SALT LAKE CITY — Steve Smith Sr. has always been about surprises. So it was only fitting that on his first visit to Rice-Eccles since he played at Utah, he would be as low key as a Ford.
His splashiest moment was his video board pep talk.
He likes changing up his delivery. When he retired from the NFL in January, after 16 seasons in Carolina and Baltimore, he made that clear. He had an all-conference career at Utah as a receiver and return man, and a pro career as a showy, mouthy overachiever. But he’s also the doting dad who drives his kids to school each day and helps with homework.
This from a guy who once previewed a game by telling media to “put your goggles on because there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”
But the combative Steve Smith wasn’t the one on hand to watch Utah’s 30-10 loss to Arizona State. He was in town to be inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame, along with former teammate Jordan Gross. Smith briefly met with the media prior to kickoff. Considering his colorful history, there was always the chance Smith would provide some spice to the day. Asked if he had tips on trash-talking, he shook his head.
“Not really. No, I think it’s overblown. I think people making it more than it is,” he said. “Now a guy talks, and now he’s one of the best ... whatever.”
In his case, being one of the best is no hyperbole. He started 185 NFL games and earned five pro bowl invitations, two first-team all-pro appointments and ranks 12th in career receptions and eighth in receiving yards.
The trash talking came as naturally as his soft hands.
“Man,” he once said, “I came out of the womb trash-talking.”
It takes a lot to do that when you’re 5-foot-9. Describing himself when he arrived at Utah in 1999-2000, he said, “Small. I’m a little bit taller than what I was by a couple inches. I was like 170, so I hadn’t reached my growth spurt yet. I played at 197, 198.”
He played like he was 6-foot-4 and weighed 210.
But at times the drive to prove himself in a large people’s game went wrong. In 2008 he broke a teammate’s nose during a training camp fight.
For the most part, though, the controversy was simply Smith entertaining the media — or chiding them. He once said he was “going to play another year to prove to you (expletives) that a 37-year-old can still play.”
Asked on Saturday whether he ever envisioned coming back to Utah and finding his team in the Pac-12, he said, “I’ve been watching them for the last 16 years, so it’s no surprise they’re in the Pac-12.”
A touch of the Smith edge came through.
His immortal line, though, came in 2013, at the expense of New England defensive back Aqib Talib, who didn’t finish a game. Smith later taunted in a TV interview, “Ice up, son. Ice up.”
It’s not like Smith has gone completely mellow in retirement. On Oct. 10 he responded to a viral video of BYU’s Cosmo the Cougar dancing with this Twitter taunt: “Seriously we can’t let the Y outdo US like this.??? Dance team better than the football team.” It was followed by laughing-till-you-cry emojis.
This is the same Smith, however, who says his wife and four children are the most important things in his life.
“Mostly my focus isn’t me, but I can’t give back to other peoples’ kids without doing the home things first,” he said Saturday.
Now an NFL analyst, he attends his kids’ events before catching late flights to games. As a player he donated shoes to the homeless and washed their feet.
Prior to Saturday’s game, he spoke to the Utes, telling them to relish the moment.
“Part of this game feels like the worst four years of your life, and best four years of your life, but after this you have real responsibilities,” he later said. “And you have a job and you’re considered an adult, so enjoy this. But right now you get to be a young kid, so enjoy that.”
Instead, the Utes gained only 265 yards and got two players ejected for targeting. For them, it felt more like the worst day of their lives.