Sports | March 3, 2020 9:37 am

Retired NFL Star Steve Smith's New Opponents? Mental Health and Domestic Violence.

The Smith Family Wellness Center opened in Charlotte in 2016

Tackling Life: Steve Smith Taking on Mental Health and Domestic Violence With Wellness Center
Ex-Carolina Panthers Steve Smith on the field before a game. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty)
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This is Life After Football, a new series that examines how current and former NFL players, coaches and executives are building a legacy beyond the gridiron.

Over the course of 219 regular-season games spread across 16 NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens, Steve Smith racked up 1,031 receptions for 14,731 receiving yards and 81 touchdowns.

While those numbers might be good enough to get the five-time Pro Bowler into Canton one day, they aren’t really the ones Smith wants to talk about now that he’s retired from the NFL. These days, the three-time All-Pro wide receiver is more interested in discussing the numbers associated with the Smith Family Wellness Center in Charlotte, a free clinic the 40-year-old’s Steve Smith Family Foundation opened in 2016 as part of a partnership with Project 658.

Offering counseling and medical services — including vision and dental — to patients who are uninsured or underinsured, the center scheduled 7,541 medical appointments, 3,312 counseling appointments and welcomed 3,380 unique patients during its first three years of existence. Last year was the center’s busiest yet, with 3,448 medical and 1,316 counseling appointments.

With the help of a social justice grant from the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, the center employs a full-time staff that includes physicians, counselors, a social worker, interpreter and pediatrician, who together strive to meet the emotional, physical, medical and spiritual needs of their patients, many of whom are minorities.

“Inspire Change is centered around reducing barriers to opportunity. The Steve Smith Family Foundation was built around just that,” NFL senior vice president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson tells InsideHook. “Steve has taken a look at the needs of the communities he’s lived in and, through his foundation, has provided access to opportunity and programs that otherwise may not have been afforded.”

Smith, who has been open about his personal fight with depression, confirms that much of the help the center provides comes in areas with which he has a ton of first-hand experience.

Former Carolina player Steve Smith before a 2019 game. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
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“At 40 years old, I can reflect and go back to bad days we had when I was 16 or 17 and my mom was getting beat,” Smith tells InsideHook. “It wasn’t by my father but by a man she married. That’s one of the reasons why I do it. I remember exactly what it was like to be on government assistance. I remember what it was like to be an Angel Tree kid. Much of the stuff we have structured is primarily focused on things I experienced as a child. We also try to engage with the community and see what they need. Sometimes people will sit in their gated communities and go, ‘I know what they need.’ We hear a lot of ‘they.’ For me, I don’t put them in the ‘they’ category. I put it in the ‘I’ category. I know what I needed, I know what I went through, I know what it feels like. Sometimes you get some people in the middle class who have no idea what it’s like on the other side of the tracks. They come in with a checklist on what they believe people need and they rarely discuss and ask questions of other people.”

Smith has also found it’s important to ask questions of the center’s staff as well as its clients.

“When we brainstorm, I’m not directing,” Smith says. “I’m taking information and saying, ‘Hey, well, what do you think?’ Sometimes my question is, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ Everybody has input. We’ll all sit and talk and then I kind of stew on it. Ultimately, I have a final say, but my final say is after talking to a lot of people. Some of that is people telling me, ‘No, I think that’s a horrible idea.’ I want the truth. I don’t want ‘Yes’ people around me. I want people who will tell me something is a horrible idea. I laugh and say thank you because I want to know. I don’t want to be the guy that has all the answers, because I don’t.”

The reason Smith has final say is that, in addition to bearing his family name, the center was started with a million dollars out of his pocket.

Since that initial investment more than three years ago, the center has been run well enough and garnered enough public support via donations that Smith has not had to give more than $10,000 of his money since.

“One of the things we always said was to run it like a business, meaning we got to make money,” Smith says. “We have people giving us money and they’re expecting us to handle it with respect, and that’s what I try to do. No checks come to me. If you make a check out to me, it will get returned and I’ll hand it right back to you. I don’t want people to think that I have my cousin as the executive director and my aunt as the accountant. None of that. It’s people that are not family and I did that on purpose so people don’t think it isn’t a legitimate foundation. There are a number of former star receivers I could mention that I don’t, who are behaving through social media right now, that, if those guys had a foundation, you wouldn’t want any part of it.”

Smith is so adamant about separating Steve Smith the football player from Steve Smith the mental-health care provider that he won’t sign autographs at events that have to do with his foundation, even if that means losing out on donations.

“We don’t do autographs,” he says. “If people are coming to get a Steve Smith autograph, then they don’t really support the cause. That means it’s not really a foundation event — it’s an autograph session. We’ve had some events where people found out we weren’t doing autographs and they got mad. You know what we did? We gave them their money back and we asked them to leave, because it’s about the foundation. I get the celebrity part, but when you see a mom with swollen eyes who’s in intensive care because her partner beat the brakes off of her … What does that have to do with a football game? That ain’t what it’s about.”

Backpacks were given to students in-need at a back-to-school event in August. (Smith Family Wellness Center)

While he realizes some people may be taken a little bit aback by that attitude, Smith insists he wants his foundation to operate independently of his celebrity status.

“We have to be doing it off of the mission, not off of the name,” he says. “When I was in high school, we were going from motel to motel. Some people from a church my mom was attending would help us pay for a motel for a week or a couple of days until we could get some housing because we were fleeing from her husband. At that time, I didn’t know any celebrities. I didn’t know any football players. We just knew genuine people who were willing to help us. I’ve always played football and done exceptionally well at it. But this isn’t football, this is thinking, this is sacrificing something. You don’t get a trophy. You don’t get a contract extension. Sometimes, you don’t even get a thank you.”

Whether he gets thanked or not, with the Smith Family Wellness Center now in its fourth year of operation, Smith has “no legitimate complaints” about what he’s been able to accomplish thus far.

“I say no legitimate complaints because I still have that competitive football athlete’s mind,” he says. “You can always get better. You can always execute something a little bit cleaner or something can be written a little bit better. I’ve caught many passes and I’ve dropped a few. But, at the end of the day, that’s not what we do. That part of my life is gone and I can’t get it back. And honestly, I ain’t trying to.”