Smith wiser and humbled after time in rehab

Updated: October 1, 2003, 5:33 PM ET

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Maybe the hint of salt-and-pepper stubble on Jimmy Smith's chin had been there before. Or maybe it hadn't.

Whatever the case, that sage touch of gray was hard to ignore when the 34-year-old receiver returned to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Wednesday, claiming to be a wiser, more humble man with a new appreciation for the dwindling time he has left as a pro football player.

"When something's taken away from you, you realize the things you take for granted," Smith said. "I'm very fortunate to be standing here."

How long will it last? Even Smith wasn't making any promises.

The 11-year veteran returned to the team after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. After his first practice since Aug. 15, he essentially admitted to the world that he was an addict.

"It's an ongoing battle," he said. "You continue to deal with that issue on a day-to-day basis and hopefully, you overcome it. But you never say that you've licked it. That's what gets you in trouble."

Smith answered questions for about 10 minutes, during which he seemed much more comfortable talking about football than his problems.

But, he conceded, "football is what I do, not who I am."

He was soft-spoken and polite, but not completely without edge, and not exactly contrite.

When did he get out of denial and realize he had a problem?

"I don't know. What kind of question is that?" he said.

Does he regret criticizing the police officer who arrested him after pulling him over for speeding two years ago, or the state lab workers who processed the positive cocaine test that resulted from the arrest?

"I regret everything in the past," was all he offered.

Smith spent about six weeks in rehab in South Carolina, during which he tried to stay in playing shape, and to clean up his unspecified drug problem.

It was the latest chapter in the ongoing saga that has become his life.

Smith has had a series of major operations -- beginning with an emergency appendectomy 10 years ago -- that have left him close to death, most recently in 2001. Despite that, he has become one of the most prolific receivers in the NFL: Nobody has caught more passes for more yards than Smith over the seven seasons prior to this one.

There was a snippy contract holdout last season, two years out of football after the appendectomy, the now-famous binder of press clippings his mother sent to former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin to help him earn a tryout and a chance to restart his career.

"I've been through the hospital stuff, the holdouts, all that stuff," Smith said. "But this is the toughest battle I've faced in my life."

His progress will be tracked publicly -- both on the field and through the NFL offices, which will suspend him for an entire season if he tests positive for drugs again.

His teammates say they are happy to have him back.

"I've always looked at him as one of the top two or three receivers in the whole league," said wide receiver Troy Edwards, who joined the team last week. "I saw him out there today. He looked good. He's going to make everyone on this team look a little better, work a little harder."

The Jaguars will almost certainly make Smith active for Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers -- at 0-4 and with an offense struggling to make plays, there really isn't any other choice.

"The staff, the organization, the players, we've all been looking forward to this," coach Jack Del Rio said. "We've been supportive of what he's gone through. We're glad to have him back and we look forward to good times on Sundays with him."

A five-time Pro Bowler, Smith has never had trouble with Sundays, during the three hours when the game is being played.

It's the rest of the hours and days he needs to work on.

"I think the most important thing is, I've gotten over one hurdle and I've got other hurdles to jump," he said. "I've just got to stay focused."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index