Once upon a time, rookie wide receiver Steve Smith was holding up a Super Bowl trophy and was poised to become the favorite target of quarterback Eli Manning. He would then go on to set the single-season franchise record with 107 receptions, prompting the team to offer him a five-year, $35-million contract extension. He turned it down and that's when everything went wrong.
A knee injury limited him to only nine games in 2010, and cost him the massive contract Big Blue had been offering. Still, General Manager Jerry Reese wanted Smith back with the team and attempted to re-sign him. Instead, only one day after leaving a meeting with the Giants, he chose to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles without giving his former team a chance to match the offer.
“I’ve been blessed to play the game that I love at the highest level for the past six years,” Smith said. “I will always cherish my time with the New York Giants and our Super Bowl victory in 2007. I also want to thank the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers organizations for the opportunities they gave me. This was not an easy decision, but it’s the right decision for me at this time.”
The decision to hang them up came as a shock to many, including several of his former teammates. Both Aaron Ross, who was drafted in 2007 along with Smith, and Terrell Thomas, who played with Smith at USC, were floored when they heard the news.
“Shocking,” Thomas said of Smith’s retirement. “I think he’s just a competitor that may have realized that with his knee he would never be the same and I think he probably just didn’t want to cause any more damage to it. Nobody knows the extent to his knee or where he’s at mentally and that’s the biggest thing. If mentally you’re not into it, I think it’s hard. This is his third team in three years. It’s hard to keep wanting to fight back at that position.”
The luxury Smith has — a luxury most athletes miss out on — is that he gets to retire with a ring. And no matter what else happens in his life, there's no one that can take that away. It's something Aaron Ross believes may have made the decision to walk away a bit easier.
“It’s a shocker,” Ross said. “I definitely hate to hear that, especially since we came in together and won a Super Bowl together. I’m kind of speechless. I wish he could have played a little longer, but seven years in this league is a very, very long time. What’s the league average [career]? Like three-and-a-half years. So he’s well over that. He has a Super Bowl ring and a ton of catches here. I’m pretty sure he’s happy, especially if he made that decision. I’m sure he made the best decision for himself.”
Like Tiki Barber however, it's unlikely that this generation of Giants fans will ever forgive him. Leading up to him signing with the Eagles, Smith repeatedly interacted with fans, expressed his desire to return to Big Blue and even took repeated potshots at the Eagles. And then, in an instant, that all changed and so did the perception of him.
Despite it all, there's no denying that his catch and run on 3rd-and-11 in Super Bowl XLII was the most overlooked key play of the game and, without it, the Giants may never have won.
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