BRADENTON, Fla. — IMG Academy, the sprawling 450-acre sports facility at which the Carolina Panthers practice Wednesday, seems to offer everything but shade.
Because the early afternoon humidity is thick enough to see, most players smartly do their post-practice interviews beneath a tent.
But Panthers receiver Steve Smith is walking through the sunshine, so I intercept him there.
I ask about his work with Samaritans Feet. The Charlotte-based organization says that 300 million children lack shoes. For many, feet are their primary or only transportation. Samaritans Feet wants to provide them with shoes.
On Saturday Smith, his wife Angie and their three children will wash the feet of 400 children in Tampa and put socks and shoes on their feet.
What it really came from is, you know, just kind of reflecting, says Smith, 33. Whats my imprint, what do I want to leave? For a long time I really played this game selfishly for my own personal gains. And I really havent really done anything I feel outside of statistics that is substantial.
He first worked with Samaritans Feet in New Orleans last spring during the NCAA mens Final Four.
So it was like, hey, I want to do the same thing during the season where I play, says Smith. So in Tampa we have an opportunity to give out 400 pair of shoes Under Armours helping and were going to wash their feet, pray for them. Just give them our time and give them our attention.
Smith will do this in every city the Panthers play this season, including Charlotte. Because of time and travel constraints he wont personally be involved in each city. But he expects to participate in five.
After Sundays game against Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium, Smith will remove his shoes and walk barefoot to the locker room.
Be interesting if Smiths legacy does not involve cleats.
Do you think about your legacy?
You know I used to think about it a lot on the football field, says Smith. What would I be known for, would I do this and would I be good enough for that? Now, man, I just look at it as one of the best things I love doing, I love playing at home.
His older son Peyton, who this month started high school, works on game days for Panthers equipment manager Jackie Miles.
Its always pretty cool for me when I look across the field at the opposing team or water boys or ball boys and Peyton is working, says Smith. And to see him there and hes watching dad. Hes observing. That really means something to me to see his willingness to work.
My wife drops him off before a game and hes there at 8 or 9 in the morning. And the real cool thing, its the ultimate compliment a father can get, is when Jackie Miles says Peyton is very respectful and he works hard.
Smith stops talking and hes been talking quickly and smiles.
As dads we always ask are we really getting through, he says. To hear Jackie say what he said, you know what? Im doing all right.
What do you want out of this, your 12th season with the Panthers?
I just I want to have fun, you know, Smith says. Some people say, Oh, how can you not have fun? Every person at some point in their life if they work long enough at one place sometimes says, Oh, it isnt fun.
Some days, you dont want to do it. And there are other days where its so rewarding. And so for me, there were a lot of days where I didnt want to be there and theres days that I want to be there.
Smith no longer has to play football. He gets to. He signed a three-year contract extension in April.
I dont want to allow the outcome to dictate how I feel about the opportunities I have, he says. I want to move forward, playing this game. To enjoy every little bit of it, to enjoy the guys like Ryan Kalil, what he did (paying for a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer declaring the Panthers will win the Super Bowl).
Guys like that, guys are getting it, guys are seeing it. Its not all about the money they can make or the contract they get. Its something a little big bigger. Its taking a moment to encourage other people.
Is it about being part of something bigger than you are?
It is, says Smith. Its cool to see that people are here to make it bigger than you.
Also cool: the thousands of tiny shoes that leave Smiths imprint.