JERSEY CITY, N.J. — It was one of the biggest, and perhaps the most quickly forgotten, interceptions in NFL playoff history.
When Seattle’s Richard Sherman tipped away a pass intended for San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree in the NFC championship game, linebacker Malcolm Smith caught the ball to complete a play that sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.
But Smith’s heads-up effort instantly became an afterthought when Sherman’s emotional postgame outburst made the cornerback one of the Super Bowl’s main story lines.
That’s fine with the low-key Smith.
“I’m sure when I get older I’ll think about it,” he said of the interception. “To me, it really was just a play.”
Smith, who played at USC, is also understated — but excited — about a chance to make history Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
If the Seahawks win, Smith and his older brother Steve, a former Trojans receiver, would join six brother combinations that have won Super Bowl titles as players.
“I would love to join that club,” said Steve, a receiver who helped the New York Giants win Super Bowl XLII in the 2007 season. “That would be a cool honor.”
Peyton and Eli Manning, Bubba and Tody Smith, Matt and Chris Bahr, Jim and Keith Fahnhorst, Chris and Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Darren and Jamie Sharper are brothers who played for Super Bowl winners.
This is Malcolm Smith’s second Super Bowl experience. In February 2008, he was a spectator in Glendale, Ariz., and saw Steve help the Giants defeat the New England Patriots.
Steve caught five passes for 50 yards, including a key third-down reception that set up the game-winning touchdown.
“I just remember being in the stands and after they won, getting onto the field and seeing how happy they were,” Malcolm said.
“After the game he had my jersey on,” Steve said, “just being there supporting me.”
Their mother, Audrey, is proud of her sons and the dedicated effort they put into realizing their athletic goals.
“I always told them, there’s somebody that’s more talented or someone working constantly in order to take your position,” she said.
But she also hammered that their athletic achievements should not define them.
“This is a part of who you are,” she told them, “not all of who you are.”
Steve, 28, and Malcolm, 24, said they never spoke as kids about one day both playing in the Super Bowl.
“I thought I was going to be a basketball player,” Steve said.
At 5 feet 11, Steve was an outstanding guard at Taft High School in Los Angeles. But he was regarded as a premier receiver and defensive back prospect in football.
He signed with USC in 2003 and helped the Trojans win two national titles, playing a starring role in USC’s rout of Oklahoma in the 2005 Bowl Championship Series title game. The Giants selected the 2006 All-American in the second round of the 2007 draft.
Malcolm said he sold Steve’s autograph to classmates while in middle school, but was “a little” intimidated by the prospect of following in his brother’s footsteps at Taft.
Audrey Smith was so concerned she considered sending Malcolm to Los Angeles’ Notre Dame High.
“In the end,” she said, “he came to me and said, ‘I want to go to Taft.’ “
Former Taft coach Troy Starr said Steve Smith was the best football player he has coached.
Malcolm was an honor student. Starr’s wife, Tana, who taught Advanced Placement environmental science, affectionately called him a nerd. Physically, he was built differently than Steve and was also quieter. He developed as a linebacker over time.
“He just kept getting a little bit tougher,” said Starr, now the coach at La Mesa (Calif.) Helix High.
Malcolm signed with USC in 2007 and became a valuable contributor for the Trojans under former coach Pete Carroll and linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. But he also had some setbacks. After his sophomore season, Malcolm was diagnosed with achalasia, a disease of the esophagus that makes swallowing difficult and led to extreme weight loss.
Smith wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, but the Seahawks selected him in the seventh round of the 2011 draft.
“We took him because we knew him,” Carroll said, “and wanted his special athleticism.”
Smith, who graduated from USC with an economics degree, has learned to manage his medical condition and maintain his weight. At 6 feet and 226 pounds, he has become a key player at two linebacker spots and on special teams. He has three interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown … and one, of course, that saved the Seahawks’ season.
“We talk to them about good things come to those who run,” said Norton, the Seahawks’ linebackers coach. “His job on that play was to buzz to the flat as hard as you could — and he did exactly that, and good things happened.”
Audrey, watching at home in Los Angeles, saw Sherman tip the pass and a Seahawks player nearby.
“I didn’t realize it was Malcolm,” she said. “And then when I did, I screamed, ‘It’s Malcolm! My baby!’”
Steve, who underwent knee surgery in 2010 and retired last May, was watching the game at home in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also did not realize his brother was on the field for the play until he saw him snatch the ball.
“I jumped in the air and screamed,” Steve said. “I lost my voice. It was a great moment I will never, ever forget.”
Neither will Malcolm, though reflection can wait until after the Super Bowl.
“It’s great for us to be here,” he said. “I don’t want to think about what could have happened those next couple downs, so I definitely appreciate the moment.”