Having teamed with his wife to finance athletic and academic scholarships at the University of Utah, Steve Smith Sr. enjoys receiving letters of thanks from students each year.
In 2022 or some year afterward, Smith hopes to receive a phone call that would be meaningful to him in a different way. The former receiver is in line to become the second Ute player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Smith this month joined the Pac-12 Hall of Honor, in an annual ceremony that recognizes an athlete from each school — in Utah’s case, usually predating Pac-12 membership. He’s also the featured speaker in Saturday’s Utah Football Coaches Clinic.
Smith views his Hall of Fame candidacy in the same context as his failed attempt to win a Super Bowl during his 16-year NFL tenure with Carolina and Baltimore: It is not necessary to complete a satisfying career, but it would be nice. Larry Wilson, a St. Louis Cardinals defensive back from 1960-72, is the only ex-Ute enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
“God willing, hopefully, it’ll happen,” Smith said during the Pac-12 event in Las Vegas. “As the old saying goes, ‘Man’s time is now, but God’s time is when he says it.’ … So when it happens, it happens. But it’s always been a goal of mine since February 2002, when I hired a sport psychologist to really help me hone in and start to focus on my craft. … So If it happens, it’s great. It it doesn’t, it doesn’t take away from all the great experiences that I got.”
Smith’s Hall of Fame eligibility begins in 2022, five years after his retirement. Statistically, with Smith having caught 1,031 passes for 14,731 yards and 81 touchdowns, Pro Football Reference ranks him comparably to Hall of Fame receivers Andre Reed, James Lofton, Cris Carter and Art Monk. His numbers are somewhat inflated by this century’s passing emphasis. Some observers have suggested that voters will scrutinize Smith’s demonstrative nature on the field as well as some off-field issues early in his career. With only five modern-era players inducted each year, receivers recently have had to wait for induction beyond the initial five-year mark.
Smith is revered at Utah, where coach Kyle Whittingham labels him “a great ambassador for the university, all during his NFL career … just a great supporter and tremendous alum.”
Former Ute safety Eric Weddle respected Smith as a longtime opponent and appreciated him even more as a teammate in Baltimore in 2016, Smith's farewell season.
Smiling as he discussed Smith’s habit of verbally engaging with opponents, Weddle said, “We always knew — or I knew — not to poke the bear.”
Weddle, who spoke to Utah’s Pro Day participants this week, will always remember “just seeing his personality and his competitiveness and how animated he is, and what a talented player he was,” he said. “And then, luckily enough, I was able to be his teammate for a year, which was a dream come true, of looking up to the guy — not just the player, but the man.”
As for Smith's Hall of Fame possibilities, Weddle said, “One hundred percent. ... I think it's a no-doubt. His stats speak for themselves, but the way he affected games was second to none.”
The receiver and return specialist was drafted by Carolina in the third round in 2001. He became a star almost immediately, helping Carolina reach the Super Bowl in his third season and catching four passes for 80 yards vs. New England — only to have a young Tom Brady lead the Patriots’ drive to the winning field goal.
Smith, who will turn 40 in May, marvels about where his Utah experience propelled him, in football and now in business ventures that have been influenced by his major in family and consumer studies. He's also an NFL Network analyst. Having come to Utah from Santa Monica (Calif.) Community College, Smith said, “When you sign to a school, it's a hope and a dream that it'll work out. You don't even know how it'll work, but you just hope you get an opportunity, and that's what I got.”
That’s why Smith and his wife, Angie, endowed an athletic scholarship for a Ute receiver and an academic grant for a first-generation college student. “Now, I get to pay for other people going to college,” he said. “I may not give off that impression because of football or because of TV, but deep inside, that’s what it’s about.”