CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Almost everyone in the Carolinas knows Steve Smith the “football player.”
But how many know the man behind the famous No. 89 jersey?
The former Carolina Panther recently sat down with NBC Charlotte’s Sarah French to discuss what really drives him on and off the field. From his rough childhood, becoming a father and what he called his defining moment, it’s a Steve Smith you’ve never seen before.
Chapter one: Breaking the cycle
To know Steve Smith the man, you have to understand Steve Smith the child.There are a few words that easily describe Smith’s persona on the field — electric, passionate, driven.
The man he is today is fueled by the boy he was.
“There’s these statistics that say if you’ve witnessed domestic violence as a child as a young male, that you are prone to repeat the behavior,” Smith said.
As a young boy, Smith saw his mother repeatedly be abused by her boyfriend.
“He would beat her and talk down to her,” said Smith, who knew immediately what he was seeing was wrong.
“You show your love and affection by being gentle. Not by punching, not by kicking, not by degrading her like I experienced and watched her go through.”
But he couldn’t stop it. He says he’ll never forget the day they got married.
“I went to the bathroom and I was crying and I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘I lost my mom,’” Smith lamented. “That was the day I lost her.”
Chapter two: 'It was a defining moment for me'
Before he became a star in the NFL, Smith spent several months in high school without a place to call home.Smith was a sophomore in high school when years of turbulence finally came to a boiling point.
“When your mom comes home after school and says, ‘pack your things, we’re leaving,’ you know, you’re like, ‘why are we leaving?’
“We were on the run for about two or three weeks living out of hotels. It was a defining moment for me,” Smith shared.
Years later, the pain of that moment for his mom is still evident.
“I’m at home, get a phone call from her and she tells me that he died and she was emotional about it,” Smith said. “And I realized that even though she went through all that stuff with him, she still loved him.”
It was an explosive existence that left lifelong scars.
“It shaped and molded her to where she raised two young men that were a little hardened and very hesitant with people,” he said. “The wound it has created…I’m 38 years old. A husband, father of four, but there are wounds inside of me to this day.”
Chapter three: Smith Family Values
A dream that was sparked on an overseas mission trip has led to the reality of helping thousands of people in need.Smith said every time he visits his childhood home in southern California that it’s a powerful reminder of how far he’s come after a difficult upbringing. He recently took his son Boston with him to Los Angeles to show him his grandparents’ house.
“We drove by and he’s 12 so he can understand, and he was like, ‘dad, you lived here?’” Smith explained.
Family is important to the former football star. In fact, he said he wouldn’t have created the Steve Smith Family Foundation without the blessing of his mom.
“It’s personal for her, you know,” Smith said. “To talk about anyone’s personal life, I think you have to seek their permission.
“She came back and was like, ‘yeah, I’m ready to not have this secret anymore.’”
The foundation helps families in need and victims of domestic violence. In November of 2016, the foundation opened the Steve Smith Wellness Center. It was the realization of a dream sparked by a trip to Nigeria.
“That was a mission trip and the first time I’d ever been out of the country!” Smith laughed. “And it was mind-blowing. Those places out there look just like some of the places here in Charlotte.”
Since then, the center has provided more than 1,500 people with medical help and free counseling.
“There’s people right here that need your assistance, that need your help,” he said. “You just have to look.”
Chapter four: Building a brighter future
The humble Smith said he wants to be forever remembered for the values he instills in his children as a father.Smith's humility and kindheartedness are traits he wants to instill in his children.
“I want to build them to be humble to serve, to think outside of themselves and also to smile and laugh.
“Ultimately, how I am with my kids is how I’m going to be judged more than anything and that’s really important to me. Success at work is great, but really my success as a man is based on what I have instilled in my kids.”
“Nothing’s better than when you come home and the kids yell, ‘daddy!’ You know, it’s better than a touchdown, it’s better than anything.”
Steve says these days he’s a professional unpaid chauffeur taking his kids to school and football practice. When asked what advice he would give his younger self, Smith didn’t hesitate: Listen more, talk less.