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Steve Smith Sr. makes long-awaited return


CHARLOTTE -- For 13 NFL seasons, Steve Smith Sr. donned the Panther blue and took the franchise to new heights, leaving behind an energy that can still be felt throughout Bank of America Stadium. Since being released by Carolina following the 2013 season and subsequently retiring following the 2016 season, his only time spent on the stadium's grounds came as a commentator for NFL Network.

That changed during Thursday morning's practice.

The Panthers legend made his long-awaited return to the organization, not as an analyst or player but as the team's welcomed guest.

"It was great. It was cool. He's welcomed. It's great to have him back and being around," said head coach Ron Rivera, who Smith played for his last three seasons in Charlotte. "I think it's good in terms of us as an organization and good for us individually and personally.

"Steve is a big part of us getting started as a team and being where we are today. It was just a lot of fun to see him."

Much has changed since Smith left the team to join Baltimore in 2014, but he was able to quickly spot familiar territory catching up with former teammates Julius Peppers, Captain Munnerlyn and Cam Newton. Two of the team's biggest changes can be found at wide receiver, the position Smith dominated during his career.

Torrey Smith and DJ Moore may be in different stages of their careers - Smith a two-time Super Bowl champion and Moore a rookie - but the Panthers' newcomers both have unique bonds with the franchise's all-time leader in receiving yards.

The night Moore was drafted 24th overall in April, Smith on NFL Network proclaimed that the Panthers had never been able to replace him until making that selection, signaling his faith in the dynamic Maryland product. Following Smith's appearance at practice, Moore said his mentor's draft night thoughts inspired him.

"I was happy that he said that, but at the same time I have to go out there and play my game and then try to match what he said," Moore said.

Smith later called the 21-year-old his "spirit animal," something Moore could also envision. "Yeah I would agree with that," he said with a laugh.

While Smith's bond with Moore is still growing, his connection with the Panthers' newest Smith continues to get stronger. The pair played together with the Ravens in 2014 and, in the process, built a relationship.

"We've been really close, our families are close and that's a person I care a lot about," Torrey Smith said.

He added that he was excited to see the recent retiree "in his element, his backyard," and that he was a big help in his transition to the Carolinas.

"He told me a lot of positive things (about Charlotte)," Torrey Smith said. "Literally everything from the organization to the food here, so it's great to have someone that I look at as a real brother. People say that, but I view him as a real brother."