EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Standing near his locker, the one where two footballs were tucked away for safekeeping, Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith repeated the word “fortunate” over and over again.
The third player at his position in NFL history to earn Super Bowl MVP honors, he spoke about feeling “fortunate to be a part of it” and “fortunate to get opportunities.”
Truth is, the Seahawks were the lucky ones.
Because even though Smith was only a seventh-round draft pick, a guy who was not supposed to be a starter this season, he always was ready when called upon. Never more so than Sunday night, when Smith returned an interception of regular-season MVP Peyton Manning 69 yards for a touchdown in the first half, recovered a fumble in the second half, and was part of a dominating defensive performance that helped Seattle beat the Denver Broncos 43-8 for the championship.
“He’s one of the guys that plays with a chip on his shoulder,” fellow linebacker K.J. Wright said. “He almost didn’t get drafted. For him to come in, start from the bottom and work his way up to Super Bowl MVP, it shows how much character he has, how resilient he is.”
Sure is. And it was rather appropriate that a member of Seattle’s league-leading “D” would be the MVP of the Super Bowl, considering the way the Seahawks shut down Manning and Denver’s record-breaking offense, forcing four turnovers and holding the Broncos scoreless until the last play of the third quarter.
Smith joined Ray Lewis of Baltimore in 2001, and Chuck Howley of Dallas in 1971 as the only linebackers to be picked as the top player in a Super Bowl. Only eight of 48 Super Bowls have ended with someone who plays defense getting the honor; the last example was Tampa Bay Buccaneers free safety Dexter Jackson in 2003.
And Smith, who is 24, is the fourth-youngest Super Bowl MVP.
His older brother, Steve, was a wide receiver on the New York Giants’ 2008 Super Bowl title team and was at Sunday’s game.
“I just told him to enjoy the moment, go out before pregame and take some pictures and really enjoy it,” Steve said, “because you never know when it could end and you could never be back again.”
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas were first-team All-Pro selections this season, and both finished among the top five vote-getters for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Safety Kam Chancellor was a second-team All-Pro choice.
That trio of defensive backs is part of a talented secondary known as the “Legion of Boom,” and guys such as Smith often get overshadowed.
“You might have been overlooked,” Malcolm Smith said, explaining that he’s derived motivation from snubs such as not being invited to the NFL draft combine for top prospects coming out of college. “You might feel like you can make plays and never got the opportunity.”
But 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 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, wearing a gray sweatshirt over his uniform.
He grabbed a fumble in the third quarter, too, as the Seahawks made sure the Broncos never made things interesting.
In many ways, Smith is emblematic of Seattle’s success this season.
First and foremost, he plays defense, the unit that is the heart and soul of the team.
He’s a young guy on a young roster, in only his third year in the league after playing for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll in college at Southern California.
“When you look at the guys that we have on this team, they’re all a bunch of misfits that fit together,” special teamer Chris Maragos said. “To see what Malcolm has been able to do is just phenomenal. He’s a great worker, he’s humble, he plays hard, he studies hard.”
Pegged mainly as a special teams guy, Smith’s speed and ability to handle both outside linebacker slots earned notice.
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 Wright slid over to middle linebacker, Smith got another opportunity to start. And when Wright broke his right foot late in the season, well 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.