Beyond the Boxscore
DENVER — I have two sons under seven who are obsessed with Ninjago (the Lego ninjas) and camping out. While other kids went to summer camp, they went to Ninja Camp where they were taught by a guy who called himself Master Bruce. (Maybe taught too well considering all the things being karate chopped in our home).
And any family vacation must include some type of campfire to be considered acceptable by the boys.
I bring this up because the more I talk to Houston Texans defensive end Antonio Smith, the more I realize he's living a 7-year-old's dream life.
Smith runs around in a ninja suit, spends his offseasons in Oklahoma playing a cowboy and basically never stops laughing. What more could an elementary schooler want?
Peyton's been sacked five times in the Broncos' first two games, putting him on a pace to be taken down 40 times.
The NFL salary to buy all the ridiculous toys you could ever want wouldn't hurt either.
There are better pro football players than Antonio Smith, but it's doubtful that anyone's ever had any more fun playing the game than the Texans' quarterback-hunting character. And that goes back to Art Donovan and all those crusty, old white players from the 1950s who David Letterman loves too.
This is a guy who is equally comfortbale at a high-decibel party that would make the crew from Project X blush as he is at ranch outside of Oklahoma City.
"There's just something about being out in the countryside under the stars that puts a man's mind at ease," Smith says.
Smith doesn't just pretend to be a rancher in his offseason escape. This is no City Slickers scenario. He gets up on a horse, puts on a cowboy hat (OK, he also sometimes wears those on Texans' road trips) and herds his animals around.
"I ain't no fake cowboy," he insists.
Smith refuses to do anything halfway. You could see some other NFL players adopting a ninja sack dance celebration and slashing an imaginary sword through the air a la No. 94. But dressing up hair to toe in a full black ninja suit, which only leaves his eyes showing?
That's pure Antonio — no one else is going to go that far.
Smith may play to the crowd, but he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. This 30-year-old is going to be as silly as he wants to be.
As more and more national press finds the Texans — something a win in Denver Sunday afternoon would accelerate — Smith is sure to emerge as a highly-quoted team spokesman. The man knows how to entertain, from talking about his future desire to go to culinary school to getting into his need to put his "lawyer suit" on for an NFL fine appeal.
People are sort of used to Smith's act in Houston by now. But out of town writers and TV talking heads will eat it up.
Of course, there is nothing funny to a quarterback about getting taken down. Peyton Manning will be keeping a close eye on Smith in Sunday afternoon's 3:25 p.m. Mile High showdown, probably doing his best to try and draw an exciteable player offsides.
Smith's already put on his Tonestradamus hat and predicted that Connor Barwin will sack Manning twice. But don't be surprised if Smith gets in on the party.
A New Reality
Manning used to be ultra-difficult to take down, but so far this post neck-surgery Manning of 2012 hasn't shown that same deft touch at getting rid of the football just in time. Peyton's been sacked five times in the Broncos' first two games, putting him on a pace to be taken down 40 times.
Smith runs around in a ninja suit, spends his offseason playing a cowboy and basically never stops laughing. What more could an elementary schooler want?
Now that won't happen, but the Peyton Manning who could go through a whole 16-game season getting sacked 14, 10 and 16 times as he did in back-to-back-to-back seasons pre-neck fusions doesn't exist anymore either.
Wade Phillips' Bulls On Parade defense will be hunting Sunday — with the ninja as due as anyone.
"I probably got a few sacks last year that should have been Antonio's," says Barwin, who plays on the same side as Smith and plays off him. Barwin and Smith's pairing isn't as celebrated as J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed's on the other side, but in Phillips' attack defense everyone gets the chance to do some damage.
This is the biggest challenge of Manning's comeback yet. There is a reason the Texans are road favorites in Denver (did you ever think you'd see that?) The MVP force, pre-injury Manning only threw eight touchdown passes in seven games against Wade Phillips-coordinated defenses.
Everyone will be excited about a Manning rebirth or wondering when it will be all over for No. 18 after this one.
When football's all over for Smith, maybe he'll be teaching kids at some ninja camp. "You need to be sneaky," Smith says of his ninja philosophy, which isn't all that different from Master Bruce's "You need to find silence."
Earlier this week, Smith stood in front of a packed auditorium at Hartman Middle School — more than 700 kids strong — urging them to do 60 minutes of physical activity every day. It's part of the Play 60 partnership between the NFL and the American Heart Association. Smith certainly fit right in with the kids.
Hey, who needs to live a grown-up life? Antonio Smith may have figured out a path most of us are in too much of a rush to see.