CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said he wants to play “three or four more years” in the NFL before calling it quits and transitioning into what he calls a full-fledged “cheerleader.”
Smith, 33, can’t wait.
The five-time Pro Bowler figures by the time he retires from football his 14-year-old son Peyton, an exceptional soccer player, will be playing in college. And Smith doesn’t plan to miss many of those matches.
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“In four years it gives me an opportunity to hang up my cleats and now I become a cheerleader,” Smith said. “Now it’s `Hey, c’mon honey, we have to hurry up and travel to Peyton’s games.’ I’m looking forward to that. It’s no longer about me at that point. It’s about him.”
For now though, it’s still very much about Smith in Carolina.
Although he talks frequently about “handing over the torch” and “taking a back seat” to the team’s younger receivers like Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, the 5-foot-9 Smith still remains one of the league’s fiercest competitors and best receivers despite being one of its most vertically challenged.
Smith might be slowing down a little, but probably not enough for anyone to notice.
The speedy Smith proved instrumental in the team’s four-game improvement in the win column last season — from 2-14 to 6-10 — with 79 receptions for 1,394 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. He was rewarded with his fifth Pro Bowl.
Smith said he still feels great physically and has no doubt he can still play at a high level in the NFL.
That’s particularly good news for a Carolina team that has huge expectations after making major strides last season under new coach Ron Rivera, rookie quarterback Cam Newton and a seemingly ageless receiver who shows no signs of slowing down.
Smith knows it won’t always be that way.
And he’s at peace with that.
“I will be prepared and be ready to take the back seat when the time comes,” Smith said. “The hardest thing for an older guy is to be prepared and be ready to pass the torch. Naturally it happens. And to be able to do that, I think a lot of older players struggle with it. I’ve seen it.”
Smith holds virtually every major receiving record in franchise history and last year surpassed 10,000 career yards receiving, a major personal milestone for Smith.
The team’s longest tenured player, Smith remains feisty and he’ll fire off from time to time when he feels someone close to him has been slighted. But he’s tried to take on a leadership role as he’s matured, particularly with the young receivers.
In February he even paid for the entire receiving corps to join him in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.
He’s also talked to teammates about not putting too much into last season’s success, which included the Panthers winning four of their final six games.
Success can be fleeting, like a pass that falls in and out of your arms unexpectedly.
He knows from experience.
In 2003, the Panthers got hot at the end of the season and made a run to the Super Bowl before losing on a last-second field to the New England Patriots. The following year expectations were high, but Smith broke his leg in the season opener against Green Bay on Monday Night Football. He was done for the year and so were the Panthers.
Carolina failed to make the playoffs that year.
“You can’t allow yourself to slow down and become complacent,” Smith said.
Still, Smith is excited about what he sees on the practice field.
He raves about rookie cornerback Josh Norman calling him “impressive” and adds linebacker Luke Kuechly is a star in the making and a guy he sees as “making 15 tackles on an off day.”
When Smith sees those young kids with fresh legs, it drives him even more knowing he has to work that much harder to maintain playing at a high level.
“It’s funny, everybody talks about (my) age and all of this stuff,” Smith said. “I’m not sure what it’s supposed to feel like at 33, but I’m enjoying being an older guy and playing a young man’s game — and not being too bad at it.”
There are two men with statues outside of the team’s stadium.
One is former team president Mike McCormack, who was instrumental in helping the franchise get off its feet. The other is former linebacker Sam Mills, who epitomized everything owner Jerry Richardson feels a Panther player should be.
A few years ago a cockier Smith would have told you he should be the third.
He’s a little humbler these days, more consumed with simply enjoying every last ounce of football he can knowing the end is closing in.
“With all my flaws I never see myself as all of that,” Smith said. “I’m still trying to figure out this football thing and this leadership thing. I think the people (with the statues) out there I’ve met and I respect and I hold those people in high regard. I won’t ever be in a position to say that I deserve that. I have in the past, ignorantly and being immature.
“I work hard on the field and Mr. Richardson has blessed my family with that. If that’s all I get I’m pretty appreciative of that.”