Bengals’ Brandon LaFell, now 30, still ‘kid’ to mentor Steve Smith

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith has made a lot of enemies over his 16-year career. The list of opponents he has insulted, traded barbs with, or gotten into an altercation with at some point might come close to approaching the amount of career catches he has (1,000). But not Bengals receiver Brandon LaFell.

It's clear that Smith still views LaFell, his former teammate when they were both with the Panthers, with true affection. He still calls him 'kid,' while noting that LaFell, who just turned 30, isn't exactly a kid anymore.

"LaFell is one of those guys. He’s a great guy, great kid," Smith said. "Actually, he just had a birthday, so he’s 30 years old, so it’s actually pretty cool."

Ask either LaFell or Smith about the other, and their voices instantly perk up.

"Oh, LaFell! That's my guy!" Smith said on a conference call with Cincinnati reporters, seconds after he finished roasting rookies he didn't call out by name -- likely Jalen Ramsey and Anthony Brown -- who claimed they had 'lost respect for him.'

LaFell is forever on Smith's side.

The two spent the first years of LaFell's career together in Carolina, from 2010-13, and both departed the same year. Smith was released in a surprising move by the Panthers, and LaFell signed with the Patriots in free agency.

LaFell has credited Smith more than once for lighting a fire under him when he was a young player, remembering how the fear of letting Smith down spurred him to become better.

"No matter where I've played I've had good, veteran leaders that have played this game 10-plus years that were dominant like Steve Smith," LaFell recalled prior to the Bengals game against the Patriots. "I was more worried about letting Smitty down, because he had a lot of belief in me."

LaFell's words were relayed to Smith on Wednesday.

"See, I’m not as (much of) a dirtbag as people say I am," Smith said in response.

The relationship between the players has continued through the years even though they now play for new teams. To this day, they talk at least every two weeks, with topics ranging from football to their kids.

"Actually, LaFell just hit me up the other day," Smith said. "He was having this thing back in Charlotte, he was asking me for the cupcake number. Because our kids do cupcakes."

But even LaFell knows their friendship will take a backseat for three hours on Sunday. They might chat before the game, but as soon as Smith comes out of the tunnel with his uniform on, anyone not wearing purple is the enemy.

"Once he comes out that tunnel, I know not to talk to him until after the game," LaFell said. "If there's one thing about Smitty, if you don't have the same color uniform on, all he sees is red. So I'll leave him alone once the game has started and I'll talk to him after the game is over."

Although LaFell probably knows how Smith's mind works better than anyone, even he doesn't quite have an explanation for how Smith continues to excel at age 37 (44 catches, 516 yards, three touchdowns this season).

"The things he can do, that's just Smitty," LaFell said. "It's just Smitty being Smitty. "Him going out there at his age, playing the way he's playing, everybody doubting him, you can't play this game this long the way he played, and then to come off the injury and come back and play the game at a high level how he's been dominating, that's just Smitty being Smitty. Always having a chip on his shoulder, always proving somebody and always something 'I'm going to do it my way.'"

Will Smith be back to do the same next season? Only he knows. LaFell said he would love to see Smith keep playing, but he's not going to be the one that makes that decision for him.

"If I say yes, if I say he's going to retire, he'll probably come back," LaFell said, "I don't wanna be tempting him to come back. Whatever Smitty does, he's going to do it, but at the end of the day he's had a great career so far."

And if Smith does know the real answer to the retirement question, he's not saying it yet.

"Man, I’m trying to get through Thanksgiving. You’re talking about next year," Smith said on Wednesday.

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Neil S. Schwartz

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