TAMPA — Evan Smith spent his first five NFL seasons playing for the Packers. As the veteran offensive lineman returns to Green Bay for the first time this weekend, his fondest memories are still as vivid as they are personal.
Small-town Green Bay is unique among NFL homes, and Smith still loves the Packer traditions. On Saturday night, he’ll meet up with the young fan whose bicycle he borrowed to ride to training camp practice.
"I rode his bike for like three years," Smith said. "His mom messaged my wife, said he still talks about it. It was just riding his bike, but it was a big deal to him. It’s humbling to me, knowing I made an impact on him."
Even as a lineman, Smith, 31, got to share in another Green Bay classic, the Lambeau Leap; the team scored enough touchdowns that the starting linemen got a chance to rotate in with their own jumps into the stands. That thrill still has a firm grip on him, even if the fans didn’t that day against the Steelers.
"I barely made it. That wall’s a lot taller than it looks," the 308-pound lineman said. "I was a little banged up, too, so I didn’t really have the hops at the time."
Smith and his family still call Wisconsin home. He stays there in the offseason, with his wife Misty and their two children, daughter Jocelyn, 7, and son Blake, just 10 months. Smith is from California originally, but Wisconsin feels like home now.
"It’s Lambeau. It’s always a cool place to go. Not a lot of guys really understand the history. I got all of it. It’s a special place for the NFL in general," Smith said. "I was telling the guys all of the traditions, all the songs you’re going to hear, all the crazy stuff. You see fans with no shirts on, screaming."
Smith, memorable for his thick black beard and full sleeves of tattoos on both arms, is in the final month of a four-year, $14.2 million contract he signed with the Bucs in 2014, sticking around with toughness and versatility. Not all free-agent deals in the NFL get to go to fruition, but Smith has shown his value, being able to serve as a backup at center and guard.
Case in point? With two offensive linemen suffering season-ending injuries last week, he’ll step in as the starting left guard Sunday, serving as the backup center as well. This is just his second start in 2017, but he has played 331 snaps.
"The biggest thing for me is to show guys that it can be done," said Smith, who came into the league undrafted and was cut by the Packers his second year before earning his job back. "I hope to play a couple more years, too, but a lot of guys around the league, it’s a couple of years and you’re out. I’m happy I was able to prove my worth and play a vital role in showing these guys leadership."
To have such experience in the team’s depth is an asset for coach Dirk Koetter, who has had to weather multiple injuries at other positions.
"I’m sure this is a special game for Evan in a lot of ways," Koetter said Friday. "He’s getting the start and he’s going to play hopefully the whole game."
Smith missed last week’s game with a concussion and was cleared from protocol on Thursday. Smith is grateful for his time now in both of the NFL’s Bays.
"I’ve created a lot of great relationships with everybody down here, the staff and the players," he said. "I hope it works out and I can finish it out here for the rest of my career."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.