Smith ready to be a leader

Wide receiver says it will be a good chance to open up with teammates

Staff WriterAugust 3, 2009 

— Turning 30 is often a milestone in a person's life. And that's been the case for the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith.

Smith, the Panthers' Pro Bowl receiver, reported to training camp Sunday at Wofford College with a new set of expectations for himself with the team and a fervent wish not to have to deal with the aftereffects of an ugly incident he precipitated this time last year.

"Everybody in our circle -- Panthers fans, players, football fans -- know what happened last year and I'm dealing with that," said Smith. "I'm not too excited about being in camp, due to the circumstances from last year and all the things that will be said and a lot of the things that happened, being a distraction, stuff like that."

Smith was referring, of course, to the day in training camp last season when he punched cornerback Ken Lucas, breaking Lucas's nose and potentially derailing the Panthers' season before it began.

But Smith immediately apologized and was forgiven by Lucas, avoiding any potential locker room discord. The Panthers went 12-4 and won the NFC South championship. Smith caught 78 passes for 1,421 yards and six touchdowns and played in the Pro Bowl for a fourth time.

Then, on May 12, came Smith's 30th birthday.

"For the NFL, that's a magic number," said Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, 34. "One, it's a credit you've been in the league that long. Two, he sees that, 'I'm in my prime right now. I've got a chance to touch a lot of people.' When he speaks, people listen.

"I think that's an offseason's worth of [him] trying to get better."

But for Smith, a vocal and boisterous player on the field, having a strong presence in the locker room isn't something that comes naturally.

"It will be a good opportunity for me to be more indulgent with my teammates," said Smith. "To open up a little more. I'm kind of an introvert away from the field. I shy away. I need to get away from my little world and try to open up."

Coach John Fox didn't want to link the Smith-Lucas incident with Smith's desire to become more of a leader this season.

"I try not to look back too much," Fox said. "He probably feels more comfortable with the maturation process. He understands what it takes to be successful and to get that message across to young players is critical."

As Smith headed into his dorm room at Wofford, where he will spend much of the next few weeks, he had a little fun talking about his advanced years.

"With me losing a step, I've really got to improve," Smith said. "When guys are saying they watched you when they were in high school and they're actually on the team, you know. I wouldn't say I'm getting older and better. But I'm teetering on the fence."

dscott@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5889

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