Baltimore Ravens wide receiver talks about approaching 1000 receptions and playing against the Dallas Cowboys. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
It was back in mid-June, seven months after Steve Smith Sr. suffered what was initially believed to be a career-ending Achilles tendon injury and weeks before he returned to the practice field, when the veteran receiver suggested he could make his 1,000th career catch, immediately get into his car and drive home for good.
Now three receptions short of becoming the 14th receiver all time to hit the milestone, Smith is no longer entertaining the idea.
"Not from Dallas," Smith said after Wednesday's practice, where the Ravens continued preparation for Sunday's road matchup against the Cowboys. "That's a long drive."
When he decided to return for a 16th and final NFL season, Smith promised himself he would take time to enjoy each day of it. From his weekly war of words with current and former players to his relationships with teammates to his production on the field, Smith said he's having a blast.
His focus this week is on helping the Ravens (5-4) cool off the NFL-best Cowboys (8-1), and on building momentum for a postseason berth and a Super Bowl victory, one of the few things that has eluded Smith in his career. He did acknowledge that if and when he makes that 1,000th career catch, he'll allow himself a brief period of reflection.
"I'm going to keep that ball," Smith said. "There are not a lot of guys that have done it. Yeah, guys are doing it earlier in their careers because the way the game is going, but for me, it's been a long road, and a lot of things have happened good and bad. If you would have told 12-year-old Steve or 21-year-old Steve that at 37 years old, you'd still be playing football and you'd be catching your 1,000th reception, I wouldn't have believed you. People don't understand. It's very hard to do this at this age."
The oldest receiver in the league, Smith has 36 receptions, 417 receiving yards and two touchdown catches this season, despite missing two full games and a significant part of a third with an ankle injury. He remains the Ravens' offensive igniter, the player opposing teams focus on stopping, the one quarterback Joe Flacco looks for in key situations and teammates look at to show them the way.
"Everything that guy does is incredible athletically," Flacco said. "The physical nature of him, everybody should look at him. I don't know if they should be jealous or whatnot, but they should definitely take notes to how special of a person they're watching. The things that he's gone through and the way he's come back this year, I'll be telling stories about him for a long time, and this just adds to it."
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco talks about playing with an ever-changing offensive line and what it is like to play with Steve Smith Sr. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Said Ravens rush linebacker Terrell Suggs: "You kind of forget his age [because of] the way he plays."
Smith insists he's not treating the rest of this season any differently. He's tried to spend more one-on-one time with teammates and he particularly values the relationships he's built with the Ravens' other wide receivers.
He concedes that there are times during game week when his mind drifts and he thinks of "what will I be doing at this time next year?" Beyond that and a painful ankle injury that he's still trying to get over, he says he's approaching the game as he always has.
"It has been rewarding to play the way I'm playing and to be a factor, to be looked at and to be double-teamed at times," Smith said. "Go back to the Oakland game before I got hurt. I ran a 12-yard route and I take it 52 yards. That's not what people expected. That's not what people thought. People can predict or say what they want to, but the thing I love about sports, you don't get to prove people wrong by saying, 'I told you so.' You get to prove people wrong because you get to defy the odds."
Smith loves to talk about his doubters, but none of his coaches and teammates, or his opponents, is surprised by the level he's still playing at. Neither is former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Ronde Barber, now an NFL analyst. He faced Smith twice a season in the NFC South and called the matchups among the most challenging of his 16-year career.
"People ask me all the time who were the hardest guys I ever played against, and he was at the top of the list. Randy Moss was, too, just because he was a physical freak, but I always said Steve Smith because he worked harder than anybody else," Barber said. "When he got on the field on Sundays, you could tell that he was there to outwork you. He was always my toughest challenge. It doesn't surprise me at all that he's still going, that he's still productive. Knowing him, everything is a competition to him. Even Father Time is a competition that he's still trying to win."
Barber laughs when he sees a defensive back engage Smith verbally. When the Buccaneers played the Panthers, Barber made it a point to approach Smith early in the game and ask him about his family and his charity.
"As soon as you start talking smack to him, the [switch flips] and it's over with. That switch is not going off until the game is over. I always felt if I could disengage him just a little, it would be a nice, cordial, competitive day, and not the rah-rah Steve Smith that was impossible to deal with," Barber said. "That's real. It's not an act. That's how he motivates himself."
Already this season, Smith has gotten into it with Jacksonville Jaguars rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, his former teammate with the Carolina Panthers. Last week, he called out NBC analyst Rodney Harrison after the former NFL safety was critical about the Ravens relying on a 37-year-old coming off Achilles surgery.
"You can say, 'Maybe he's not as good,' or 'He's slowing down a little bit,' of course, but don't make it seem like I'm out there running routes with a piano on my back," Smith said.
On Friday at 9 p.m., NFL Network will chronicle Smith's career as part of its "A Football Life" series. The hourlong show highlights Smith's humble beginnings in inner-city Los Angeles, his 13 seasons in Carolina, his recovery from a double rupture of his right Achilles tendon, and his family life with his wife, Angie, and their four kids.
The final chapter of Smith's career, though, has yet to be written. Can he help lead the Ravens to the playoffs? Will he ultimately get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Smith ranks in the top 15 all time in receptions, receiving yards and all-purpose yards, but the way wide receiver numbers are judged has changed in the current pass-happy NFL. There is also a logjam of receivers waiting to get the call from the Hall.
"The problem that all receivers are going to face, you can get 1,000 catches in 10 seasons now. That's always going to be a hurdle for all these great receivers," said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, who will be on the CBS broadcasting team for Sunday's Ravens-Cowboys game. "When [former teammate Charlie Joiner] retired, it was 750. And now 750 doesn't even show up on the screen. But longevity has a lot to do with it. What Steve has done over the years has been pretty remarkable."
Barber believes Smith belongs in the Hall of Fame as well, and said winning a championship would clinch it. As for Smith, he insists he's not at all consumed by the Hall of Fame debate.
"If I get a call, I get a call. If I don't, I don't," he said. "At the end of the day, when I'm done, I'm going home and I'm going to relax."