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Best of 89: Asking the tough questions

Steve Smith Sr., David Tepper

CHARLOTTE — You kind of knew when the Panthers put legendary wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. in the broadcast booth, that there would be some classic, unfiltered moments.

Putting him in the same booth with outspoken Panthers owner David Tepper, and you knew there was a chance at something special, or at least an FCC violation.

Tepper dropped by the booth with Smith Sr. and Panthers TV Network play-by-play man Taylor Zarzour, and he talked about the current team, the future Rock Hill facility development, and other topics in a memorable halftime interview.

In talking about the role analytics played in decision-making, Tepper was rattling off a list of items and said: "a lot of other, I was going to say s--- but I can't say that on TV, we're not allowed to say that on TV."

Smith Sr. was there to point out, helpfully: "You just said it. That's a fine."

Tepper laughed and replied: "I can afford it."

Then when Zarzour brought up the fact that Smith Sr. is eligible for the Hall of Fame next year, Tepper said: "I was going to come in here and say I'm happy to be with a future Hall of Famer, that was going to be my opening line."

"I'll let you finish, and I'll throw in mine afterward," Smith Sr. said, as the screen flashed a long list of his statistical achievements.

"I've said it before, this is probably on the numbers the greatest Panther ever here, Hall of Fame numbers, I'd like to see him in the Hall of Fame," Tepper said. "I'm already voting right now seven times if I can."

That's when Smith Sr. perked up, and had a question of his own.

"So let me ask a question, if I'm a Hall of Famer, do Hall of Famer's numbers stay on the field, or do they get put to bed?"

"No, no, no," Tepper began, messing with 89 the way only someone with as big a personality can. "You get put to bed. We've got to honor future players with your number.

"I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to retire as many, ... you know there's a lot of Hall of Famers on the Pittsburgh Steelers, you know any of them? I'm going to retire as many numbers as the Pittsburgh Steelers have."

"How many is that?" Smith Sr. asked.

"None," Tepper said with a laugh.

(Technically, the Steelers have retired two numbers, Ernie Stautner's 70 and Joe Greene's 75. Also, the Panthers have only retired one number, Sam Mills' 51. So if we're going by the letter of the law, there's some wiggle room there, I suppose.)


As for the game itself, it was more of what fans have come to expect this preseason, with Smith Sr. offering moments of salient analysis, and also the kind of biting one-liners that you better have a thick skin for.

When struggling kicker Joey Slye missed a 49-yard field goal (one which might have sealed his fate here), Smith Sr. jumped right in.

"Where's my fork, because he's done," Smith Sr. said. "You know what I say about pressure — it creates diamonds, but it can flood basements."

Smith made several other comments throughout the night about Slye, perhaps crossing the line — or at least stepping up to it — about a man whose employment is tenuous. But that's Smith Sr.'s personality. He came up the hard way, and he knows how cold the business can be. Even he was cut once, and he doesn't have much sympathy for guys who aren't getting the job done.

He can still be human, though. When cameras showed long snapper JJ Jansen consoling Slye late in the game, Smith Sr. acknowledged how difficult it was to watch.

"This says it all right there," Smith Sr. said. "This is a tough opportunity for Joey. He'll get better. He'll grow from it. But it's one of those things. When you see your long snapper having a conversation or praying, it's one of those things that's tough. It's the ugliness of football that happens."

But just as you'd be foolish to pigeonhole Smith Sr. as any one thing — he lives to defy expectations — he wasn't just there to be callous, or to just talk about football.

When Olympic gold medalists Randolph Ross Jr. and Trevor Stewart (from North Carolina A&T) came out to hit the "Keep Pounding" drum before the game, Smith Sr. used it as a chance to talk about what the team's slogan meant to him, and to offer some humility at a time when everyone's talking to him about his own Hall of Fame chances.

Mentioning the cancer fight of Mills, the former linebacker who was an assistant coach when Smith Sr. was helping the team to its first Super Bowl run, Smith Sr. made it clear how he felt about the man who inspired the phrase.

"He coached, did treatment, encouraged, talked, fathered, and just poured out his heart and was very selfless for players and an organization that was focused on football," Smith Sr. said of Mills. "But he was focused on life, by coaching his players and still receiving treatment through the whole process.

"He is the greatest Carolina Panther to ever play in this stadium."

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