Elevation Church Pastor Furtick throws questions to Panthers’ Steve Smith

tfunk@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 19, 2014 

On the first Sunday after the Carolina Panthers’ best season in years, wide receiver Steve Smith caught questions, not footballs, as Elevation Church Pastor Steven Furtick quizzed him on everything from his Christian faith to competing on the field to being a husband and father.

Appearing onstage together at Elevation’s Blakeney location and on jumbo screens at the church’s other campuses, Furtick, 33, and Smith, 34, turned their Q-and-A format during the 9:30 a.m. service into a sermon about the moral pluses and minuses of being “Passionate People.”

Smith and Furtick also appeared together, again at Blakeney, on Saturday at 5 p.m. and on Sunday at 11:30 a.m.

Smith, who attends the fast-growing evangelical church with his wife and children, traced his own passion to his growing-up years in Los Angeles, when he said few people around him ever lifted him up and told him he could be anything he wanted to be.

“So I had to work hard to get that (confidence). It made me a loner,” he said at the 9:30 a.m. service. “I couldn’t depend on anyone else.”

By the time Smith’s class at University High School in Los Angeles had its 10th reunion in 2007, though, he was setting records for the Panthers in the NFL. He said his first impulse was to attend the reunion to show off his success, especially to those who had doubted he’d make anything of himself.

“I was hyped. Yeah, I’m going to go back and show some folks … (including) that guy that (once) said ‘You’re just a short kid,’ ” he told Furtick and his flock, including the 1,000 people at Blakeney. “And then my wife checked me: ‘Are you going with the right motives?’ And so I had to really be honest with myself. And I didn’t go because … the reason I was going was not to reconnect with friends or people. I was going to boast.”

Emotions spill over

Since he started with the Panthers in 2001, Smith, 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, has made headlines – good and bad ones – because of his passionate ways.

A five-time Pro Bowl choice, Smith’s competitive drive on the field has led to the Panthers’ No. 89 getting 836 receptions, 67 touchdowns and more than 12,000 yards – stats highlighted in an Elevation video that served as Smith’s introduction Sunday.

But in 2008, Smith was suspended for two games for fighting with – and breaking the nose of – teammate Ken Lucas. And Smith has been known to verbally tangle with players on rival teams.

Smith told Furtick that his desire to prove himself by accomplishing the task at hand has sometimes kept him from stopping to appreciate the relationships and people in his life.

As for on the field, Smith said his job is to be tough and give his all: “Obviously, we’re not out there exchanging cookie recipes. It’s a high-impact, intense mental fight and game.”

Furtick joked that, during the games, he sometimes tries to read Smith’s lips. “And it looks like you’re saying, ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you.’ 

“Sometimes I’m saying that,” Smith joked back.

Smith acknowledged that “at times, you just get caught in the moment. You’re just so focused on taking that. Football is such an intense game. A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, it’s just ball.’ For them, for you, it’s ball. But for me, it’s how I feed my family. And now that I’m 34 years old, for the longest time it’s been my identity; it’s been my value.”

Struggles in life

But Smith said he’s learned there’s a price for working ever harder to try to stay on top, even as newer players emerge and look to take over that spot.

“Next thing you know,” he said, “it’s 13, 14 years later, and you still haven’t enjoyed the beautiful wife, the wonderful kids, and the friends you’ve got to meet because you’re too busy chasing something that’s uncatchable.”

But both Smith and his wife, Angie, who joined them onstage, said God has changed the Panthers’ wide receiver as a person. After some early years of struggle, Angie Smith said their marriage is good. And, she added, Smith is at peace.

“Now he has peace that only comes from God,” she said. “He’s a patient husband and father.”

Smith told Furtick that on game days, he attends Elevation’s worship service at Spirit Square in uptown Charlotte.

While much of the interview covered serious spiritual topics, Smith and Furtick sometimes acted like a comedy team as the pastor passed the player a quick succession of questions.

Smith responded that he’s more into The Jackson 5 than the Beatles, prefers power to speed and considers himself an introvert, an “extreme” one.

Furtick: “Sausage or bacon?”

Smith: “Turkey sausage.”

Furtick: “Oh, have you ever tried deer sausage before? Deer sausage is so delicious. There’s a guy at the church. He gave me some deer sausage. Have you tried it?”

Smith: “Um, absolutely not.”

Furtick: “It’s awesome.”

Smith: “I bet it is. … None of the people I’ve grown up with eat deer sausage.”

Furtick: “Are you trying to say deer sausage is a white people thing?”

Smith: “I didn’t use those words. But yes.”

Funk: 704-358-5703

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