SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Steve Smith Sr. has always enjoyed the banter that comes with football, the trash-talking, the jokes.
There’s one topic that can turn Smith serious and introspective in an instant, though, because of the importance of that topic to Smith himself.
Get him talking about Sam Mills, and Smith becomes reverent, the tone of his voice drops, and the fun is replaced with poignant reflection.
“Of course, there will be emotions,” Smith said of watching Mills’ induction into the Hall later this week. “I think it’s outstanding. I think he should be, and now he is, the first Carolina Panther to go in.
“All the stars aligned, and it’s great. Unfortunately, he’s not here, but his family being able to be there, I just think it’s a great opportunity for them.”
Make no mistake, Smith wants to join Mills in Canton some day, and he should, given his own career accomplishments. Smith was eligible for the first time this year and made the cut to 26 semifinalists.
But between the parallels in their own experiences in football, and being embraced by Mills as an underdog rookie himself, it’s a meaningful conversation for Smith.
When you’re a 5-foot-9 receiver who wasn’t sure if his own team wanted him at times, or a 5-foot-9 linebacker who was cut twice and teaching shop class at a New Jersey high school before getting a chance to play in an on-the-fly league which eventually led to NFL stardom, it’s easy to find common ground.
When the world seems to not believe in you, finding someone who does is meaningful.
So Smith gets sentimental when he thinks back to his rookie training camp in 2001 — when he thought people viewed him as little more than a return man — when the then-linebackers coach threw an arm around him on the practice field.
Mills wasn’t just offering him tips during a special teams drill; he let Smith know he recognized something in him, that he saw a familiar fire.
From then on, the little guys would stick together, and have each other’s back.
“One thing about football, it’s a gift and a curse,” Smith said. “The curse of it is, you’re constantly reminded of your deficiencies. And the gift is you’re always being coached up. So you don’t really take compliments very well because you’re expecting the ‘but.’ That’s one of the things I know for myself, that Sam was always one of those guys. You never questioned the compliment, and you never questioned the coaching. You received, from Sam, both. Not everybody can pull that off.
“Here’s what I can say, as a 43-year-old man today, I wish I would have accepted the unqualified compliments that Sam gave me a lot, because I was too busy trying to figure out where I fit in. Sam gave me an unqualified compliment many times, and those sit well in my heart.”
That heart is attached firmly to Smith’s sleeve when the topic of one of his mentors comes up. Even before Mills was chosen for induction this spring, Smith always said Mills was the “greatest player in franchise history,” and the kind of role model he aspired to emulate.
Like a lot of people this week, Smith hates he’s not able to share those feelings with Mills himself, but the memories he holds close to his heart make’s Saturday’s enshrinement ceremony something he looks forward to seeing.
“I would say I admired Sam more than I let on,” Smith said. “And I regret that I didn’t tell him as much of how he impacted me personally, as a man and a football player. At times, being a rookie and a young second- and third-year player, Sam would give me little nuggets and tell me how he saw me.
“Folks say all the time when they get older, give men and women their roses before they pass. And I guess that’s one of the biggest things I regret, is not giving Sam enough of his roses that he deserved at the time when he was here.”