The year was 1997. When football practice began at Santa Monica College, Coach Robert Taylor was delighted because Steve Smith was present.
“We had recruited Smith out of University High,” Taylor recalls. “We thought he could be a good player for us.”
There was another newcomer, a player Taylor and his staff hadn’t recruited, a kid from Miami named Chad Johnson.
“He had moved to L.A. to be with his mother,” recalls Taylor. “He just showed up at my office. We got lucky there.’’
Taylor saw Johnson run a few times and reasoned the Corsairs might have an outstanding passing attack with the two freshmen receivers. He had no way of knowing both youngsters would go on to four-year schools and then become all-pros.
But Smith went to Utah, progressed to the NFL and this year caught 103 passes for the Carolina Panthers to rank first in the league.
The heroics continued when Smith caught 10 passes in the Panthers’ 23-0 victory over the New York Giants in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
And there were more on Sunday when Smith caught 12 for a career-high 218 yards in a 29-21 win over the Bears in Chicago. Two went for touchdowns of 58 and 39 yards, allowing the Panthers to reach the NFC championship game this weekend. The winner will move on to the Super Bowl.
Even though the Bears knew Smith would be a primary weapon, they couldn’t stop him. Smith’s first touchdown came on the second play of the game, giving the visiting team the lead after 59 seconds.
Now the Panthers will have an opportunity to become a wild card team that goes to the Super Bowl.
“Smith is as tough a competitor as you’ll find at any position,” said Carolina Coach John Fox.
Johnson, who sat out the 1998 season to concentrate on academics, played again for SMC in 1999 and then excelled at Oregon State. He’s been a premier receiver with the Cincinnati Bengals since then, and has made the Pro Bowl three times.
The possibility existed that Smith and Johnson could oppose each other in this year’s Super Bowl, but that possibility ended with Cincinnati’s first round playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
Still, Taylor can hardly believe that two receivers from the same community college team have reached such elite status in the sport.
Reached last week in Dallas, where he was attending a football convention, Taylor shared his memories of 1997.
“We had the whole passing game,” said Taylor. “We used both guys in a variety of ways.
“Chad was just plain fast. He could run past defenders. He was taller and a graceful runner. Steve is 5-foot-9 and had then what he has now, a great burst of speed. The burst gets him open.”
Smith got into some trouble as a youngster and needed to mature on the football field. There was trouble as recently as 2002, when Smith slugged Panther teammate Anthony Bright. Now Taylor is proud of his progress.
“He’s a made over guy,” said Taylor. “He has a wife and three children and he’s matured as a young man. We thought he’d be good, we didn’t know he’d be all-pro. I watch Carolina games and see he’s 90 percent of the offense. They throw to him, he runs reverses, he returns kicks.”
Smith says his outstanding play is necessary:
“I’ve got four people at home depending on me,” he said. “If I don’t do the job, the team will get someone else.’’
Smith will be even more important this weekend because former UCLA running back DeShaun Foster, the Panthers’ other main offensive threat, suffered a broken ankle Sunday.
Smith caught 88 passes in 2004, suffered a broken leg in 2005, which limited him to six receptions, and this season was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Smith appreciates Taylor’s help in his development. When the Panthers made the Super Bowl three years ago Taylor received a call from Smith – a call made on a cell phone on the bus bringing the team to the stadium.
Taylor’s mother and wife both died that year. Smith called to offer support.
Then this season, when the Panthers had a bye on their schedule, Smith came to Santa Monica to visit his former coach.
“There were a lot of other things he could have done that week,” said Taylor.
Smith appreciates how Taylor helped him.
“He had a big impact on my career,’’ Smith has told reporters. “You can joke with him but at the same time he knows how to get the best out of his players.”
Smith and Johnson donate equipment to the SMC program. Taylor has been the head coach the last 13 years and is currently recruiting players following a rare losing season. The Corsairs were the Western State Conference champion in 2003, won their final five games in 2004 but were 1-9 in 2005, an outcome Taylor has no intention of repeating.
The Super Bowl will be played in Detroit this season but Taylor has no plans to attend.
“It’s too cold,” he said. “I was at a Super Bowl there before and, other than the game, it was difficut to go out and do things. If Steve or Chad was playing and the game was in Florida I’d ask them to get me a ticket.’’