Three words raced through Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith’s mind as he streaked toward the end zone in the Super Bowl, returning his interception of a pass by Peyton Manning: “Don’t get caught.”
That, Smith explained Monday at a news conference, would be the “typical thoughts a defensive player (would have) with the ball.” And he heeded his own advice, going 69 yards for a touchdown on that play. He added a fumble recovery later and earned MVP honors as Seattle beat Manning’s Denver Broncos 43-8 for the Seahawks’ first NFL championship.
At no moment during Sunday’s action did Smith think he would take home the award.
His teammates did.
“Even during the game,” Smith recalled, “guys were like, ‘You might be MVP.’ And I was like, ‘No way. No way. Not me.’ But to be here, it’s just pretty cool.”
Smith is not one of those players who long ago seemed destined to wind up getting the keys to a new vehicle the day after the Super Bowl, a sponsor’s prize for the big game’s best player.
Coming out of college at Southern California — where he was coached by the Seahawks’ current boss, Pete Carroll — Smith wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, where top prospects are measured and evaluated. Then, when the 2011 draft rolled around, he wasn’t taken until the seventh round, the 242nd player chosen.
Seems to fit right in with the Seahawks, more than a third of whom weren’t even drafted at all.
“He didn’t like it, but he had to go in the seventh round. He’s proven otherwise, just like a lot of other guys in our program,” Carroll said.
“I think it was extraordinary last night to see Jermaine Kearse score a touchdown, and Doug Baldwin score a touchdown, and Malcolm gets in the end zone and scoops up another fumble,” he continued. “Guys that are not the heralded guys coming in competed in our program and found a way to contribute in enormous ways.”
By way of explaining in a euphoric locker room Sunday night why he was an appropriate choice for an MVP from these Seahawks, Smith said: “I’m just fortunate to be a part of it, fortunate to get opportunities. I’m happy to be amongst a bunch of guys that play with attitudes and chips on their shoulders. I’m happy to represent that.”
He went on: “You might have been overlooked. You might feel like you can make plays and never got the opportunity.”
Truth is, the Seahawks were the lucky ones.
Because even though Smith was not supposed to be a starter this season, a player with zero interceptions in his first two years in the league, he always was ready when called upon.
Pegged mainly as a special-teams guy, Smith earned notice with his speed and ability to handle both outside linebacker slots.
When Bruce Irvin was suspended for four games in May for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, it was Smith who filled in as a starter.
When Bobby Wagner was sidelined, and K.J. Wright slid over to middle linebacker, Smith got another opportunity to start. And when Wright broke his right foot late in the season, guess who Seattle called upon: Yep, Smith, of course.
Then suddenly, on Sunday, there he was at the Super Bowl, in the right place and right time, as usual.
It was Smith who wound up with the victory-sealing interception at the end of Seattle’s NFC championship game victory two weeks ago, grabbing the football after Richard Sherman deflected a pass in the end zone. And then, in the biggest game of all, Smith’s pick-6 off a fluttering ball — after teammate Cliff Avril made contact with Manning during the throw — made it 22-0 late in the first half Sunday, and Seattle was on its way.
“I was like, ‘Again!? No way.’ I didn’t believe it,” Smith said.
He grabbed a fumble later, too, capping quite a late-season surge.
“I’ve always just been taught to run to the ball and good things will happen for me,” Smith said. “I played running back as a kid, so it’s always been the most exciting thing to have the ball in my hands.”