CONCORD — It’s tough to say what was the more jarring sight Friday at zMax Dragway: watching former Panthers receiver Steve Smith climb behind the wheel of a top fuel dragster to rev the engine, or seeing him sporting the colors of his new team, the Baltimore Ravens.
“The confidence that I have in myself, I look good in any color,” Smith said. “I look good in purple. So I’ll be fine.”
Smith, who was released March 13 after 13 seasons with the Panthers, will continue to live in Charlotte, where his three children were born and where they go to school.
And he’ll continue to make public appearances like Friday’s at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, where Smith was a guest of driver Antron Brown and Charlotte Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith.
But Smith made it clear the Panthers are no longer his concern.
So Smith offered little opinion on Carolina’s complete make-over of its receiving corps, which began with his release and included the departures of three other wideouts in free agency.
“Not that I’m upset, not that I’m mad. It’s just the facts of the business,” Smith said. “Brandon LaFell is a New England Patriot. Ted Ginn is an Arizona Cardinal. And Domenik Hixon a Chicago Bear. Those are my brothers, those are my friends.
“Who your current employer is does not eliminate or change the friendship and the camaraderie that you’ve built over the years. ... Just because we collect checks from different organizations doesn’t mean that all of a sudden we cut each other off.”
Smith, who turns 35 next month, recently did a football camp with LaFell, his teammate the past four seasons. Smith will hold his annual camp in Charlotte in June.
Before then, he’ll be in Baltimore on April 21 for the start of the Ravens’ offseason workouts.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said at the NFL league meetings last month he believes Smith needs to scale down his practice intensity or risk not making it through the season. Smith missed the regular-season finale last season with a sprained knee but returned to score the Panthers’ lone touchdown in their playoff loss to San Francisco.
But Smith wasn’t interested in discussing Rivera’s comment.
“What’s in the past is in the past,” he said. “At the end of the day, you go to the kitchen, you get a washcloth, you pick up the spilled milk and you move on. That’s what I’m doing. I’m moving on.”
Smith’s productivity slipped in 2013, when his receptions (64), receiving yardage (745) and yards-per-catch average (11.6) were among the lowest in his career. Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman also viewed Smith as a distraction and questioned Smith’s willingness to work with the team’s young receivers.
Smith drew interest from several teams after he was cut. He signed a three-year, $11 million contract with the Ravens the day after his release and canceled a visit with New England.
In an ad he took out in the Observer last month to thank Carolina fans, Smith indicated he wants to retire as a Panther. On Friday at the drag strip, Smith again expressed his respect for Panthers owner Jerry Richardson.
“I have nothing bad to say about Mr. Richardson or the organization. And I won’t. And I refuse to because they deserve nothing but my respect,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’ve done great things for me, given me an opportunity to bless my family.”
Smith enjoyed his day at the Four-Wide Nationals. His son, Boston, sat in Brown’s dragster before Smith fired up the engine in Brown’s garage.
After warming it up, Smith was headed out to watch Brown race. He planned to keep a safe distance from the roar of the dragsters.
“I still have to hear the cadence,” he said.
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