By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
This season was supposed to be the swan song for veteran NFL wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. His team, the Baltimore Ravens, appeared to be Super Bowl contenders, and the 36-year-old former Carolina Panther announced prior to the season that this, his 15th in the league, would be his last.
On that afternoon in August, when Smith said, “I feel like it’s time,” as reported by The Baltimore Sun’s Jeff Zrebiec, there was a feeling of hope surrounding Baltimore. And coming off an inaugural season with the Ravens where he finished with six touchdowns and over 1,000 yards, Smith seemed confident in what the future held.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
The Ravens got off to woeful 1-6 start, despite Smith averaging more than six catches and 95 receiving yards per game. But on Nov. 1, during a warm and sunny afternoon in Baltimore, Steve Smith Sr. tore his Achilles tendon against the San Diego Chargers, ending his season and perhaps his career. The Ravens won the game, but lost an emotional leader and their most consistent receiver.
As I watched the game, surrounded by somber Ravens fans in a sports bar in Baltimore City, the image of Smith being helped off the field was haunting. A towel draped over his head concealed the ostensible emotions that have defined Smith’s career. Standing only 5 feet 9 inches, Smith has always used his passion on the field as a means to elevate his play. In this moment, he must have known the severity of his injury. He must have known he wasn’t going back out.
Known for his toughness, Smith has played through cracked ribs this season, and numerous ailments throughout his career. He famously scored a touchdown in a 2009 game against the Giants after a hit from safety Michael Johnson. The hit broke Smith’s arm, but he somehow managed to make the reception, stay upright, hold on to the ball, and run into the end zone while taking another hit as he scored the touchdown. That seriously happened.
Despite his toughness, we may have seen the last of one of the best wide receivers to ever play the game. Smith ranks 10th all-time in career receiving yards – likely to be passed by the Indianapolis Colts’ Andre Johnson this season – and 15th in receptions. And he accomplished this with questionable quarterback play as a Carolina Panther in 13 of his 15 years in the league.
His 2005 season remains one of the most dominant I’ve seen by a receiver. That year he led the league, or tied league leaders, in all three major receiving categories: yards, receptions and touchdown catches.
While I remain hopeful that Smith will make a miraculous recovery and return for one final season of amazing catches and raucous celebrations, I know the image of Smith being helped off the field is likely the last time I’ll watch one of my favorite players. Smith is the model of a football player who uses sheer will and determination to overcome perceived physical limitations and achieve greatness.
Love him or hate him, Smith embodied the essence of football and competitive sports. Because of that, he was good for the league, good for the fans, and he’ll be missed greatly on the field. I wish him well, and thank him for 15 years of exciting football.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.