Steve Smith won a national championship at USC, he won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants and he’s a former Pro Bowler.
He’s also, at 29, out of football.
After several productive seasons with the Giants – including 2009, when he set a franchise record with 107 catches – Smith suffered a series of knee injuries. He had a fairly unproductive season with Philadelphia in 2011 (11 catches for 124 yards and one touchdown) and another fairly unproductive season with St. Louis in 2012 (14 catches for 131 yards and zero touchdowns).
But the issue for Smith in St. Louis wasn’t his knee. Rather, it was the politics.
“People don’t know (this), but my knee actually felt great (that year),” Smith said on The Damon Amendolara Show. “If the Rams would’ve played me more, I would’ve shown that I felt just as good as I did (when I was with) the Giants. To be honest, I felt like I was even a little bit better. I worked so hard and my knee felt great the whole season, and I just didn’t really get the opportunity to play. They had their guy. That’s how that goes. It’s just unfortunate I didn’t really reach my full potential.”
Thus, for Smith, his production didn’t wane due to declining health or skill. It waned due to limited opportunities.
“Oh, no question,” he said. “(General manager Les Snead) even told me (halfway) through the season, ‘We see what you’re doing in practice.’ The DBs were like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you’re not playing.’ That’s just how the game is sometimes. The politics of the game is unfortunate, but I at least had a chance to see both sides of it, and I respect that’s how it is.”
Smith knows how he sounds – and he assured listeners it’s not like that.
“I used to just hear about it from guys when I was younger and think, ‘Oh, you’re just bitter,’” Smith said. “But when you actually go through it, it’s really tough and it’s really humbling. I’m thankful for all the good years I had playing football, and I’m thankful for the years I had when it was tough, too – because you learn how to fight through and keep persevering. Good things can happen in other ways.”
Good things certainly happened to Smith at USC, where he helped the Trojans to the national title in 2004. Smith had three touchdowns in a 55-19 championship game beatdown of Oklahoma.
Smith can’t believe that was 10 years ago.
“Time flies,” he said. “That was a great time in my life.”
It’s also hard to believe just how talented that team was. Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Lendale White. The offense was stacked.
“I don’t think you can necessarily understand how much talent was there because we didn’t know everybody was going to go on to be successful afterward,” Smith said. “But we knew we had something special.”
Unfortunately for USC, the title was later vacated by the NCAA, but that won’t be the legacy for Smith.
“We still know what we did,” he said. “We accomplished it, we went out there and did it, and nobody was taking performance-enhancing drugs or anything like that. It was just something that happened off the field. So it’s just kind of unfortunate for the kids that are younger that didn’t get a chance to see us. We might not be on the statistical page, but if you were around and you knew and you (saw) what we did, we accomplished a lot.”
Smith continued his big-game heroics in the NFL, making a huge catch on 3rd-and-10 in the Giants’ 17-14 win over the previously unbeaten Patriots.
“It was just fabulous,” Smith said of that season. “To go from competing at a high level collegiately to jumping right (to the pros) and being able to win, words can’t even explain how it feels. It was just a fantastic run in the playoffs for us.”
In the end, Smith is at peace with his NFL career, and he urged all players to make the most of their opportunities – wherever they are.
“Everybody’s not going to get the opportunity to play, but I know there’s a lot of guys on these rosters that can make plays when they’re given the chance,” Smith said. “You just got to wait for your turn.”