I've covered Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith for all of his professional career. He can be downright volatile. When I heard his voice over a crackling phone line, it was clear he could also be genuinely touched. His feelings were understandable. Smith was part of a small group of NFL players visiting troops in Iraq. It was obvious he had been deeply moved by what he saw.
"You don't get a real appreciation for what our troops do until you see them," Smith said from Iraq. "It's incredible how they are over here, fighting for us, and most of us have no clue about what they're doing.
"Coming here and seeing them is a life-changing experience. They are fighting for us, with almost no recognition or appreciation from a lot of people in the United States."
Smith is in Iraq with Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard Davin Joseph, Broncos linebacker Von Miller and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. They are part of a week-long USO tour across parts of the Middle East that has so far visited a number of military sites and hundreds of troops.
Smith said he spent a large chunk of his time with a group of soldiers who detect and disarm improvised explosive devices, which have killed or injured numerous American troops.
He also visited a hospital where soldiers had been injured by IEDs.
"They showed us how they detect them, and it was incredible," Smith said. "These soldiers are so brave.
"It doesn't compare to what we do [NFL players]. It's not even in the same hemisphere with sports. Nothing we do as NFL players is brave compared to these guys."
Then Smith explained he wanted to say one last thing, and what he said reminded me of the combative Smith. But this was the good combative Smith.
"One of the generals told us there are thousands and thousands of soldiers here fighting for our country, and they need our support," Smith said. "No matter what people thought of the war or think of it now, these soldiers need our support. So the next time anyone is protesting, just remember, they have the right to protest because of soldiers like these."