carolina’s soon-to-be 25-year history.
X-Clown, running circles around the Bears in the playoffs at Chicago, telling Aqib Talib to “Ice Up, Son.” Now here he was just trying to get caffeinated before speaking at a coaches clinic. That's when a random request came in from Panthers owner David Tepper.
“He called and asked, ‘Do you have FaceTime?’ I said, ‘No,’” recalled Smith, who continued to share the exchange.
“Well, can you get FaceTime?”
“Why do I need to get FaceTime with you?”
“Well, cause I need it.”
“OK, all right.”
So even in this instance, Smith was typically skeptical:
“Like, in my head I’m going, ‘This dude …’”
What Smith didn’t know is that Tepper was in his office at Bank of America Stadium about to tell Smith he had been selected to join the Panthers’ Hall of Honor. But there was another catch.
“I have an Android,” Smith said. “So my buddy who was with me, I said, ‘Can I use your phone?’ and that’s how it went down.”
Now, perhaps it’s a bit overdramatic to consider a FaceTime call between two grown men one of the biggest moments in franchise history. But you can't attempt to fully celebrate your past if you’re estranged from the player who was arguably your best. That’s why Smith’s reaction to the news was so important.
“It’s good to be back,” he told Tepper.
Before this story gets too sappy, know that Smith isn’t rushing into things. He’s intent on keeping an arms-length for now. He still remembers how some around the Carolinas responded when he was released in 2014. But there’s also the matter of his current role with the NFL Network.
“With my job being an analyst, I take it very seriously that when I do my job, people do not associate me with one or two teams. Because then they discredit when you have to critique or criticize,” Smith said. “I don’t want my affiliation with any teams to be a factor to discredit me.
“Honestly, I critique the Panthers with the same eye as the Baltimore Ravens or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So I try to be an equal opportunistic guy for whoever I’m talking about. For me, that’s majorly important. So I’m trying to compartmentalize because after the celebration and leading up to it, there is an expectation of me by my bosses.”
Still, there’s no telling how emotions will flow come induction day this fall. It may have taken five years to get to this place in the reunion process, but the 13 years, re-written record books and relationships that came before laid a foundation that never completely cracked.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, trying to figure out to accept the honor and not try to overthink things,” Smith said. “Really just try to relax, which for a guy who’s always going, going and going is kind of hard to do.
“Are there some things that I would probably want to change? Yes. But also, no. I learned a lot. So I guess at the end of the day, I don’t really have a lot of tremendous regrets. I think I’d probably alter a few things, but I think it worked out OK.”
View photos of former wide receiver Steve Smith, Sr. during his Hall of Honor photo shoot.