CHARLOTTE — Fred Graves, now the wide receivers coach for the Carolina Panthers, remembers going on a recruiting trip to Santa Monica (Ca.) Junior College in 1998 to watch Chad Johnson, hoping to bring him to Utah where he was on Ron McBride's coaching staff.
The more Graves watched Johnson (now Ochocinco), the more he noticed Steve Smith, a 5-foot, 9-inch bundle of fire and muscle. As a receiver, Smith was raw but he had a knack for making plays and his competitiveness drew Graves to him.
During a visit to Santa Monica, Graves asked Smith what he was doing that evening. Smith told him he had to work at Taco Bell, an after classes job that required him to ride the bus there and back.
"It told you this kid was going to work," Graves said. "Some kids would say give me this and that. Steve never asked for anything."
Though neither realized it at the time, it was the start of a friendship that developed during Smith's two seasons at Utah and has brought them together again with the Panthers this season.
It's a bond that began with football but reaches beyond the game. When the Panthers played Dallas in the playoffs on the way to Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, Graves stayed at Smith's house. When the Panthers went to Houston to face the New England Patriots, Graves made the trip with Smith.
Two years ago, when Angie Smith threw her husband a surprise 30th birthday party, Graves was among the guests.
"He's one of the very few big men of influence in my life overall, not just football," Smith said. "He's always been in my life and will continue to be."
There are moments now when Smith is on the practice field or watching tape when he hears Graves coaching him and the words come back like snippets from a dream the night before. The words aren't as colorful as they were when it all started but Smith is a different football player from the kid he was at Utah.
He signed at Utah with his friend, Demetrius Posey, the third receiver on the Santa Monica roster. Posey never attended Utah and died in a car accident in 2003. It was Graves who had to call Smith and deliver the bad news.
By then, both Smith and Graves were in the NFL, at the start of a professional road that led them here. It was one more binding moment in their relationship.
Not all of those moments have been easy.
Shortly after Smith arrived at Utah, he kept talking during practice, tugging against what Graves was trying to teach. Fed up with it, Graves threw Smith out of practice.
Graves remembers Smith going to the end of the practice field and standing there with his helmet on.
"He was crying," Graves said. "I talked to him after practice and he said, 'Coach, I love football. I don't have anything but football.'
"I just said, 'This is how you're going to do it and this is how you're going to get better."
Smith hasn't forgotten the moment.
"I remember he kicked me off the field," Smith said. "When you have respect for somebody, it doesn't matter how they say it. You know what their intentions are. His intentions and his motives have always been positive.
"When he says something to me, if he tells me to jump off the roof...Now that I'm older, I may look over and peek just to make sure that safety net's down there but I'll jump over. That's the respect I have and I don't question what his motives are."
It's the same, Smith said, with Ricky Proehl, his former wide receiver teammate and now one of his Panthers coaches.
"With Steve, it's about trust," Proehl said. "You have to have his trust. He's going to go out there and work his tail off. He knows what made him successful. When you have someone telling him he needs to do something different, it takes someone like Fred and, I like to think, myself. He has that trust."
Graves, 61, has the classic peripatetic coach's resume. He started coaching in 1975 at Northeast Missouri State and made three more college stops, the last spanning 1982 through 2000 at Utah, his alma mater. He jumped to the NFL in 2001 when he joined the Buffalo Bills and he has worked with Cleveland (alongside Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski), Detroit and Tennessee before landing with the Panthers.
He tried previously to land a job with the Panthers but it didn't happen until head coach Ron Rivera hired him for his new staff. Graves wanted to coach Smith again.
Smith calls it "an honor" to be coached by Graves and says they have the same goal - to make Smith a great wide receiver.
"He shoots it to me straight and I shoot it to him straight," Smith said.
This is a different season for Smith. He's coming off one of the most frustrating seasons in his career. Smith caught just 46 passes last year, the fewest since his rookie year (not counting 2004 when he played just one game due to injury) and his frustration showed.
In the new Panthers' world, Smith has been asked to learn a new offensive scheme. The terminology is different, the routes are different and the expectations are different.
He remains the Panthers' No. 1 receiver in a scheme that relies more heavily on downfield passing than the previous system. However, the scheme requires receivers to be at certain spots on the field, sometimes limiting their creativity, one of Smith's strengths. Discipline is critical to the system, Proehl said.
"You just have to get to certain points without adding wrinkles. That's where Steve has to change," Proehl said.
"What we've tried to convey to Smith is he can have as a good a year, if not better, than his best year. It's a matter of being more precise on his routes and having the discipline. That's a change. That's where the trust and respect for Fred Graves comes in."
Graves understands what has separated Smith from other receivers through the years. He knows the fire and the fury. He's seen it spill over the edge at times and he's seen it make Smith seem unstoppable at other times.
It's all still there, Graves believes, and it's his task to make the most of it.
"People say he's lost a step, well, we all lose steps. That's just part of getting older," Graves said.
"But his quickness, his elusiveness, he hasn't lost that. His fire for the game, that's what makes Steve Smith. He got settled into the same type of offense for so long and sometimes that becomes stagnant. I think he's more energized. I think you'll see Steve Smith back where he was."
After last season, Smith indicated he might want to play elsewhere. The residue of a 2-14 season and a diminished role in an unproductive offense were factors. So was age.
Closer to the end than the beginning of his career, Smith was said to be interested in playing for a team closer to making the Super Bowl than the Panthers.
Graves heard all of that and understood it. Players want to win championships. When they talked during the offseason, Graves told Smith to consider all of his options and to consider more than just what he wanted.
"It's the old saying, sometimes the grass is not greener," Graves said. "I said you have to be satisfied and your family has to be satisfied. Not just Steve. You and your family."
Smith heard his friend and his coach. Asked if he stayed with the Panthers because Graves joined the coaching staff, Smith said it was about more than that.
"It was about family," Smith said. "That's what it's always been and what it will always be. ...10 years from now, people want to believe what they want.
"People want to say nobody wanted me; it doesn't matter. It's God first. 1A is Angie, Peyton, Bailey and Boston (his wife and children). If people don't believe that, if they can't get that, shame on them."