The long, strange trip of Alex Smith, football nerd — and savior

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.



PART I

GORDON
WOOD

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.”


PART II:

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 Harvard, Princeton and 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
seanmkeeler@gmail.com