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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Football: Returning the favor

By Cody Brunner

The U athletic budget just got a little bigger.

Former Utah standout and current Carolina Panthers star wide receiver Steve Smith was on campus Wednesday afternoon to pledge a $250,000 donation to the athletics department to endow a scholarship for a wide receiver.

“It is an honor for (my wife) and me to give back to the University of Utah football program in the form of an athletic scholarship and provide another student-athlete the same opportunity that was afforded me here at the U,” Smith said.

Smith is the fourth former U athlete in the last three years to make a donation that has either contributed to the department’s endowment fund or helped renovate athletic facilities at the U. He joins NFL quarterback Alex Smith and NBA players Andrew Bogut and Andre Miller.

While playing college football at the U, Smith was known primarily for his abilities as a playmaking return man and a solid wide receiving threat. In his professional career, he has blossomed into one of the NFL’s most dangerous wideouts.

Smith is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and holds numerous Carolina return and receiving records. Smith is also one of only three NFL players in history to lead or tie for best in the league in receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns, accomplishing the feat in 2005.

“Steve is not only one of the greatest receivers ever to play for the University of Utah, (but) he is recognized as one of the best receivers now playing in the NFL,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Steve was an electrifying player when he was here and a competitive person. I was defensive coordinator at the time, and trying to cover him in practice was a headache.”

Also on hand for the occasion was current Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who is a very close friend and mentor of the former U athlete. Richardson’s story of Smith’s rookie season sums up the playmaker’s breakthrough into the NFL spotlight.

After returning a kickoff in the opening game, Richardson’s son, Mark, who was in charge of team apparel sales at the time, was asked by Smith to start carrying his jersey. Richardson told Smith that he was just a rookie and that he still needed to prove himself before that happened. When asked what he needed to do to in order to get his jersey on the shelves, Mark told Smith he needed to return three kicks for touchdowns. In the second week, Smith returned another two kicks for scores. Jerry Richardson said the next Monday, Smith was in the store making sure his jersey was for sale.

Smith has always shown a flash for bravado on the field throughout his illustrious professional career. His involvements off the field, where he is a mentor for troubled Charlotte, N.C., youth, among many other charitable things, are less publicized.

“Steve is much more than a football player,” Richardson said. “For Steve to be this generous in this stage of his career says a lot for this university.”

Considering where Smith grew up, his diminutive stature (5-foot-9, 185 lbs.) and what he’s been through in his life, it’s a wonder he even made it to the professional level in the first place.

After growing up in a troubled area in the Athens Park section of South Los Angeles, Smith struggled to make grades at University High and struggled with character issues. As a result, he wasn’t readily recruited by Division-I schools, despite being a tremendous high school football talent. The teenager had to settle on enrolling at Santa Monica College in order to keep his slim NFL hopes alive.

While at Santa Monica College, Smith learned the true definition of work ethic. He would often wake up at 6 a.m. to take two buses and a train to school. After school, he had practice. After practice, he would work at Taco Bell for $6.15 per hour until 8 p.m. before making the trip back home.

After two years of ball at Santa Monica, Smith was drawing looks from a number of schools, including the U. Then-head coach Ron McBride sent receivers coach Fred Graves to recruit Smith, and Graves immediately fell in love with the speedy wideout. Smith snagged up a scholarship offer to the U, but was still unsure of what lay ahead in his future.

“When I left Los Angeles, I was sitting at LAX and I looked at my mom and I was scared,” an emotional Smith said Wednesday. “I was a kid that didn’t know what he was going to do and didn’t know where I was going to go or how it was going to turn out. I got here and was greeted by (Graves). He was like a father figure to me, and everybody took me in.”

The wide receiver took advantage of his Division-I opportunity and never looked back, giving the university and its fans a spectacular show along the way.

On Wednesday, Smith was back to give them something else — a fat check to voice his thanks and give more athletes the same opportunity he had.

“I’m just doing the same thing that whoever gave me a scholarship has done — give an opportunity,” Smith said.

[email protected]

Lennie Mahler

Carolina Panthers wide receiver and former Utah man Steve Smith answers questions after a press conference Wednesday announcing his $250,000 donation to the athletic program.

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