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‘He Hate Me’ was lost. Then he was found. But where did former Panther Rod Smart go?

They found “He Hate Me” on Tuesday, toward the end of a very strange day in which a former Carolina Panthers player who few people had thought much about for a dozen years suddenly became a lead news story nationwide.

But even after he was located, safe and alive, questions remained as to where Rod “He Hate Me” Smart had been. And why his family couldn’t reach him for six days. And who exactly had found him. And how lost he really was.

It started when the Lancaster County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Office issued a missing persons advisory Tuesday morning for a 42-year-old man named Torrold Smart, which turned out to be the real first name of Rod Smart.

Smart had last been seen on June 12, at about 10:30 a.m. in Indian Land, S.C. That’s just south of Charlotte’s Ballantyne area.

“Mr. Smart is driving his silver 2016 Nissan Maxima with NC tag PJR1759,” the release read. “It is unusual for him to be out of touch for this long. Mr. Smart’s family is worried about his safety and well-being.”

The Herald of Rock Hill broke the story first, at about noon, and then came the media blitz. Smart’s name and speculation about his situation was bandied about on just about all the national sports and news outlets, from ESPN to Sports Illustrated to TMZ.

Everyone used the nickname when describing Smart, of course. “He Hate Me” was Smart’s greatest gift to football – a moniker so memorable it was nearly impossible to forget once you heard it. While playing in the short-lived XFL in 2001, Smart had the words “He Hate Me” plastered on the back of his jersey instead of his surname. The XFL encouraged such things. He was that league’s second-leading rusher that year, so he became one of the XFL’s stars.

Once that league folded, the Panthers picked Smart up in 2002. He was a popular figure for the team, especially during the 2003 season that led to the team’s first Super Bowl appearance.

‘Hilarious and full of energy’

Al Wallace, a teammate of Smart’s with the Panthers, said in an interview Tuesday before Smart was located that the former running back remained one of the indelible figures of that Super Bowl run.

“Rod has always been one of the biggest personalities in any room he enters,” Wallace said. “He’s hilarious and full of energy, and as a player he was blazing fast. He was one of the few guys who could break Coach (John) Fox down, literally in tears of laughter, with the things he would do and say. When I think of that Super Bowl team he’s still one of the guys that stands out to me.”

I asked Smart once, long ago, how he came up with “He Hate Me.” He laughed and said: “I’m a genius.”

The “He” in question could apply to anyone, Smart explained – a coach who wouldn’t play him, a personnel man who wouldn’t draft him, a tackler who couldn’t catch him. It was a nickname that was universal in its appeal – even if you don’t think of yourself as a hated person, certainly you’ve been disrespected.

As Smart told us reporters once: “Football is very political at the pro level. And because I came in (to every training camp he went to) as the last back, if I didn’t get a carry, I’d talk to the other running backs and say, ‘He hate me, man. This coach hate me.’ I was always saying that.”

Rod Smart’s lone touchdown for the Carolina Panthers came in a win against the New Orleans Saints in 2003 on a 100-yard kickoff return. DAVID T. FOSTER III Observer staff file photo

In fact, no one in the Panthers locker room actually hated Smart. He was charismatic and quick-witted and a valuable special-teamer. When he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against New Orleans in 2003, the Panthers’ play-by-play man at the time, Bill Rosinski, ended his call of the touchdown with: “He Hate Me? We love you!” ESPN loved that, and replayed it again and again.

One note not many people remember about that kickoff return: on the Panthers’ ensuing kickoff to the Saints, Smart ran down and made the tackle. It was a truly remarkable sequence.

An attempt at Hollywood

Wallace kept in occasional touch with Smart over the past decade. The former defensive end said he had seen Smart at some NFL alumni events over the years and not too long ago at a Charlotte Hornets game. Wallace also said Smart had long pursued a goal of becoming an actor.

“He wanted to take that personality and that smile to Hollywood,” Wallace said. “That was a dream of his. For a long time, he was on the audition trail.”

Smart’s biography on the Internet movie database doesn’t show much success, however. Smart is listed with a single appearance outside of those relating to football, in a little-seen 2010 movie called “Don’t Blame the Lettuce.”

Smart, who grew up in Lakeland, Fla., and played collegiately at Western Kentucky, ended up spending four seasons with Carolina from 2002 to 2005. That 100-yard TD in 2003 was the only one he scored in the NFL; he was mostly used as a special-teams player. In the pre-Cam Newton era, Smart also ranked as one of the team’s first flashy dressers. Wallace still remembers a custom-made suit that Smart wore at the Super Bowl that was cut in a 1970s style, with bell-bottomed pants that fit beautifully over the stacked heels Smart wore.

Rod Smart (32) hams it up for the media in early 2004 in Houston, a few days before the Carolina Panthers played New England in the Panthers’ first-ever Super Bowl. JEFF SINER Charlotte Observer staff photo

“Rod could always take a dress code right up to the edge, that’s for sure,” Wallace said.

But it was his catchy nickname – likely the best in Panthers history – helped ensure that even today at Panthers’ games you occasionally see Smart’s old No. 32 jersey being worn by fans.

So thank God he’s safe. Thank God they found him – only about six hours after the missing persons release first went out. When you hear the first part of a story like this these days, you always worry that the ending is going to go terribly wrong.

In this one, though, maybe one day soon we will get Smart holding a news conference with whoever located him, throwing an arm around the guy and proclaiming, “You know who this is? This is ‘He Found Me’!” (Or “She Found Me,” as the case may be).

I hope that happens, and that whatever needs to happen first for Smart also occurs. His family and friends are concerned, although it’s not exactly clear about what.

And now “He Hate Me” has been found. That’s great news. Now the trick is never losing him again.