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Growing pains

In his voice, there was no hint of giddy exuberance but instead the calming tone of relief.

Now that he had signed a contract, a four-year $1.8-million deal, Bucs rookie cornerback Dwight Smith said he could feel the stress rising off his shoulders.

And he could think only of his mother Veronica.

On June 29, Veronica Smith died from complications from brain surgery she needed to remove three aneurysms. She fell into a coma the night before the NFL draft and never came out. She was 40.

Now Smith, 22, officially becomes the financial provider for sister Sharron (20), brothers Dante (9) and Diamond (8) and 2-year-old son Dwight Smith Jr.

"It felt like a big stress relief more than anything else," a subdued Smith said. "I felt like there was so much going on in my life. It's been so crazy, the last month. I needed to know that there was something I can depend on."

"This was an important thing for Dwight," agent Gene Burrough said. "We had so much anticipation and concern about him getting injured or something like that. When you're on the verge of making a dream come through and you know (his story), you hope and pray that nothing goes wrong."

That's because Smith now is responsible for his four immediate family members, of which the siblings live with their grandparents in their hometown of Detroit.

He plans, eventually, to bring Dante and Diamond to Tampa but said it may not be until next year.

"I mean, that's a lot for a 22-year-old to handle, especially considering that I have my own son," Smith said. "But it's not something I can run from. I don't have any other choice."

Smith's challenges are familiar to one of his new teammates. Running back Warrick Dunn's mother Betty Smothers, a Baton Rouge (La.) police officer, was killed during a robbery while she was working her off-duty job as a security officer.

Dunn, then 18 and the oldest of six children, took over care of his younger siblings and since has become their legal guardian. He said the task ahead for Smith is significant but not impossible.

"He has to be patient," Dunn said. "He needs a good support cast around him, people like Coach (Tony) Dungy to help make good, sound decisions. Life can't just be about himself. He has no idea. You can't prepare for it. Everyone is still growing and maturing and he now has to be in the parent stage. He can't be selfish and has to put himself last."

Smith said he did not know Dunn had been through a similar situation but looked forward to talking to him about dealing with the responsibility.

"He's my teammate and I would look forward to helping him out, if he needs it," Dunn said.

On the field, Smith is a cornerback with a difference. At 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, he looks more like a strong safety and apparently hits like one. At the NFL Combine, Smith impressed the Bucs scouting department with his ability to get his hands on a number of passes during specific drills.

At Akron, Smith did nothing but make big plays. In his senior season, he was named the Mid American Conference's defensive player of the year, after finishing the year with 10 interceptions, 58 tackles, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He returned two of the interceptions for touchdowns.

Considering the team's philosophy of leaning toward college players who were productive, the Bucs selected Smith in the third round and he seemed quite at home during minicamp.

Smith immediately got an apartment in Tampa and began putting things in place for a smooth transition to life as a pro.

All the while, Veronica remained in a coma and Smith kept his thoughts of her in the back of his mind. Asked why he didn't bring up her condition during interviews in minicamp, Smith replied: "I like to keep things (private). It wasn't something I wanted to talk about."

Veronica's prognosis, however, wasn't good. Doctors told Smith she would likely be in a coma for an indefinite time. He held up an obligation to participate in a football camp in Detroit and on the day before he was scheduled to return to Tampa, Veronica died. She was buried July 6 and Smith immediately returned to Tampa to get back to his training regimen.

"They said the best she could do was stay in the coma," Smith said. "Obviously, I didn't have a good feeling about her (health). So, we weren't that surprised. I wouldn't say that it's behind me. I don't know how I feel."

With the future of his siblings and son looming , Smith and Burrough wanted to sign as quickly and for as much up front as possible. It took Burrough and the Bucs one day to hammer out the deal.

"No question, this is a good deal for Dwight," Burrough said, "Sometimes, players will sign for three years. But, we chose to go with the four-year deal because the upside is that you can be in a good position to get a new deal (a few years later) and you can get more money up front. Obviously, we wanted more money up front."

Burrough said Smith isn't concerned about being locked into a four-year deal that may become outdated by his performance.

"The Bucs are a good sound organization so when a kid comes in they treat him right," Burrough said. "Great players never play that fourth year, they renegotiate a new deal."

AT LEAST IT'S NOT SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: For its training camp issue, the Sporting News chose Buccaneers, left to right, Warren Sapp, Brad Johnson and Keyshawn Johnson for the cover.