CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Steve Smith was ornery. After practice and before getting treatment for a nagging thigh injury, he declared he was "not interested" in discussing new Carolina starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen or anything else.
He made one exception. When asked about former junior-college teammate Chad Ochocinco, Smith's demeanor brightened briefly.
"We're great friends," Smith said. "I love Chad to death."
On Sunday, Ochocinco and Smith will be on the same field for the first time in four years when the Panthers face the Cincinnati Bengals. It will rekindle the unique relationship between two strong personalities forged long before they became elite receivers with a combined 10 Pro Bowl appearances.
They've come a long way from their humble time as teammates on a 4-6 team at Santa Monica College in 1997.
Smith wasn't recruited out of high school because he was just 5-foot-9, had anger issues and poor grades. The 6-1 Ochocinco, then known as Chad Johnson, was academically ineligible to play at a bigger school and had been kicked out of a smaller one in Oklahoma.
Smith, who grew up in Los Angeles and is reserved at times, didn't know what to make of the talkative, brash Ochocinco at first. Smith recalled he once asked himself, "Who's this cat? He was from Florida, and his mentality and his style — he looked like a tourist."
They were competitive and learned tough lessons along the way from veteran SMC coach Robert Taylor, who died last year. Neither player even led the team in receiving that season.
But soon their play took off and their relationship blossomed, continuing long after Smith left for Utah and Ochocinco went to Oregon State before embarking on explosive NFL careers. They've combined for 1,335 catches for nearly 20,000 yards and 122 touchdowns. Ochocinco is Cincinnati's career leader in receptions and yards receiving and Smith is tops in touchdowns for Carolina.
"We're completely different," Ochocinco said. "Every receiver is like a fingerprint. No one person's fingerprint is the same as the other and that's how it is with receivers."
Both players, who often struggle to hand out compliments, have great respect for each other despite their differences.
"He's one of the best, most definitely, at what he does," Ochocinco said. "I'm looking forward to watching him. I've said it before and I've tweeted about it."
There's one big difference right there. Ochocinco has changed his name, been on "Dancing with the Stars" and is constantly seeking the spotlight with provocative Twitter posts — he tried to lure Panthers linebacker Jon Beason into an online fight this week. Smith has shunned Twitter and a while back said he still calls Ochocinco "Chad Johnson."
Both players have had issues on and off the field that have given their coaches fits over the years. But they've continued to produce after their 30th birthdays, even if they're in different situations.
Ochocinco is now paired with another elite receiver, Terrell Owens. Smith has scored both of Carolina's touchdowns this season, but has no clear No. 2 receiver to take pressure off him, and now will be playing with a rookie QB after Matt Moore was benched this week.
"He really hasn't changed," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said of Smith. "He's still dangerous after the catch. ... I think over the last seven or eight years he's had the most yards on those quick throws from the quarterback right at the line, so they just want to give him the ball."
Ochocinco is in his familiar spot as Cincinnati's top receiver, with 16 catches and a touchdown after two games. The Bengals (1-1) hope to get a sluggish offense in gear Sunday against Carolina (0-2), but Ochocinco plans to take some time to watch Smith when the Panthers have the ball.
"Before the season started I asked people who they were looking forward to watching the most this upcoming season and Steve Smith was the one I was looking forward to watching," Ochocinco said. "Every time he touches the ball he does something exciting."
Notes: Smith was listed as probable after practicing in full Friday. ... Panthers DE Charles Johnson (calf) is questionable, but also practiced.
AP Sports Writer Joe Kay in Cincinnati contributed to this report.