HE HATE ME Former XFL player in spotlight
Rod Smart, the Panthers' kickoff-returner, promoted his way to the NFL.
HOUSTON (AP) -- The XFL's boldest name is playing well on the NFL's biggest stage.
The media magnet? He Hate Me, of course.
The obscure running back with the unforgettable 'monicker' is making the Super Bowl his biggest marketing coup. Rod Smart's mischievous, 'stubbled' face was one of the most photographed Tuesday on media day.
He was hoping something like this could happen three years ago when, in a moment of inspiration, he made a name for himself and became the symbol of an anti-establishment league.
"The name helped," Smart readily acknowledged. "Would you guys be here today if I didn't have the name? Let's face it."
As Rod Smart, he's just a Carolina Panther kickoff-return man. As He Hate Me, he's an icon for those who love the brashness of a cell-phone celebration and the theatrics of a World Wrestling Entertainment match.
No one drafted him out of Western Kentucky, leaving him to beg for an NFL job. San Diego gave him a chance and got rid of him after three weeks. Even the Edmonton Eskimos cut him.
Two leagues, two rejections.
Then comes XFL
Along came promoter Vince McMahon's 'Xtremely' different league, the one with the black-and-red ball and pro wrestling showmanship. The XFL was looking for players. Smart was looking for a paycheck.
"At first, I really thought that with Vince McMahon, wrestling was going to be involved," Smart said. "That would have been fun, but there would have been a lot of injuries. I wouldn't mind jumping off the top rope, though."
The 357th player taken in the XFL draft, Smart got $45,000 for the league's first and last season. His Las Vegas Outlaws played the league's inaugural game on Feb. 4, 2001, beating the New York/New Jersey Hitmen 19-0 in front of 30,389 fans.
For the league, it was downhill from there. Smart was just getting started.
Before the second game, he decided to adopt the equivalent of a stage name. He thought about how a defender might feel as he ran past him.
He Hate Me.
It was on the back of his black, red and gold uniform for the second game. It became an overnight hit, the best-selling jersey in the league's one-year existence.
"It's a big marketing business," Smart said. "You get a lot of guys coming out of college with big names -- for example, everyone knows Ricky Williams. I kind of helped my stock. I was having fun. After that, I got famous."
Quarterback Tommy Maddox is the most accomplished ex-XFL player now in the NFL. Smart remains its most recognized name.
He played in six games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2001, moved to the Panthers in 2002 and settled into a role. He led Carolina in kickoff returns this season, running one back 100 yards for a touchdown against New Orleans. He also had 20 carries as a third-string running back.
Teammates call him by his XFL name, even though his No. 32 jersey says Smart on the back.
"I thought it was fun," running back DeShaun Foster said Tuesday. "That's pretty smart. He's getting attention for himself. It worked."
Backup safety Jarrod Cooper, another free spirit, became a close friend. Cooper even adopted a nickname -- You Love Me.
"We kind of hit it off as soon as he came in the door," said Cooper, draping his arm around Smart's shoulders. "I remembered him from the XFL -- the only person I remembered. Why? Because he's He Hate Me."
Even laid-back quarterback Jake Delhomme -- a partner in his family's horse business in Louisiana -- got caught up in the mania.
"I bought a filly in September and I was going to name her something with Carolina," Delhomme said. "I wasn't sure what. A buddy back home called and jokingly said, 'She Hate Me.' I thought it was great. I thought it was funny."
So did Smart.
The only thing better would be to make a decisive play in the Super Bowl that would give his unusual career one last twist.
Then he'd have a place in NFL history as well as his XFL persona, the one he has trademarked for future marketing.
"I've got some ideas, but we'll talk about that after the Super Bowl," he said.
He Meant It.