KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The loudest, brashest, most vulgar man in the Chiefs locker room is hollering again. This is nothing new.
This time, it's coming from inside the shower. Everyone knows it's Shaun Smith, and when he's in one of his moods, there is no peace.
He's screaming nonsense, and by now, his teammates are used to it. This is the same man who howls during practices, screams profanity in the locker room, and may or may not have curious fingers when he and an opponent meet at the bottom of a pile. He has played for four NFL teams and was out of the league for a while last year because, he will say, some teams believed his personality was toxic.
Finally, Smith, the Chiefs' 29-year-old defensive lineman from Wichita, emerges with a towel wrapped around his sprawling waist. Eric Berry walks by, and Smith sees him.
"Hey, EB!" Smith shouts at Berry, and the rookie safety turns and smiles. "Little bro! Come here, little bro!"
Sure enough, Berry walks toward Smith, and they speak for a few minutes at Smith's locker. This is nothing new, either. Smith has taken an interest in Berry and a few other Chiefs rookies. Smith likes the idea of shaping young minds, and like good youngsters, Berry and Kendrick Lewis and Javier Arenas oblige. Smith invites them to visit his home sometimes, and he visits theirs. They speak regularly on the phone.
"He's there when we have a question," Lewis says.
Those rookies carry several burdens: They could someday make up the nucleus of a team built with character and judgment in mind, but for now, they are at an impressionable stage. Their mentors matter, and the lessons they learn as rookies will influence the veterans they will become — and what they pass on to future players, too.
Smith is a prominent voice in those players' ears. On the surface, he seems to be precisely what the Chiefs don't want on their roster, which was carefully constructed months ago mostly with players who lack baggage. Now, there is perhaps no player in this locker room with more influence on the Chiefs' future than Smith.
Berry finishes this day's lesson and heads back toward his locker, and Smith drops his 325-pound body onto an undersized stool. During a calmer moment, he says there's more to him than the screaming and cursing. You might have to take his word for it, but he insists it's true.
"I may take it a little bit overboard," he says. "People look at me like, 'Oh, he just talks (trash), and he's a big guy who thinks he knows everything.'
"But there's a side of me that people don't know."
The Chiefs' loudest, brashest, most vulgar player is quiet now. This is different.
His head is lowered on this Tuesday morning, and he's sitting at a table behind a big green curtain.
Someone whispers into Smith's ear, sharing a few details of what is about to happen. Students will soon begin flocking into the gymnasium at Brookwood Elementary School in Johnson County, and after a few minutes, Smith will be introduced.
"All right," he says without making eye contact.
Smith stays silent for a long time, and his knee begins to jump. This seems nothing like the cocky, audacious player whose voice rules an NFL locker room. Someone asks if he's nervous, and he shakes his head. Says he's just thinking about what to tell those kids.
"Maybe I'll tell them to work out," he says, "because you don't want to wind up fat like me."
Tuesday is the Chiefs' regular day off, but in some ways, it's the busiest day of the week for this big man. Some weeks, like this one, he spends his free hours in the community, speaking to students or giving away turkeys or toys. Other times, he's flying back from Dallas, where his three children live.
Smith has this part down to a science: As soon as he knows the Chiefs' Monday schedule, sometimes that morning, he books a ticket on the 1:15 flight to Dallas on American, and it gets him to Texas in time to pick up his daughter, Autumn, from school. He'll play Daddy for a few hours, playing with dolls for Autumn and her sister, Markaylon, and talking football with his son, Kyrun, before saying goodnight.
"That's what keeps me going," he says. "My kids don't care if we win or lose. It's stressful sometimes. This job is a stressful job."
Then, the next day, he's up and gone again — back to real life, if this actually is Smith's real life, as an NFL player. That's the interesting thing about Smith. Is he more the vile player whose conversations are so often sprinkled with expletives, or is he the soft-spoken and caring father who sacrifices his off days for a few hours with his kids?
He says he's both of those people and that people are complicated sometimes; that's why it's unfair to look only at what they seem to be.
