On a balmy northern New Jersey afternoon, Steve Smith is working up a healthy sweat. But the routes he’s running on a football field at James L. Braddock North Hudson County Park probably won’t be seen in any stadiums this season. That’s because he’s catching passes not for New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning but for the Muscle & Performance cameras.
“We need to see your face,” photographer Peter Lueders says. “Is it hard to catch it away from your face?” Smith, clad in his Giants jersey and pants and a pair of Nike football cleats, grins. “I’m just catching it where he throws it,” he replies. Though this writer’s passing skills apparently won’t be giving Manning a run for his money anytime soon, “catching it where he throws it” is something Smith, now in his fourth pro season, has proved quite adept at during his nascent NFL career.
Casual fans probably first became aware there was another pretty damn good receiver named Steve Smith (not to be confused with the 11-year Carolina Panthers vet) during the 2008 Super Bowl. After an injury-plagued rookie year, Smith came up with five huge grabs in that game, including a clutch 12-yard gain on third and 11 one play before a late Plaxico Burress touchdown sealed a 17-14 upset of the New England Patriots. But Smith proved it was no fluke last season with 107 catches for 1,220 yards, seven touchdowns and his first Pro Bowl nod, which was also the first for a Giants wideout since 1968.
Along the way, he’s become quite a fan favorite, and not only for being perhaps the best NFLer born in the 49th State. “It’s not that big of an honor, because not that many players are from Alaska,” jokes Smith, who moved to suburban Los Angeles as a kid. “But it feels good just to be in the NFL. It’s a blessing.” He’s also a prolific and engaged Facebook and Twitter user, posting everything from his feelings on NCAA sanctions for his alma mater (“Sorry to hear the news ’bout s.c. still a trojan for life and lookin’ fwd to watchin’ my bro ball for them this yr.”) to hanging with his fellow G-Men (“Chillin’ in the cafeteria wit my teammates just choppin’ it up about life. People have some crazy stories.”). Why all the social media chatter? “It shows the fans that I’m normal like them, just a normal person who plays football,” he explains. “I just like interacting with them and giving them another look into my life.”
Still, it’s what happens on the field that matters most to those who root for Big Blue. Back at the shoot, we get a visit from park supervisor Joe Abalsamo, who probably could have easily made a guest appearance on The Sopranos. “Best of health this season, Steve, that’s the most important thing,” he says. “You can always get them TDs this year, or I kick you off my fantasy team … bang!”
Speaking of which, how did the 51st pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, a guy with just 637 receiving yards in his first two seasons, make the jump to fantasy gold mine in his third? “I just had to learn the ropes and gel with my QB,” he explains. “I also ran this Manhattan Beach hill back in LA to get more explosive. It’s famous with NFL guys—TO (Terrell Owens) and Chad Johnson (Ochocinco) and Troy Polamalu have trained there.” There must be more to it because his 40-yard dash time at the 2007 NFL Combine, a not-exactly-slow 4.44, placed him just 14th among wide receivers that year. And at 5 feet 11 inches and 195 pounds, he’s not exactly a (lower-case g) giant.
Which is why trainer Larry Marshall, CPT, who runs LA-based BestFit Training Systems with his son Mario, may have a better answer: “Steve’s not a big, humongous guy. But from the core down, he’s extremely strong.” That’s the result of countless hardcore sessions covering total-body fitness, muscular endurance and cross training. During his 16-week preseason program, you’ll find Smith tackling everything from hammer curls and leg presses to Bosu- and medicine-ball moves to explosive jumps and racing track athletes while wearing a parachute.
“It’s functional performance training,” Marshall says. “Every movement we make in and out of the gym, it has something to do with some performance element. It’s not always about being strong; it’s about how you use your strength.” To be successful as an NFL receiver, that means bursting out of cuts to get open, running efficiently with the ball, and staying on your feet while absorbing hits from fast, furious guys who’ve spent a bit of time in the weight room themselves.
Smith has garnered praise for his ability to do all those things, but the biggest factor may be what appears the simplest. “At receiver, first you’ve gotta be able to catch the ball — you can play for 15 years if you can catch,” he says. “And you can’t just sit there and wait for it. The DBs (defensive backs) are too aggressive; they’re too good now. You’ve gotta be able to really attack the ball.” He practices with a weighted football and also spends hours with the pigskin-firing, hilariously named Jugs machine. “Catching the ball at 40 miles per hour, standing about 10 yards away, really helps you,” he deadpans. Anyone who’s seen a tight-coverage bullet fired by Eli Manning would have to agree.
As he poses for some close-ups, Smith’s most prominent tattoo, spreading across his bulging left biceps, is hard to miss. It’s a baby clutching a football with one hand and spinning a basketball on the index finger of the other, above the words “Baller Since Birth.” Turns out hoops is Smith’s first love. At Taft High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., he often stole the spotlight from teammate and current Lakers guard Jordan Farmar.” I think I was actually better at basketball in high school, but I stopped growing,” he reveals.
Of course, it takes more than a body capable of killer workouts and multi-sport stardom to scale pro football’s heights. What Smith puts into that body is critical, too. “You’re not at home with your mom anymore, so you just try to get all the vegetables in, salads, a lot of fish,” he says. “Keep the calories down with lean protein.” Toward that end, he swears by The Fresh Diet (thefreshdiet.com), a service that delivers healthy meals and snacks right to his door, making it easy to avoid on-the-go junk.
Given the NFL’s strict supplement policy, Smith doesn’t experiment too much, but he does have a few favorites, including G3 (Gatorade’s protein-packed recovery drink) and Met-Rx bars and shakes. “I’ve been using Russian Bear protein — zero grams of fat and it’s supposed to be really good,” he says.
What wasn’t really good was last year’s Giants, who followed up a 5-0 start with a 3-8 finish and a rare back seat to New York’s other pro football team, the AFC Championship-reaching Jets. To make a playoff push during their first season in New Meadowlands Stadium, Smith says one of 2010’s goals is an even keel. “Last year, we started out with a bang, and we finished really flat,” he says. “So this year, it doesn’t matter who we play. We’re not going to take anybody for granted, not get too high on ourselves, not get too low on ourselves, and really focus to win one game at a time.”
That may sound like a cliché, but up against what the Sporting News ranks as the league’s third-toughest schedule, it’s one the team could really use. Smith, facing additional adversity with fellow receiver Domenik Hixon’s season-ending ACL injury, is similarly straightforward concerning how he’ll top 2009’s highlight reel: “My goal is just to give my best effort. I feel like if I’m out there playing my hardest, I can get back to elite status and all that.”As the shoot wraps up, Smith sits on a bench and offers some advice for all the Turkey Day backyard ballers out there: “Just go out there and have fun, go have a good time.” Then he replaces his cleats with flip-flops and pulls on the baggy basketball shorts he was wearing when he arrived at the shoot hours ago. After saying hello, he’d gone to change into his football pants in what looked like a bathroom stall, only to be accosted by a fellow wearing a “SECURITY” T-shirt and yelling. When Smith returned to the field, he casually explained what happened: “That guy didn’t know what I was up to. I just said, ‘I’m Steve Smith,’ and it was cool.”
No kidding. And safe to say, if Smith’s dedication to tough workouts, quality nutrition, position-specific practice and a levelheaded outlook pays off in the form of another Pro Bowl season and a Giants playoff run, it will be very cool indeed.