-- When he was a kid growing up in inner city Los Angeles, little Stevonne Smith loved trading cards. He was a natural athlete and a talented football player, and in his idle time he'd go to a gas station, plop down some change to buy either football or Garbage Pail Kids cards, pop the bubble gum in his mouth and study the stats on the back of each card.
One day, Smith got Carl Pickens' card. A wide receiver out of the University of Tennessee, Pickens was a Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver who in 1994 joined the NFL's 1,000-yard club for the first of four times. Pickens was 6-foot-2, and while Smith lacked that kind of size, he more than made up for it in confidence, passion and desire. The kid had what was then called moxie. Now, it's called swag.
Sure, Smith was little. But he, too, would make it to the league.
"That's where my love for the game came," the 5-foot-9 Steve Smith Sr. told me last year. "I wanted to be in the 1,000-yard club, so I watched John Taylor and Jerry Rice, Herman Moore and Carl Pickens. As a kid, I associated playing ball with I wanted to be in the 1,000-yard club one day. That's it. That was my love for football."
Smith defied the odds and made the 1,000-yard club eight times over, more than any player since 2001. His route to the National Football League was circuitous -- inner city L.A. to Santa Monica Junior College to Utah to the Carolina Panthers via the third-round of the 2001 draft -- but not only did Smith make it, he endured. He wasn't only a returner, as many scouts thought he'd be when he entered the draft, although he did that exceptionally well. He evolved from a self-described knucklehead from Los Angeles who struggled early in his NFL career to contain his emotions, into a passionate, intelligent, calculating wide receiver whom even the best cornerbacks had trouble defending.
And that mouth, it was legendary.
Smith made the 1,000-yard club seven times during a 13-year run with Carolina, including 2005 when he came back from a broken leg to hit the trifecta and lead the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He made it an eighth time last season, his first with Baltimore when he channeled his disappointment at being released by the Panthers to lead the Ravens in catches and yards, including seven catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns in Week 4 against his former team.
On Monday, Smith announced that this season, his 15th in the NFL, would be his last. It will be his victory lap. He will try to become just the fourth player in NFL history to have a 1,000-yard season at age 36 or older. Rice did it. Why can't Smith?
There is no reason he can't. Throughout his career, Smith has excelled at using long odds as fuel. The biggest mistake anyone -- an opponent, a coach, a teammate -- can make, Ravens coach John Harbaugh told me last year, is to underestimate Smith.
"He's a competitor," Harbaugh said. "He just fights. He's like an underdog. He loves being underestimated."
That is true, but Smith is also a caring person. His exit from Carolina was acrimonious, but it didn't stop Smith from calling longtime Panthers PR man Charlie Dayton last December two days after the team announced Dayton would become director of historical and alumni affairs. Smith was sitting on a Ravens team bus en route to the airport after a brutal loss at Houston that had made their season finale against Cleveland a must-win if they wanted to make the playoffs.
"It was nice of him to call regardless," Dayton said in an email, "but in those circumstances, it was very appreciated. Quite a career for a third-round draft choice."
Quite a career indeed. Smith enters this season ranked 18th in NFL history in receptions (915), 14th in receiving yards (13,262) and 33rd in touchdown catches (73). He is one of two players in NFL history with more than 13,000 receiving yards and 4,000 return yards. The other, Tim Brown, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last weekend.
Smith's case will make a fascinating debate in 2020, the first year he will be eligible for the Hall. Sitting on concrete steps just outside of the Ravens practice facility last summer, Smith wasn't thinking about that. He was thinking about his evolution, about becoming a man on a big stage with everyone watching.
"We all have our past," Smith said. "I came into this league not understanding a lot of things, a typical egotistical young man. The unfortunate part is I've lived my life in front of people, and people evaluate and write about things. The thing is, people look at it and say I'm feisty or I have a chip on my shoulder. You know what other people call those individuals? Passionate."
That Smith is, even if his own trading card doesn't say it.