Yesterday, during the game where the Ravens played the Chargers, an NFL battleship was sunk.
Steve Smith, possibly the scrappiest, most unlikely person to ever rise into the pantheon of NFL greats at a position which belongs almost exclusively to tall men, caught a ball that vaulted him into 10th place overall in receiving yards. He’s 5’9”. Maybe. He’s 36 years old. He came into the league when sailors still communicated via scrimshaw, basically. He made a name for being the meanest, toughest, most hostile sonofagun anyone had ever seen and in a world where so much of that is for show, for Steve Smith it was fuel.
All he did was deliver. Time and time again. This year he did it with microfractures in his back. Injury reports would read “Steve Smith has microfractures in his back” and you’d think, well I guess he’ll need a few weeks to heal. And then you’d read his stat line that same week was like 8 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown. Huh? He played and he beat everyone? How? Any fan of football will tell you it’s all about wins and losses but yesterday, as the Ravens won the game with a last second field goal, the NFL itself lost a legend. Steve Smith tore his Achilles’ tendon and was lost for the season and possibly for good.
Tearing one’s Achilles’ is a brutal injury for sure. But in name, at least, it’s an uncanny way for Smith to end his playing days. In The Illiad, Achilles enraged the gods when he callously tethered the body of Troy’s elder prince behind his chariot and dragged it around the walls of Troy. It was malice that made him do it. Spite. Achilles knew he was the fiercest, most powerful man in the Trojan War, and he truly feared no one. He was an anomaly. Destroying enemies on the field was child’s play for him. You don’t like it? Try to stop me. I dare you.
The exact same thing could be said for Steve Smith. He played the game with abandon and a wild nature. In hockey they would call him “chippy.” The kind of guy you love to have on your team but absolutely hate to play against. Guys like him get under your skin. They rattle you. They get in your kitchen and mess with your head. That’s who Steve Smith was, except he was also amazing as a receiver. He backed up everything he said. He was a talker, but you could cash every check his mouth ever wrote. With interest. As it stands today he was one of the best to ever play the game and if he never plays another down, you can immediately buy your tickets for him to be enshrined in Canton five years from now.
So why was there a towel over his face on Sunday? Why did he rob us of that “agony of defeat” moment. Why couldn’t we see the pain on his face and tears rolling down his cheeks as it all hit him at once? This is it. He might have been thinking. He had long said that this would be his last season, so this was it. This is the way he goes out. Not marching off like a warrior. Carried off. Helped off. Wounded. Maimed.
What’s the lasting image of Achilles that we all have? Is it him hewing down Trojan warriors between Ajax and Odysseus? Is it him driving back terrified enemies just by him appearing on the field of battle? No. It’s this:
It’s the fall we remember. It’s his hubris and his nemesis. It’s seeing the unbeatable whipped, the powerful torn down, the knight vanquished.
Steve Smith, in true Steve Smith fashion says: fuck you. You don’t get to see that part of me. I won’t be remembered for a grimace. I won’t be remembered for tears. Remember me how I fought, not how I fell.
He came into the NFL fifteen years ago. This was him just yesterday, covered by two people almost half his age.
It’s too early to say whether we’ve seen the final chapter in the career of Steve Smith. It began in a non-descript junior college where Smith would work part time at a Taco Bell and think “I want so much more than this.” It began with the first coach who told him he didn’t have a prayer of playing in the National Football League. It began with doubt and it ended with an epic legacy.
In a reworking of the Shakespearean verse, we do not come here to bury Caesar, but to praise him. To praise and to mourn together. We will mourn the passing of a legend. We will mourn a certain competitive spirit that feels rooted in a tougher time. We will mourn the speed and the fluidity and the will and the power and the drive. We will miss Steve Smith until the next time he steps foot on a football field or into the annals of the greats in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And we will remember him for who he was on the field. Not who he was when they carried him off of it.