KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was a dragon and a poisoned apple away from the perfect fairy tale.
Once upon a time, there was this skinny kid from San Diego. At 19, nobody outside of SoCal had heard of him. At 20, he was rocking the free world like nobody’s business. At 21, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist, a college graduate, and the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, set for stinking life.
“Summer of 2005, I got married; it was the summer before his rookie year,” Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen, one of Alex Smith’s mentors, recalled. “He showed up to come to (my) wedding, and I think he’d gotten his first credit card. He didn’t have much of a limit on it.”
“Used to lose his wallet all the time.”
Before long, that wallet would be expanded, right along with the expectations. And to think: Things had been so simple, so … charmed. From 2003-2004, Smith and coach Urban Meyer, Mullen’s boss at the time, had pulled Utah into college football’s stratosphere, a rise capped by a 35-7 stomping of Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. It proved a powerful springboard. A few months later, Meyer was working for the University of Florida; Smith was the top pick overall by the San Francisco 49ers, handed the keys to the kingdom.
Then the kingdom turned on him.
Smith’s often-rocky tenure by the bay has been well documented, a stint tormented by ineffectiveness, injuries, inconsistent coaching, inconsistent systems, inconsistent offensive lines and inconsistent receivers. In Year 2, Smith started to take steps forward under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, a renowned quarterbacking guru. After the fall of 2006, Turner left to become the head coach in San Diego, and Alex was back to square one. And back. And back. And back.
From 2005-2008, the Niners went 21-43; Smith had thrown 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. San Francisco fans had branded him a savior, expected him to elevate the franchise, the way Joe Montana and Steve Young had done two decades earlier, the way Peyton Manning, another top pick, had done in Indianapolis. The more Smith pressed, the worse it got.
“When I was younger, I would take that (savior talk) pretty literal,” Smith said. “And I tried to make every single throw, and tried to prove to everybody on every single throw, and I tried to prove to everybody on every single play that I was worth it, and I was going to do this.”
Eventually, that’s exactly what he did. But just when all the pieces were finally coming together, fate stepped in and dropped a metaphorical anvil on Smith’s career. The fairy tale was of the Grimm Brothers variety; in the end, the Wicked Witch won out. Still, as a parting gift, Smith was given a rare privilege: He gets to write the next chapter himself. And those who’ve watched the journey up to this point say it’s been a long time coming.
Smith’s offensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, 2008, now an NFL analyst with FOX Sports
“I just think it’s really common now. Anytime you’re a first, second or third pick in this league and you go to a team that’s lost 12, 13 games, the good news is, you’ve got a chance to go in and help them. The bad news is, there may not be a whole lot there. … I think you’re going to get beat up.
“I think Norv really started his development. And Norv left, obviously. At some point, they were starting to build that team, personnel-wise, and there’s still a lot of transition in the offensive line and really the wide receiving crew was kind of decimated … you look at Green Bay a year ago. (Aaron Rodgers) lost all those receivers those first six games and everybody was asking what’s wrong with him. And then, all of a sudden, they came back and he had a great year. It’s just not an island — it depends on the line, it depends on the receivers. When those things are going, you can kick it into another gear.”
Life is flashpoints, buttressed by good days and bad. One of those flashpoints for Smith came in August 2008. While still recovering from shoulder surgery, he’d received word that one of his best friend, David Edwards, had committed suicide. But Smith’s heart wasn’t the only body part that needed healing; before long, it had also become clear that the shoulder wasn’t remotely back to where it was before.
“He wasn’t quite right when he came back from that surgery. He missed throws that he normally wouldn’t miss. There was something wrong. I didn’t know what to tell him. I felt bad for him. He really wasn’t right.
“His shoulder definitely affected him. He just never let on about it. He did not have a good (summer) camp and preseason. There was just something wrong. And then, of course, he got it fixed.”
Smith’s health improved, as did his stats — he tossed 18 touchdowns against 12 picks in 2009 — but his standing with the talk-show callers didn’t. Backup Shaun Hill was hailed as the Next Big Thing, and new coach Mike Singletary, a hardscrabble, defensive-minded boss, wasn’t helping. “The thing that was always positive about him was, he stayed close; he always watched what was going on and he stayed supportive.
