By John Boyle Herald Columnist
NEW YORK — You’ll have to excuse Malcolm Smith if he wasn’t sure what to wear to this thing.
For much of the Seahawks’ 2013 season, Smith was the odd man out when all of Seattle’s linebackers were healthy. The guy was a seventh-round pick in 2011 and, up until this season, played mostly on special teams.
When Bruce Irvin returned from a suspension early in the season, and linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said it was like getting a brand-new toy, Smith, the player Irvin replaced at strongside linebacker, joked via Twitter that he now knew how Woody from the movie “Toy Story” felt.
So no, Smith wasn’t sure how to dress for Monday morning’s press conference, which was held for the MVP of the freakin’ Super Bowl.
“I’m dressed to go to Disney World,” Smith quipped when it was brought up that he was not in a suit for the press conference as was his head coach, Pete Carroll.
Smith was going to Disney World, a perk given to the Super Bowl MVP along with a new truck, but he’s the first to tell you he’s no more deserving of the award than were several of his teammates, from safety Kam Chancellor, who set the tone with a big hit early, to lineman Cliff Avril, who was a headache for Peyton Manning all night, and whose hit on Manning led to the wobbly pass Smith intercepted and returned 69 yards for a touchdown. And while the defense is getting a ton of credit for Sunday’s 43-8 victory over Denver — and rightly so — there were standouts on the other side of the ball. too. Receivers Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin made big catches and scored a touchdown each, Percy Harvin returned a kick for a touchdown and was the team’s leading rusher, and quarterback Russell Wilson played his best game in two months.
“Our whole defense played great,” Smith said. “Jermaine had a great game, Percy had a great game, obviously Russell did a great job. We had a lot of guys. (The MVP award) could have gone to anybody. For it to be me, I was kind of surprised and happy at the same time.”
But while it might have been a more just outcome to just give it to the entire defense — then watch all of them try to cram into one Chevy truck — Smith was a fitting choice; not just for the way he played, but for the way he symbolizes one of the key elements that turned the Seahawks into champions.
Smith, like so many of his teammates, has a chip on his shoulder that comes from being overlooked or underappreciated. He has what Carroll likes to describe as “grit.”
“Twenty-one of our 53 players are undrafted, so that should tell you a lot,” said Baldwin, himself an undrafted free agent. “We have dogs on this team, and every opportunity that they get, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, they’re going to go out there and dominate.”
On Sunday, those dogs did indeed go out and dominate. From Smith returning an interception for a score and recovering a fumble, to former sixth-round pick Byron Maxwell forcing a fumble, to Chris Clemons, another undrafted player, playing one of his best games of the season, to Baldwin and Kearse, undrafted receivers who symbolized Seattle’s physical dominance by playing tougher than Denver’s defense, the Seahawks’ first Super Bowl title was won by players who have long felt they had something to prove.
“We’re a bunch of misfits” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Fifth round, Kam Chancellor; sixth round; Byron Maxwell; fifth round, Richard Sherman; fourth-round, K.J. Wright; undrafted, Michael Bennett. … A lot of guys that not a lot of people have heard of, who probably should be Pro Bowl and All-Pros and things like that. I think the world learned how complete of a team we are, how complete our defense is.”
While an exceptional athlete playing for Carroll at USC, Smith was stuck behind other great linebackers on the depth chart, then a rare esophageal disorder caused him to lose significant weight and slowed his progress until it was diagnosed. By the time he finished college, Smith, the younger brother of former New York Giants Super Bowl-winning receiver Steve Smith, was seen as an undersized athlete with health risks.
When a reporter asked Malcolm Smith on Sunday what he ran in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, he replied, “I didn’t get invited to the combine.”
So there Smith was three years ago, waiting until the final round of the draft until his old coach gave him a call. And even when Smith went from role player to part-time starter this season, he was still essentially the fourth linebacker for most of the year, playing only when a starter was hurt or suspended. But Smith kept playing so well, he kept making so many plays, that eventually he forced his coaches to leave him on the field even when the team had everyone available. The result was not just a big game in the Super Bowl, but a player who showed a knack for the big play over and over again, coming up with four interceptions in the last five games of the season, including two he returned for touchdowns.
“It’s a really cool statement about our team,” Carroll said. “… It’s a fitting statement for the way our guys play and the togetherness they represent. … I think it was extraordinary last night to see Jermaine Kearse score a touchdown, and Doug Baldwin score a touchdown, and Malcolm get in the end zone and scoop up another fumble. Guys who are not heralded guys (came) in, competed in our program and found a way to contribute in enormous ways.”
Asked what he might tell other NFL hopefuls who don’t get a combine invite, Smith said, “There’s unlimited possibilities. That’s not the end of your story.”
As of Sunday, those unlimited possibilities include being the MVP of the Super Bowl.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.