Utah's football team was making a 21-point comeback to tie at Colorado State Oct. 28, and Ute receiver/returner Steve Smith was making an animated but all-in-fun conversation with rabid Ram fans in the stands.
The game was nationally televised by ESPN, and the network's cameras documented Smith's running conversations with CSU faithful.
Then Smith's Ram counterpart, Dallas Davis, shocked the Utes with a 56-yard punt return with 2:35 left. That eventually decided the game, 31-24.
As soon as the game ended, Smith sprinted over to his tormentors on the sidelines and smilingly shook hands with them, talked for a bit with them and handed them his wristbands, making friends. Then he headed to the field to congratulate CSU.
The TV cameras didn't catch that part.
That left the impression with TV viewers that Smith was just another brash, trash-talking athlete.
"ESPN said I'm a jaw-jabber," says Smith, still disappointed at that label and now a Ute senior and the Mountain West Conference's Preseason Player of the Year.
He explains his philosophy. "You've got to have fun with football. I like being out there having fun." Talking with the fans is a way of giving them something extra.
Partly because of the CSU/ESPN thing and partly because he is such a high-profile figure now, Smith — happy, easy to talk to, outgoing and, at the same time, flamboyant as his favorite player, Deion Sanders — says he's going to be extra careful this year. "My thoughts for the season are to play hard, have better focus and keep my mouth closed," he said. "I don't need anybody talking negative about me" because it could hurt the U. team.
He'll still be the high-energy guy who gets into practice-field fights with his teammates, the one coach Ron McBride worries about just a bit because he's so competitive he might make the extra block that draws a penalty, the hyper player whose mother only half-jokingly told McBride's wife not to give Stevonne anything to eat with sugar in it. "He gets so excited in any competition," says McBride, who clearly loves the dynamics that Smith brings to games, practices or just any old casual conversation.
"He has a great personality. He loves to play the game so much," says McBride. "He's just made to play the game."
Many casual conversations between Smith and McBride center on the way the coach frequently mispronounces Smith's first name. It's "Steve-onn," but McBride often says "Steff-onn." Smith has requested that he be called "Steve" because of it. McBride began calling him "Steve-One" late last fall as a peacemaking effort.
McBride adds that, "He and (receivers coach Fred) Graves are always going back and forth. He challenges Fred every day on something."
Smith admits his talk gets him into fights, but he also says he's getting hit all the time by defenders and can only take so much, even from teammates. He also comes "to work with attitude," he says.
But Smith says he will tone it down, at least publicly, knowing every opponent will key on him and anything he says or does. "I don't like letting people down," he says of his reason. "I like the attention sometimes," he admits, "but it hurts your focus.
"I've never experienced anything like this," Smith says, humbled at being the league's predicted MVP. He once dreamt of being important, and now that he is, "It's like looking through someone else's eyes. It's amazing what I've accomplished, and where I'm at," he says. "I've got a shot to be something."
He led the nation in punt returns for 10 games and finished fifth overall last year, his first season out of Santa Monica Junior College, where he was an honorable-mention juco All-American. He set the school record for punt returns yards (495) in a season, despite doing it in only eight games, and scored three times (school record) on punt returns, twice in one game. Smith averaged 78.2 yards per game receiving (43-860), second in the MWC and eighth all-time at Utah.
Smith's numbers might have been more impressive, but he didn't return punts until the third game of '99, after starter Courtney Richins was injured, and he didn't play in the Las Vegas Bowl because of a broken fourth cervical vertebrae he suffered in the win at BYU.
He says he was "kinda happy" at first that he wasn't a starter, either on special teams or at receiver, where he opened '99 behind Chris Christensen, because he was so keyed up and nervous about the Division I atmosphere that he sometimes dropped the ball. In junior college, he played in front of 200-300 people, he says. After playing a few games for the U., "I got the jitters out," he says.
Sports have always been life for Smith, whose uncle Martin was backup to O.J. Simpson at Southern Cal, and whose mother, father and grandfather ran college track. "That's how they met," he says of his parents, Steve Smith and Florence Young. Stevonne resisted track until he was a junior in high school but realized he needed an activity in January and February. Smith runs a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and has a 38-inch vertical leap. He set his high school's hurdles record and was all-city champ in that event.
"I had the life," Smith says of his younger years, when his mother volunteered to run the weekend snack bar at the park where he played ball. He had all the chili dogs and chili Fritos he wanted.
He was a troublemaker to an extent, he says, always getting hurt playing streetball, climbing on roofs or sending the pizza delivery people to a neighbor's home.
Not nearly as bad as he could have been. He grew up in one of Los Angeles' tougher neighborhoods. He'd have spent time in L.A. this summer, but when he found out two of his best friends had been killed, there was "no sense" in going home.
A prep All-CIF and All-Metro League player, Smith ended up at junior college because, he says, he didn't like to go to high school classes. When he was at Santa Monica JC, a friend came home from school in Ohio. When that friend went back to Ohio after the visit, Smith says, "It dawned on me that I've got to take care of business," and he began working to get into a four-year school. He wanted to go beyond California, and Utah's coaches were honest with him, so he became a Ute. "I loved the coaching staff. It wasn't phony and put on. It was: Come as you are," Smith says, but he adds, "It was a long path to here."
Smith was homesick at first in Salt Lake City but says, "I'd rather be homesick because I was moving on to a different horizon than just moving on to a different cellblock." News from back home is "the same old thing" — shootings and prison sentences.
Now his challenge is living up to MVP billing, watching his mouth and taking those first few hits on that once-broken neck. "It's amazing I didn't get paralyzed," he says. He didn't know it was broken until two days later. He woke up on Monday with terrible pain after not even reporting to the training room on Sunday.
He hated missing the bowl game and wearing the neck brace but says that without it his head would have flopped down below his shoulders. He demonstrates the wet-noodle strength of his neck in December and says that, after the injury, coaches no longer had to take his helmet to get him to report to the weight room. "I didn't like going in there; it was so boring," Smith says. But now, "It goes by pretty fast," he says. And he's added 16 pounds of muscle "all over," he says.
"I feel attractive," Smith says, that irresistible smile breaking out — the one he uses to make friends with both Ute and opposing-team fans and the one that may help him hide some of those extra-curricular words so that he and the Utes can live up to their No. 1 pre-season rating in the MWC.