“There’s no question, sometimes you just need to break away — when you go through all the turmoil he went through there — and get a fresh start with a solid offensive line. Of course, San Francisco has all those things right now, but the time he was there, there was a lot of turmoil.”
San Francisco 49ers tackle, Smith’s teammate from 2007-2013
“It was just a culmination of everything kind of coming together at the right time. He really took ahold of the locker room and really took a leadership role, but I don’t think there was one real rallying point where everybody was like, ‘Well, we’ve got to get behind our guy.’ He’s always had that.
“I think he can look back on it and say that it ended kind of badly. But I think he had a lot of success and came away with (people seeing) the kind of player that he was.
“And that wasn’t (the case) for the first five years. We went through a lot of stuff as far as coaching and personnel within (the club). It served him well to have those last few years and (for) people to be able to judge him on a positive note going out.”
A pair of sea changes in 2011 turned The S.S. Alex around. The first was the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as head coach, a former NFL quarterback himself and a kindred competitive spirit. The second, strangely enough, was a lockout. Smith took it upon himself to coordinate unofficial team practices in the summer, breaking his teammates in on the finer points of the new system that had yet to be fully implemented by Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
“I don’t think there was ever was a turning point, there was never a situation where he was the quarterback and we were like, ‘Huh, we need to get rid of this guy.’ Everybody believed in him.”
Well, almost everybody. After steering the Niners to the NFC title game after the 2011 season, Smith was the NFL’s highest-rated passer in the fall of 2012 before getting knocked out of a Nov. 11 tilt against St. Louis with a concussion. Fleet-footed backup Colin Kaepernick finished the game. And, as it turns out, the season — one that ended in Super Bowl XLVII.
“He never would (point fingers). He never would. And you know, that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s not an excuse-maker. He doesn’t point out other people. And I say this sincerely: He’s probably, as far as character goes, the guy with the highest character I’ve ever met in my life.
“Just through all the behind-the-scenes stuff that not a lot of people know about. Just all the stuff that he’s been through in his career and his life, just the way that he’s always handled it, that’s something I’ve always admired about him. Not just as a player, but as a person.”
San Francisco 49ers guard and Smith’s teammate from 2010-2013
“He’ll always be a great guy in our book, and a great leader on the offensive side. People can write whatever they want, but we know Alex as a quarterback and a leader. And he did a fine job.
“I think after a while, there’s a lot of pressure, and you have to perform. That’s all the media and scrutiny and stuff. But at the same time, there are a lot of situations that a lot of people don’t know about. And I think he did a great job with what he had.”
Smith had posted a record of 6-2-1 as the Niners’ starter to open the 2012 season; Kaepernick went 7-3 if you include two playoff victories and a Super Bowl loss to Baltimore. But the latter had captured the city’s zeitgeist, and San Francisco, with Kaepernick at the helm, was at the cutting edge of pro football offenses again with its use of the read option and “pistol” formations.
Smith was too good to sit; reports began leaking in February that he had been traded to the quarterback-starved Chiefs for a second-round draft pick in 2013 and a conditional pick in 2014, a swap that was made official in March. He’d gone from a Super Bowl contender to one of the worst clubs in the NFL, but he’d also gone from being a spare part to being the No. 1 guy in a market screaming for change under center.
“I’m happy for him. I’m happy he got an opportunity to play somewhere. I think it’s going to be a great situation for him — he’s got a lot of talent on that roster. They’ve got a lot of pieces around him, especially with the coaching staff (in place) as well. I think it’s a really great fit, so I’m excited to see how his season develops and how he does.”
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and Smith’s backup in 2013
“I can’t even imagine how many (coordinators). I mean, he’s learned so many systems in that many years — it’s just a testament to what kind of pro he is, and how he handles things, the experience factor. I’ve been lucky enough to have one guy in New Orleans (that) whole time in Sean Payton. So for me, learning my second offense, at first, it was mind-boggling.
“I can’t even imagine, you know, nine offenses in nine years. Just one more reason why I respect the guy.”
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org