"It's not an act," he says. "I'm a tough guy on the field, and off the field, I'm a father in the community who's trying to help everybody out."
Back in that school auditorium, the seconds are ticking down to Smith's introduction. He's working himself into character. He stands and takes a deep breath, smiling when the time comes and the curtain is pulled back.
People did look only at what they saw out of Smith. Some teams saw the big man with the loud mouth, and they stayed away. Detroit released him in September 2009, and other teams kept their distance. It was Smith who punched quarterback Brady Quinn when they played together in Cleveland. And it was Smith whose bravado seemed more impressive than his play.
For three months last year, Smith was out of the NFL. He signed with the UFL's Las Vegas Locomotives, an experience that he says was humbling and educational, before Cincinnati signed him for the final month. Even now, Smith says, he remembers how it felt to be given up on.
"Every day," he says, "I've got to fight the battle of, 'Does he still have it?' "
The Chiefs signed him last spring, and in the time since, Smith decided that he would be that loud, brash player — but only when the situation called for it. He heard that on this team, character meant something, and if he couldn't hold up his end, he wouldn't last.
Brian Waters, the Chiefs' Pro Bowl guard, says that he and Smith talk sometimes in the steam room, when there's time to kill and there's no one around to laugh or judge. They talk about family and what it takes to stay in this league. Waters says now that Smith walks a delicate line with the Chiefs, and he admits it: Smith's act might not have been tolerated last season.
"Guys were on pins and needles," Waters says about last year's team, which finished 4-12. "There were so many sensitivities, from the head all the way down, from the top of this organization all the way down.
"That shows how much we've grown that we can accept a guy like Shaun Smith.... You need a guy who can be loud, but yet he's a yeoman on the football field. He's willing to do all the nasty stuff that other people are not willing to do."
Sometimes that means staying late to mentor the Chiefs' rookies. Or stuffing his pride before each game and thanking coach Todd Haley for taking a chance on him. Or, yes, occasionally bending the rules to give his team an edge. Smith won't say whether he grabbed the genitals of two opponents earlier this year, a brief controversy that drew a fine for Smith before being overturned after an appeal.
The Chiefs' young players are paying attention to all of it: The good and bad, the memorable moments such as Smith's rushing touchdown two weeks ago, and the ones so easy to forget, such as Smith's constant hollering — which happens so often that it now just fades into the background. He has been a surprise on the field, too: Smith has been a solid run-stopper for the Chiefs, and he'll be counted on heavily today when Kansas City plays St. Louis and tries to stop Steven Jackson.
Berry, the team's top draft pick this year, says he visits Smith often. They'll laugh and joke, sure, but when it's time to work, Smith doesn't compromise. That's one thing Berry has learned, and if that's the kind of thing Smith is teaching, maybe the Chiefs have nothing to worry about.
"You might hear him talking a lot," Berry says, "but when it's time to go to work, it's time to go to work."
Smith says that before each game, in the hours before he shifts back into the character that requires him to be loud and uncontrolled, he takes a ride.
He leaves his home near the Country Club Plaza, and although it's not on the way, he drives through some of Kansas City's more desolate neighborhoods. He passes abandoned buildings and sees people walking the streets without direction.
He says it's a way to remind himself what could've happened if a few breaks didn't go his way, and also a way to remember how much of America lives. He says he didn't grow up in poverty, but he grew up wanting more from life.
"I just drive it," he says. "It's just peace of mind. Just something to keep me motivated, to keep me going."
Smith says it's important to stay grounded, and that's one of the lessons he shares with the Chiefs' young players. He shares financial advice sometimes with Berry, encourages Lewis to study game film during his down time, and tells receiver Dwayne Bowe that it's his play that'll make him a star, not his words and antics.
"He's a guy," Lewis says, "that kinds of keeps this locker room together."
He tells them that no player is perfect — but that the important thing is to have more good days than bad. He says that if that happens, he'll be just fine. And so will the Chiefs.
"More ups than you have downs," he says. "Until you really get to know me, you find out he's really not a bad guy after all."