CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Steve Smith spent his childhood emulating NFL players and dreaming of playing professional football.
Now in his 13th season with the Carolina Panthers, Smith said it's still not enough.
"Now that I'm here, being here isn't satisfying," Smith said of his NFL career. "I want to be something special. I want to be one of those special guys."
Smith is entering special territory.
He needs 51 yards on Sunday against Tampa Bay to move past Hines Ward and Derrick Mason into 20th place in yards receiving. He ranks 25th in receptions, last week passing Hall of Famer Steve Largent.
"I look at Jerry Rice and to be, not in the same category, but on the same list... that's pretty cool," Smith said. "My agent told me I passed Steve Largent. I'm a huge Steve Largent fan. I respect the heck out of him. I think what he did was remarkable. I just passed him, and that's pretty cool.
"To see my name next to his, (above) his, that's pretty cool. It's humbling when I read it."
But it's still not enough for Smith.
Smith has 823 receptions for 12,033 yards, but said his goal is to finish his career with at least 1,000 catches and "close to" 14,000 yards receiving.
"I want to be in the top 10," Smith said.
It might take a couple of more seasons but Smith said that's fine. He remains productive and thinks he has a few good years left.
At 5-foot-9, 189 pounds, Smith has always been viewed as an undersized receiver. But what he lacks in height he makes up for in mental toughness and desire.
"It's his mentality that he brings into the stadium each and every day," quarterback Cam Newton said. "He's not a regular player. In cartoon world, he would be a super (hero). His mentality is different. His approach is different.
"What gets him going the most is when people say he can't. Him at the age he's at right now, he's still defying the odds on so many different levels."
There is nobody Smith respects more than his mother, Florence Young, who he said helped motivate him.
"My mom did such a good job with what she had," Smith said of growing up in inner city Los Angeles. "She drilled a lot of things into my head — positive and negative. She was always telling me about sports and my dreams of sports. She was like 'If this doesn't work out, you better have a backup plan.'"
That served as motivation of sorts for Smith.
He purposely didn't have a backup plan, saying "playing in the NFL is all I wanted to do."
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula describes Smith as ageless.
"He's just so tough to cover. Yeah, he's one of our bell cows," Shula said.
Smith had modest numbers 11 games into the season — 51 catches for 581 yards and three touchdowns — but so much of what he does can't be measured in numbers.
He blocks extremely well, draws double teams to free up teammates and often irritates defensive backs to the point where they're so frustrated they do something stupid. Two weeks ago against New England, Smith got under cornerback Aqib Talib's skin, causing him to get flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty for grabbing Smith's leg and pulling on it after a play, and later for a defensive holding call.
Both resulted in Carolina first downs. The Panthers (8-3) would beat the Patriots 24-20.
Smith remains Newton's go-to receiver on third and fourth down situations, where he has a combined 19 receptions — perhaps none bigger than last week's 19-yard catch on fourth-and-10 on Carolina's game-winning drive against Miami.
"Steve wants to succeed in the worst kind of way," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He has that 'it' factor that people talk about. He has the burning desire and drive. I think a lot of it had to do with the way he grew up and the way he wants to go forward. He wants to make a great life for his family."
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