The long, strange trip of Alex Smith, football nerd -- and savior
Alex Smith's career has been a long series of ups and downs that shaped the man who would save the Chiefs
By SEAN KEELERFS Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- He's been a nerd, a savant, a jewel, a hermit, a genius, a savior, a goat, a pariah, a phoenix, a victim, a spare part, and a savior again.
Yet, when you peel away all the layers, the subplots and the soap operatics, Alex Smith, the new starting quarterback of the
Kansas City Chiefs, is the same skinny kid from San Diego he was a decade ago. It's everything around him that's gone bonkers.
As a high-schooler, his dad had tried to steer him away from football. At
Utah, he was elevated to a starting role because of an injury and never let it go. During eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Smith cycled through three head coaches, seven offensive coordinators and six quarterback coaches.
Just as his NFL career was finally taking off, he lost his starting role because of an injury and ... never got it back.
"When you're a young guy coming in and playing early, I dwelled on it too much, I let it affect my play too much," said Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. "I tried to please everybody. I guess I'm older and more equipped to just go out there and play my game. I'm going to continue to try to work as hard as I can to get as good as I can to try and reach my potential and try to win a bunch of games. And that's the goal.
"And I'm not worried about a bunch of other things. You know, when I was younger, I dealt with a lot of that. You think about all kinds of stuff that you have no control over ... basically, everything, starting with what everybody thinks about you.
"So for me, you really narrow your focus. You narrow it down to, starting, for one, with the team, and me going out there and doing my job and being accountable to them. And it goes out from there obviously, (to) the organization, the fans. But for me, really narrowing the focus, it's just being accountable to my teammates."
A man is the sum of his memories, good and bad alike. At 29, Smith's road from southern
California to the Midwest has been long and winding, cruel and delightful. But he hasn't walked it alone.
Smith's high-school coach at Helix (La Mesa, Calif.) High School, currently head coach at West Valley (Calif.) High School
"When he played Pop Warner football, he was a tight end. He wasn't even really a quarterback.
"When I got the job, his (father, Doug) told me, 'I want you to know, I don't know if my son is the guy. I don't know if he shouldn't be running cross country instead.'
"He could barely throw. Just a skinny, wrangly kid who couldn't throw. But I knew, in spite of that, that Doug, him and his uncle (John L. Smith, the ex-Michigan State and Louisville coach) were Idaho boys. I knew Alex was a tough kid, a mentally tough kid.
"I can remember a camp when he threw three picks. The defensive coordinator said, 'Get out of there! You can't play.' He doesn't remember this, but he was pretty much in tears. This was before his junior year of high school -- it was the spring before his junior year, spring of his sophomore year, at a passing camp."
Then came a growth spurt. Over the summer, Smith gained roughly five inches in height. And miles in terms of confidence.
"He was the kind of kid who would start coming up to you on Monday and say, 'Coach, what's the game plan this week? I gotta know everything.' He wants to know the whole thing, what it's going to look like. So giving him little pieces here and there, that made it hard on him. There were times, toward the end of his senior year, you would give him (the reins) and let him call the offenses. There were times you could watch and (be) thinking that, you would call the same thing.
"But he looked kind of comfortable out there. He's such a quick learner. I always said, when he started struggling in San Francisco, I still think ... You've got to give him the whole toolbox. I think when he first got to San Francisco, what happened was, they wanted to limit the toolbox with him. I think at Utah, they did a great job. They just kept throwing stuff at him and throwing stuff at him, and he did a great job. Once he has all the tools, he can figure things out. He's a literal guy, sometimes. If you coach him in a very literal way, he's sharp as a nail. He will do exactly what you want him to do.
"I used to call Alex 'the dumbest smart kid on the team.' Reggie (Bush) was the slowest fast kid on the team. With Alex, sometimes he kind of had those airhead moments. But when you throw him in the classroom, he's really good. It took him like forever to get to the field, he was so meticulous about everything."
