Panthers WR Smith feels younger during camp for youth

06/18/2010 12:00 AM

06/19/2010 11:32 PM

Steve Smith takes a five-step drop on the artificial turf at Ardrey Kell High and, under a heavy rush, begins to scramble. He runs left and then right, and then backward, leaping to avoid the defenders. But five of them suddenly converge. There's no way out. MacGyver couldn't escape.

Smith escapes. He rolls left and on the run throws deep. His pass looks like a Frisbee, a beach ball, a Whiffleball, skeet. The ball wobbles and shakes and appears at war with the wind. There is no wind. He does this even when he doesn't scramble.

Do you try not to throw a spiral?

"I threw 30 passes and two of them were spirals," says Smith. "I was consistent."

He was consistent Thursday at the third annual Steve Smith football camp. He sprinted from station to station, offered high fives, low fives, smiles and advice. He might have been 31-years-old when he drove into the Ardrey Kell parking lot. But when he reached the turf he was 12.

The three-day camp began Thursday and concludes Saturday. There are 175 campers, aged 7-14. The fee is $189, although more than 65 attend on a Partners for Parks scholarship.

"It's a blessing," says Smith, the wide receiver who has long been Carolina's best player, about running a camp. "It's a treat. It's the best part of the job."

He brings autographed Panther jerseys for campers whose performance stands out. He also spends more than $2,000 of his money on gifts such as an iPod Touch and offers them to the campers of the day (he selects five Thursday and will select five Friday and seven Saturday).

Adults don't know what Smith will give them. We all know people who are not the same Friday as they are on Thursday. Smith is not the same at 12:05 p.m. as he is at noon.

But with kids, he is as consistent as his fluttering passes. There has always been Pied Piper quality about him. It's not a media performance; I've watched him work with soccer players when he wasn't aware I was there.

Smith spends most of his time Thursday with the younger kids. They run pass patterns and he moves with them. He slaps their hands, sometimes dropping to his knees.

One kid drops a pass, and then another and then a third. Smith tells him he has a secret. The secret: He drops passes, too. After a drop he works harder so he will hang onto the next one.

The kid hangs onto the next one.

"Like a light bulb went off," somebody says.

"Not a light bulb," says Smith. "A smile."

The kid thrusts his hands in the air.

Smith thrusts his higher.

Teammates join him. Kenneth Moore, always the last player to leave the field during Carolina's just-concluded camp, is the first to report to Camp Smith. When he introduces himself to the kids, he tells them he played for "The" Butler High School.

Newcomers Wallace Wright, a free-agent from the New York Jets, and rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen arrive.

You see Smith throw?

"I'll try to teach him a little bit," Clausen says.

During a question-and-answer session, one camper asks the Panthers what playing in the NFL is like. Smith tells Clausen he must wonder, too.

The kids work against each other 11-on-11 and Smith is the quarterback. On the first series he scrambles and throws deep and, while not pretty, the pass is good for a touchdown. Smith celebrates by running around a trash can full of empty Powerade Play and SmartWater bottles and sprinting in front of an Old Spice sign.

Smith avoids a pass rusher by jumping over her -- just a flat-out spontaneous leap -- and hitting Muhsin Muhammad III, son of the just-retired Panther receiver, for a touchdown.

"Baby Moose!" Smith yells. "Baby Moose!"

Then Smith makes the play of the day. He looks at one of his players and says, "You look light enough," hands him the ball, runs into the backfield, picks him up and takes off. Smith cuts, jumps and puts on spin moves, all while cradling the kid. He's at the 10, the 20, the 50. When Smith is 10 yards from the end zone, he returns the kid to the ground and the kid scores.

Smith walks back down field, exhausted.

"You cheated," a defender yells.

Nobody was cheated Thursday. Besides, it's his camp.

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