Family first: For Ravens' Steve Smith Sr., 'being a dad is the most important thing'

Boston Smith, son of the Ravens' Steve Smith Sr., considers him the 'best Dad in the world.'

Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. scrolls down on his phone, passing through hundreds of pictures of him and his family at home, on vacation or on an NFL sideline.

Finally finding what he was looking for — a photo of a drawing that his son, Boston, gave him for Father's Day a couple of years back — Smith enlarges the image and starts reading aloud.

"My Dad is … Stevonne."

"He's really good at … playing football."

"It makes me happy when he … hugs me."

"What I love most about my Dad is … he is my Dad."

Smith gets a little emotional as he finishes reading Boston's gift: "Dear Dad: you are the best Dad in the world."

Smith, 36, has 915 career receptions, 81 touchdowns and five Pro Bowl invitations. Undersized but ultracompetitive, he has defied Father Time to thrive for 14 NFL seasons. But, Smith says, "Being a dad is the most important thing. It's what you take ownership of. It's the real legacy of your life."

Smith and his wife, Angie, were married while both were at the University of Utah. They have four children, ranging from 11 months to 17 years old, and the family lives year-round in Charlotte, N.C., where Smith played 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers before signing with the Ravens in March 2014.

Ravens fans quickly embraced Smith, who led the team last year with 79 catches and 1,065 receiving yards. They love that he plays with a physical and emotional style that has more often defined the team's vaunted defense over the years. But what many fans probably don't know is that Smith, who regularly engages cornerbacks both physically and verbally, is quiet and reserved at home, an "introvert," says Angie Smith.

Long regarded as one of the toughest and most ornery guys in the NFL, Smith drives his 13-year-old daughter, Baylee, and her friends to volleyball practice and sings along with them when a Taylor Swift tune comes on over the radio. He coaches 10-year-old Boston's flag football team and then morphs into a soccer dad for his 17-year-old son, Peyton, who honors his father by wearing No. 89. Any opportunity he gets, Smith dotes on Stevonne Jr., the 11-month-old the family calls "Deuce."

"Work is so much easier than being a dad," says Smith, who added the "Sr." to his name after the birth of his son last year. "It's just a juggling act. With football, I know exactly where I need to be. I know what route I need to run. But, man, there is no manual when you have a house full of [kids]."

Staying close

If the Ravens' status as a perennial playoff team was Reason 1A that Smith signed with them after his release from the Panthers, Reason 1B was that Baltimore is just an hour's flight from Charlotte and Ravens coach John Harbaugh promised to give Smith permission to go home on certain days.

It's that desire to spend time with his family that will prompt Smith — perhaps as early as next offseason — to step away from the game, even if he's still playing it at a high level. Smith says he hasn't decided when he will retire, but he has maintained that he won't be playing in his 40s. Smith is signed with the Ravens through 2016.

"There have been a lot of great things to come out of this, but it's been hard, too, with the challenge of being apart and traveling back and forth," Angie Smith says. "Looking back over the years, there's a lot of things that he's missed out on, obviously not because he chose that but just because of his job and his line of work. A lot of activities are on the weekends, and he's just not able to be there. Looking toward the future, he's talked about how important it is for him to be there for the rest of the time that he has with the kids."

Peyton, a highly regarded soccer prospect, is embarking on a college search. Baylee will start high school, while Boston enters the fifth grade. Each day brings soccer or football practice, a volleyball match, a dance recital or a school activity. There is also the challenge of making sure Deuce sleeps through the night.

"We keep them busy," Peyton says.

Angie is a constant presence at the kids' events. Steve makes as many as he can, occasionally leaving in the middle to catch a flight back to Baltimore for a practice or team meeting. Smith says jokingly that he and his wife "play a lot of zone coverage with vehicles."

"He's definitely pushed us in everything that we do on and off the field," said Peyton, whose club soccer team has won back-to-back North Carolina state championships. "It's good to see that he supports me just as much if not more, even though I don't play football. He just wants me to do what makes me happy."

Growing up in inner-city Los Angeles, Smith used sports as a release for pent-up frustration. His father was not a constant presence in his life, and his mother was in some abusive relationships.

"How I grew up has a huge impact on the way I father, but I also have to be careful not to parent out of fear of some of the things that I missed out on," says Smith, whose family started a foundation to help disadvantaged youths and victims of domestic violence. "My folks did the best they could. They weren't together, so I saw my dad on weekends. But looking at it and being a parent now, there are some things that I know what the ramifications are and how it impacts kids. I want to make sure that those things aren't repeated. I'm not saying those things to put anybody down. I'm saying them as a matter of reality. Broken homes create wounds in kids and leave a void. I'm very aware of those voids."

Smith hears from people who can't quite grasp the contrast between the two images of him they see. There is the intense, in-your-face receiver on Sundays, and the doting dad they see in photos on Smith's Instagram account.

People constantly tell Smith upon meeting him that he's different than they thought.

"I won't say I'm two different people because I'm not," Smith says. "But I think there are ways you are at work that are not conducive to home. I'm not running fade routes against press corners in the living room. I'm tackling applesauce and trying to help my wife with cooking. At home, I'm real chill. Sometimes, my wife tries to read me because I'm too quiet. I've had to work on that."

Smith has also learned to "dial it back" around his daughter, Baylee, because she's more sensitive than the boys. He's still beaming about the day they spent in Washington last year, when they attended the White House Easter Egg Roll and Smith then took his daughter shopping for summer clothes.

Smith credits his wife for improving his parenting skills by giving him "unwanted but necessary feedback." To Angie, it works both ways.

"As a mom who has the privilege to stay at home with the kids, I'm just around them a little bit more, so maybe I know some of their tendencies a bit better," Angie says. "He may respond to something in a certain way, and I'll whisper in his ear, 'Hey, say that a little softer,' or, 'Hey, this is what they have going on, so give them some breaks.' But he can do the same for me. He has a great perspective on things, and he tends to be more black-and-white and I'm kind of more gray. We balance each other off."

A balancing act

In a little over a year in the organization, Smith has become a mentor to several of the Ravens young receivers. They pick his brain not only about football issues but about family ones. Smith constantly reminds teammates about what's most important in life.

"I'd say most guys don't know how to switch from Daddy to 'Beast Mode,'" second-year wide receiver Jeremy Butler says. "He's got it down perfect."

Smith says that he's able to put the results of a game behind him the second he comes home. He doesn't sulk after a loss or spend too much time celebrating a win. It helps that Angie understands football and knows when to give him space. But there are also times when he comes home and feels the need to explain himself.

One such incident came last season when Smith was caught on camera shouting an expletive during the Ravens' victory over the Panthers. One of Baylee's classmates brought it up to her, which bothered Smith immensely.

"There are things that he might say or do where after the game, I'll say, 'What were you thinking, or what happened? What did the other guy say to get you to respond like that?'" Angie says. "If it's something that the kids saw that he needs to explain, he's really good at saying, 'Hey, I messed up. I shouldn't have handled it that way. Just because Dad did this doesn't mean you should, too.'"

The Smiths' three older kids have been around sports all their lives. They understand things can get heated and emotional. It's all part of what Smith calls "the gift and the curse."

"People are going to judge you whether they have all the facts or none of the facts," says Smith, who returned to Charlotte after Ravens minicamp to spend part of Father's Day weekend with his family. He plans to fly out to Alabama today with Boston to host a football camp for military kids. "You've got to be careful not to parent or walk around allowing those things to say who you are and what you're going to be. So I be myself, and being yourself is the truest person that you can be."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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