When the final seconds of the NFC Championship game ticked away and the Carolina Panthers began confirming flights to Houston, a Cinderella story reached its penultimate step.
The Panthers are a magical story in so far as they went from a wild card entrant in the playoffs to two road wins on the way to the Super Bowl. In keeping with their long shot status, they have been installed as six-and-a-half to seven point underdogs against the favored New England Patriots.
But one of the Panthers' players more than any other perhaps single-handedly represents the team's rags to riches story.
Imagine a background that includes being cut from the Canadian Football League. Throw in the fact that this player went undrafted after a modest career at a little-known school. Add to that several summers as a free agent struggling, and often failing, to stay on an NFL roster. Cap it all off with a stint in a defunct league that was as famous for its racy cheerleader shots as it was its product on field and you have the twisted NFL path of Rod Smart.
That defunct league is what catapulted Smart into the lesser pantheon of sports stars. A member of the Los Angeles Outlaws of the XFL, Smart spruced up his image by replacing his name on his jersey with the phrase, "He Hate Me." Almost instantly, he was finding his image on SportsCenter highlights, the subject of incredulous snickering from ESPN talking heads.
But the trick was a hit, so much so, in fact, that this little-used backup is now releasing his own throwback jersey. The XFL certainly loved it, as Smart became one of its few media darlings (quarterback Tommy Maddox, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, is probably Smart's only competition for that role). And fans responded, with all things "He Hate Me" flying off the shelves.
Smart's snappy catch-phrase started in college at Western Kentucky. He had a tumultuous relationship with a fiery coach who yelled at Smart so vociferously that Smart would hang his head and mutter to his teammates, "He hate me." The coach didn't hate him – Smart ran for 2,305 yards and 21 touchdowns in his career there – but the self-image stuck.
Perhaps it stuck too well. If design is destiny, Smart's can-do-no-right outlook likely contributed to a career that bounced him around many possible football outlets.
Smart was not drafted coming out of school in 2000. He ended up with the San Diego Chargers that summer hoping for a job, but he lasted just three weeks. He got on the map with his publicity-stunt jersey in the XFL but had that map pulled out from under him when the league folded after just one season.
He ended up in Canada with the Edmonton Eskimos, but they cut him mid-way through their 2001 season. His jersey nickname never seemed more appropriate, as he began to think that the whole football-playing world hated him. "When I got cut from the CFL, I was thinking, ‘Man, I must really be sorry,' because the competition wasn't that good there, not like the NFL," Smart said.
But the Philadelphia Eagles picked him up after that, and he was active for six games with them. They gave Smart his first carries (just two for all of six yards) in the NFL.
He didn't catch on with the then-running back rich Eagles (Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook (drafted in spring 2002) were all well ahead of him on the Philly roster). But he fell in with the Panthers following their 1-15 2001 season and was part of a squad that began an incredible turn-around. In 2002, they improved to a 7-9 record, and shocked the league this year with their improbable Super Bowl run.
On the way, Smart had 20 carries for 49 yards and 3 receptions for 11 yards this year. His lone highlight, though, was a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints on October 5th.
And it might be his last this season. In the biggest game of the year, the Panthers are expected to use explosive receiver Steve Smith as the team's kick returner. And as for running back, the Panthers don't have a backup runner – they have two legitimate starters in Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, and a fullback in Brad Hoover who also gets a carry or two per game.
But if Smart is on the bench, he will still play a role, keeping his team's mood light and up-beat with his trademark humor. At today's Media Day in Houston, Smart and teammate Jarrod Cooper, a backup cornerback, entertained the gathered masses by running around and poking fun at their own coach, John Fox, asking him mock questions from the proverbial peanut gallery.
Smart was the center of attention at today's Media Day for more than his antics, however. He was surrounded by more than 70 members of the press contingent not because he's Rod Smart, but because he put on a bit of enjoyable foolishness in the form of a jersey one day. Now, everybody loves "He Hate Me."