CHARLOTTE, N.C. - He's only 5-foot-9, went to junior college, was a third-round draft pick and had trouble controlling his temper.
Steve Smith has overcome it all. And Tuesday he cashed in.
Smith agreed to a three-year contract extension with the Carolina Panthers that will keep him with the team through the 2012 season. His agent, Derrick Fox, said he wasn't authorized to release exact figures, but said the Los Angeles native will be among the five highest-paid receivers in the NFL.
"I'm living out my dream. A knucklehead from L.A.," Smith said. "It's that feeling where you're waiting for someone to wake you up and nobody's been waking me up because I'm up already."
The 28-year-old Smith had three years left on a six-year, $27 million contract. He was scheduled to make $3.1 million, $3.6 million and $4.2 million over the next three seasons, but now will make significantly more.
"I would like to retire here and be the first or second Panther in the Hall of Fame," Smith said.
He didn't always think that way. Lightly recruited, Smith went to junior college before transferring to Utah. He was Carolina's third-round pick in 2001 and was used as a kickoff and punt returner as a rookie.
A year later he was charged with assault and suspended one game for punching teammate Anthony Bright during a receivers film session.
Slowly, however, Smith matured on and off the field. Using his explosive speed and strength to overcome his lack of height, he became Carolina's go-to receiver in the team's Super Bowl season in 2003. Two years later, he led the NFL with 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Smith also made Charlotte his permanent home and is involved in numerous charitable activities.
"The thing that strikes you about Steve Smith is he wants to do the right thing," general manager Marty Hurney said. "And he has, he's matured just like we all do. He came in as a young kid, and he's got a tremendous support group."
Fox said negotiations with Hurney began after the 2005 season, when Smith became only the third player since 1970 to lead or tie for the league lead in receptions, yards receiving and touchdowns.
"When he had the triple crown season, Marty came to us and said he had outplayed his contract," Fox said. "But it was a hard process, because he was just two years in (to a six-year contract)."
A deal wasn't reached and negotiations stopped just before last season.
Smith's numbers declined in 2006. While he made his third Pro Bowl despite missing the first two games with a hamstring injury, he finished with 20 fewer catches, 400 fewer receiving yards and four fewer touchdowns, and Carolina was a disappointing 8-8.
Still, the Panthers had made a long-term deal for Smith one of their top priorities after they released veteran receiver Keyshawn Johnson last week.
"Obviously, it's very important," Hurney said. "He's a tremendous player and he's our kind of person. I think he's a force in the community. It's the kind of player we want here as a Panther. When you have the opportunity to have a guy like that to come in as a Panther and hopefully finish as a Panther, I think that's unique these days."
There's no doubt the Panthers are building their offense around Smith. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning was fired, in part because Smith didn't get the ball enough last season.
Smith was pleased with new coordinator Jeff Davidson's offense at last weekend's minicamp. Davidson had said he wanted to find new ways to get Smith the ball and prevent double and triple teams.
"This offense, it's not new, it's just a lot of new wrinkles," Smith said. "Obviously it's going to open up a lot more for the run. Teams are going to have to commit guys less on me and more in the box. So that's going to get me, I feel, a little bit more one-on-one coverage. I work good one on one."
Smith seemed relieved and happy knowing where he'll be the next six years.
"There were some rough times, some times where I kind of was like, â€˜What's going on?'" he said. "But I knew it was going to happen."
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