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The best of 89: Steve Smith Sr.'s back in the building

Steve Smith Sr.

CHARLOTTE — Steve Smith Sr..'s used to being cheered in Bank of America Stadium.

Friday night, he had a different vantage point, and a chance to enjoy the celebration from a different angle.

The legendary Panthers wide receiver was in the press box rather than the end zone, calling Fan Fest for the Panthers TV Network. And when he was introduced to the crowd, Smith Sr. couldn't help feeling a certain way.

"I think they just realized I'm here," he said with a laugh, and looking down at his arms. "Actually gave me a little chill. Look at that. I got a little chill. I may go out there and suplex somebody. Just for one play, though."

Smith has plenty of broadcast experience as an analyst with the NFL Network, but this preseason will be his first work calling games with play-by-play man Taylor Zarzour. And as Smith basked in the applause from the fans, he acknowledged that the time away from the game has changed the way he looks at it, and himself.

"When I first stopped playing, going out on the field was tough," he said. "Now, somebody says 'Line up,' and I'm like 'Please.' I am happy where I am emotionally and knowing that's what I used to do, that is not who I am every single day."

Steve Smith Sr.

Of course, the draw to the game is never far away. During a segment in which he and Zarzour were talking to head coach Matt Rhule, the second-year coach was describing the toughness he wants to see from his team.

" I want us to be the team when you play us; the next week, you don't play quite as well. I want us to be that guy on the block," Rhule said.

It was immediately obvious to everyone watching that Smith Sr. was that guy when he played, and so he mentioned to Rhule: "If you need an old-timer for a few plays, call me up."

"Any time. Any time," Rhule replied with a laugh.

But Smith Sr.'s also been retired long enough that his place in football history will soon be a conversation. He's eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time next year, but when Zarzour referenced that, Smith Sr. quickly steered the conversation back to the drills on the field.

"I like this one-on-one," he said. "This is where you make the Hall of Fame."

Smith has an excellent case for the Hall someday. He finished his career ranked eighth in league history with 14,731 receiving yards, and 12th all-time with 1,031 receptions. But he finished his career in Baltimore, after he was released by former general manager Dave Gettleman. That led to a period of estrangement from the team in his adopted hometown.

Smith talked about the job former general manager Marty Hurney did laying the groundwork for his return, and his relationship with former owner Jerry Richardson.

But it took a push from Tepper to pull Smith Sr. back in.

Steve Smith Hall of Honor

"The last couple of years, one of the things that's really intriguing with Mr. Tepper is this," Smith Sr. began. "Obviously, I left, things were done on a sour note. And I really had no desire to come back here, with the Panthers organization with the same people in place. Whether that was coach or general manager, and that was a personal reason, because I felt the best way to respect that was to just stay away. And the first thing when Dave Gettleman was fired, Marty Hurney called me, reached out and said 'I want you to make sure you understand I want you to come back.' I still just didn't feel right about it. . . .

"With Dave, he said, 'We want you back in the building. You take your time, but I'm going to be a nuisance to you.' And he's always done that. The last couple of years we've talked football, a lot of football. That's how I got here. He said, 'Hey, you know football, you're not just a pretty face.'"

Smith's putting that knowledge of the game in general and the Panthers in particular to good use now.

And he's also enjoying being back in his old home, even if he has a new office.

View the best photos from fans and families in the stands at Fan Fest 2021, presented by Daimler Trucks North America.

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