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Steve Smith Sr. inducted into North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame

Steve Smith Sr.

CHARLOTTE—Growing up in Los Angeles, all Steve Smith Sr. knew about North Carolina was seeing the occasional ACC basketball game on one of the family television's 13 channels. He never got farther east than Las Vegas until he became a standout receiver at the University of Utah, and planes took him as far as the Pac-12 stretched.

So when the Panthers drafted him in the third round of the 2001 draft, he didn't know what was going to be on the other side of the door of that Continental Airlines flight when he landed, and a young Panthers staffer named Brandon Beane (now the general manager of the Buffalo Bills) picked him up at the airport.

He definitely wasn't expecting to find a new home.

"It was long, it was a long flight, longest flight I've ever been on," Smith said Friday. "When I got here, Brandon Beane picked me up in a minivan, and I had no idea it was humid.

"It was a lot."

Steve Smith Sr.

That's also a fair way to describe what he did here and the impact he made on so many — as well as the impact this place made on him.

For all that Smith has seen and done and experienced along the way, the thing he wasn't expecting was the way he'd fit in here among locals, become one of us, and create so many memories here, on and off the field.

Smith was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame Friday night in recognition of his 13 incredible seasons with the Panthers.

With time, catches and touchdowns and even Super Bowls can recede from memory when he realizes all the stuff that came with it. He was asked Friday if a particular game stood out, and he mentioned the 2001 regular season opener. It was his first NFL game, and he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, setting the stage for a career the first time he touched the ball.

But that's not why.

"Because the Wednesday before we played on Sunday, my daughter was born," Smith said.

He'd go on to raise a family here, and there are little reminders of it every day. The other day, when it rained, his son grabbed a UNC jacket his dad had picked up for him while working Drake Maye's pro day in Chapel Hill in his role with the NFL Network.

This place is part of him and his family now.

"I mean, people around here in Charlotte see me, and sometimes I'm in a grocery store," he joked. "I'm not in a grocery store being Steve Smith; I'm in the grocery store looking for toilet paper, you know."

Of course, it wasn't much longer in the conversation about coming here and how it changed him that Smith was wiping away a single tear.

The offseason after the Panthers' first Super Bowl run in 2003 when he was blossoming into a major star — complete with the heroics of a double-overtime game-winning walk-off touchdown in St. Louis — Smith was about to be rewarded. They were negotiating his first contract extension, the kind of money that would secure his family for generations.

He and his wife were looking at houses in Los Angeles, and they stopped to see his grandparents on East 126th Street. His late grandfather's birthday was April 27th, and the proximity of that caught Smith Friday, as he recalled how proud he was as he showed his grandson his photo on the cover of the Sporting News.

He paused to collect himself before continuing to talk about being here now.

"Charlotte's where I live, and that's where my family calls home," he said. But LA's where I'm from, and that'll never change."

They thought about living on both coasts, but this was where he was putting down roots. So they decided to pass on the West Coast property.

"We tried to figure out, is it logistically realistic to go back and forth?" he said. "And it wasn't. My kids are here. . . . My foundation is here. I do a lot of stuff here at the end of the day.

"I started to realize this is home when you start looking at, if I go to LA, and I'm up for a job interview against a guy who's a San Diego or Los Angeles Charger, or an LA or Oakland Raider, or a Los Angeles or St. Louis Ram, I'm not known."

There, maybe not. Here, few stand taller.

He's eighth all-time in NFL history in receiving yards (14,731), 12th in receptions (1,031), and one of only four players since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to lead the league in catches, yards, and touchdowns in a single season (the 103-1,563-12 line from his impeccable 2005 season).

Steve Smith Sr.

Smith was mentored by assistant coach Sam Mills, and as soon as he got here, a couple of undersized overachievers were looking out for each other. Smith stood next to Julius Peppers every year in the team photo, Agent 89 next to No. 90 like a mismatched buddy cop movie.

And now, like Mills (inducted in 2022) and Peppers (2021) before him, Smith received his new home's highest sporting honor.

He admitted he felt unqualified when he was approached, not realizing he was eligible. And he said as he considers all the ACC legends, and the distinguished women he's being honored alongside Friday, he admitted feeling underqualified at times. He stood next to Caroline Lind, another one of Friday's honorees as he spoke. Lind won two gold medals in rowing in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

"Not knowing all the people and what they did and learning about them, I think a little bit, it's less about me, and it's more about my classmates who I'm going in with and how they impact the sports," Smith said. "A lot of these women, they've been grinding it out. I'm getting a lot of attention on myself, but I'm looking at them and reading up on all the different women. You got Olympians, you got coaches, you got coaches who have dealt with other health things that come through. It's crazy."

Kind of like growing up in Los Angeles and thinking that you might grow up to become a legend in a place you never knew, in a way you could never have imagined.


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