While Bush was one of the most hotly-recruited prospects on the continent, the only Football Bowl Subdivision offers on the table for Smith were from Michigan State -- where his uncle, John L. Smith -- was the coach, and Utah. Wanting to avoid charges of nepotism, he went with the latter.
"If the right guy is coaching Alex, he's going to do what you're coaching him to do. I gave him as much as I could give him. I think what really hurt Alex when he got to San Francisco -- I know (ex-coach) Mike Nolan was a defensive guy, (ex-coach Mike) Singletary was a defensive guy. I don't think they really demonstrated belief and confidence in Alex, in ways that he felt it. ... I think Urban Meyer did a great job and (quarterbacks coach) Dan Mueller, I thought he did a great job with him.
"Nobody could have gone through what Alex went through and not be a mentally tough kid.
"Sometimes, he is too smart. That's why I said sometimes, you have to be careful how you coach him, because he'll do exactly what you tell him. Guys like (Brett) Favre, they're going to sling it around and (make) a play that is just as good as the called play. He's not one of those guys. But he'll execute the game plan."
DAN MULLEN Smith's quarterbacks coach at Utah, now head coach at Mississippi State
"You could just see -- he was always kind of a grown-up guy, even in college. If we had a bye Saturday, he'd be at my house at 9:30 in the morning to watch the end of "College Gameday" and watch every game that came on (after that).
"(Backup quarterback and future Utah offensive coordinator) Brian Johnson, he used to come over to the house. He's like, 'You're a college kid -- don't you need to go out and have some fun? Go have some fun and go be a college kid.' He always was so serious about that. I think he still is.
"With his mom and dad and with his brother and his sister, they're such a tight family; you put the whole family together, he's still the same kind of goofy Alex he was back then. It's always a laugh."
For a dumb smart kid, Smith had serious chops in the classroom. He considered
Yale coming out of high school; his former mentors say he could've fit in at any of the three. Buoyed by a slew of Advanced Placement credits -- 64, reportedly -- upon entering college, Smith earned an undergraduate degree in economics in just two years. He seriously weighed law school, a life in the real world.
"He was kind of a nerd. When I had him, I called him 'Doogie Howser.' He always was that way. Despite the fact that he's this superstar NFL quarterback and his picture is all over the place, he's got this beautiful wife and a beautiful family, I always look at him (and) he's still got some of those 'nerd' qualities."
We're a week away from the 10-year anniversary of the first national moment of Smith's roller-coaster decade, the one that put his football career on the fast track: Utah 31, Cal 24, on September 11, 2003. Brett Elliott had won the
Utes' starting quarterback job coming out of camp that summer; Smith was his backup. But Elliott had gotten hurt the previous weekend against Texas A&M. Smith stepped in against California, rallying the Utes to a win before a record home crowd, and the rest is ... well, you know.
"Brett was kind of the cool guy on campus and Alex was just kind of — one Saturday night, he's at my house, watching all the games, instead of out talking to girls.
"He was a guy that would come in, ask questions, always wanted to know more, always wanted to do more. He wanted to know everything. I think that's huge. It's usually, the first year, they figure out what to do and they figure out how to do it after that. He was a guy who wanted to figure out how we were fitting it (in) from Day 1.
"The 'why' -- especially at quarterback, the 'why' is what allows you to understand. When you're making any in-game adjustments ... he (not only) knows what the play is we're going to call before we call it, but also could make in-game adjustments to say, 'Hey, this is why we're playing (this).' He would know, 'Hey, this is why we're going to change, because of how the defense is playing us.' I think it's one of the toughest part of him having so many coaches over the years -- a lot of guys say, 'Year 1, it's going to take a while to learn the system.' He wants to know everything.
"He's had wealth, he's had fame, he's had highs and had lows. And throughout the whole time he's done all of that, and do you know what? To me, he's still the same old Alex Smith that you knew when he was 18, 19 years old. And that, to me, is what's really so special about him."
Be sure to check back to FOXSportsKansasCity.com for the second of a two-part series on the making of Alex Smith.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org