KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alex Smith never expected this life. NFL quarterback? Yeah, right. He grew up smart, skinny, and uncoordinated. When he was 14, his dad tried to talk him into quitting football. You look more like a cross country runner, he said. His friends thought he’d be a professor.
Here he is, anyway, the new hope of the once-proud Chiefs, talking about a wild career over barbecue on the Plaza. In a few minutes, a boy from the next table over who has been eyeing Smith all night will come over to say hello and good luck. Smith will smile, tell the boy thank you, and then go back to his burnt ends and his story. It will take the better part of two hours. There is a lot to tell.
Smith is only 29, but has already seen so much. He has worked through the guilt and anger and depression of his best friend’s suicide. He has been the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick, and benched. He is a model philanthropist. He’s been booed and cheered and paid and left out and traded.
He is a husband. A father. Smart enough to earn an economics degree in 2 1/2 years. Smith was 20 when a directionless organization drafted him, then he later suffered a concussion just as his career got going. He watched the Super Bowl from the sideline, in a baseball hat, his dream falling five yards short on someone else’s shoulders. Maybe he’ll get over that someday.
“Is part of me still pissed?” Smith says. “I guess. I don’t know. Yeah, because you’re pissed how you got treated, how it all went down. But I felt like I made my peace.”
He’s asked if he thinks the 49ers would’ve won the Super Bowl with him at quarterback.
“No doubt in my mind,” he says.
Before Smith became a pro football player, he was a skinny pain in the neck for his parents as the third of four children in San Diego.
“The worst child we had, by far,” says his father Doug, a retired high school principal and football coach. “He was the most obstinate, threw the most tantrums. He lived his whole early life in the corner.”
Doug and his wife, Pam, tried everything. Reasoning. Explaining. Spanking. They settled on the timeout corner. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t, but Doug and Pam needed it as much as Alex.
Eventually, they found that Smith’s stubborn streak could be helpful in sports. The same hard-headed attitude he showed when dad asked him to mow the lawn came through in persevering through the struggles of being a 5-foot-nothing, 130-pound freshman quarterback whose dad wanted him to quit and join the cross country team.
Smith stuck with football, though, even if nobody looked his way. Helix Charter High had this running back, Reggie Bush, who was one of the best players the state ever saw. So Smith played his last two years in front of coaches from every major college in the country, mostly handing the ball off, graduating at about 170 pounds with just two scholarship offers.
“And one of those was from my uncle,” he says of then-Louisville coach John L. Smith. “So I’m not sure if that counts.”
Ivy League schools wanted Smith, but he hated the idea of not having a bowl game to work toward. So he went to Utah, and if college coaches didn’t think much of him, he didn’t disagree. Smith just hoped to play, someday, and then worry about getting a real job after graduation. Maybe he’d go to law school.
“Being a professional athlete was just not something any of us really ever thought about,” says Josh, Alex’s older brother. “We weren’t brought up in a family of anyone who played in the NFL, where you’re pushing them and know all the secrets.”
Smith’s goals were always small, achievable. Friends and coaches call him humble. He says it was more like “realistic.” But by the time he was a junior, he had grown into his body, added strength and speed, and that brain the Ivy League wanted was making the most out of Urban Meyer’s spread offense.
Utah was 12-0 during Alex’s junior year, and he was nearly as good. He was second in the nation in passer rating, and a Heisman Trophy finalist — joined by Bush, his old high school teammate.
Smith seems to have been the last one to know how good he was. He swears he only played one college game — the bowl game his last year at Utah — knowing he’d be in the NFL. And that was only because his brother had talked to some scouts.
“I’m being 100-percent honest about that,” Smith says.
Smith graduated, his coach took the Florida job and the NFL was offering lifetimes of wealth. He had no reason to come back to Utah — but also had no way of being ready for the NFL.
He became the No. 1 pick before his 21st birthday. More reporters and photographers covered his first day of workouts with the 49ers than any but his last game at Utah.
As it turns out, football would be the least of Alex Smith’s worries.
The news came late at night. Late-night news is hardly ever good news.
It was 2008, five years ago this month. Smith’s fourth NFL training camp. Friends say they’d never seen him this focused before. Smith’s pro career, to that point, had been terrible — eight more losses than wins, 13 more interceptions than touchdowns. The sport that had been so good to Smith and made him rich seemingly turned on him.
His shoulder had required surgery, and the pain, ominously, hadn’t yet gone away. The fight for the 49ers’ quarterback job consumed him.
Then that phone call. His best friend, a man he grew up with named David Edwards, dead. Suicide. Smith had talked to Edwards the day before. And he hadn’t returned a follow-up call. Smith’s heart sank. His mind drifted.
“Hands down, the best friend I’ve ever had,” he says. “Not close, at that point. I have my brother, but he was literally like my brother. He was so close to everyone in my family.
“But at the time, I’m caught up in me and my shoulder and all this stuff and you can’t help but think, ‘What if I’d paid a little more attention? What could I have done?’ I had no idea he was hurting like that. I just had no idea.”
Football offered no escape. First, Smith lost the quarterback competition to J.T. O’Sullivan. Then, he learned why his shoulder was still hurting when, a few weeks into the season, it gave out on a deep pass in practice. The first surgery left a wire in his shoulder, which cut through the bone. He missed the entire season. More rehab.
He had never dealt with problems like this. Smith lived a charmed life, even before the football career. Two loving parents, a strong middle-class family that neighbors saw as close-knit.
But at some point, Smith began to have some clarity. Hearing that your best friend killed himself forces you to realize the insignificance of being booed.
“He wants to please everyone, like, ‘I have to do everything right to be who I want to be,’” says Doug Smith, Alex’s father. “What it helped him realize is, ‘A lot of what you’re doing to yourself is (baloney). And don’t do it. There are bigger things in life. Focus on that. Focus on the big things, what you can control.’”
Nothing happens overnight, but things stick in the memory. For Smith, coincidentally, it was a 2009 game against Andy Reid’s Eagles in Philadelphia. The 49ers got down, and Smith started pressing — admittedly too early. He threw three interceptions and heard a fan base blame him.
The noise was his clarity. Smith spent five years trying to live up to the No. 1 pick on every throw. He insists he means this literally. And for what? Was it helping? No more.
“That was a big moment for me,” he says. “I’m not going to play like that anymore. I’m going to play for me and not play for anyone else, except my teammates and the guys that matter. I was happier, and I played a lot better football.”
That attitude would see him through his toughest moment in football.
They kept waiting to see if Smith would crack. If he would blow up. Cuss someone out. Or, maybe Smith would go detached. Half-ass a practice. Zone out during meetings.
Would’ve been understandable, of course. Smith was leading the NFL in passer rating last year when he suffered a concussion in Week 10. You know the rest of the story. His backup, Colin Kaepernick, played well enough that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh kept Smith on the bench. Kaepernick turned into a phenomenon, a record-breaking, long-striding, strong-armed problem for defenses, kissing his biceps after touchdowns.
Smith, meanwhile, held a clipboard. Wore a baseball hat. Waited. And, by all accounts, remained a good teammate.
“I had two choices, right?” he says. “I can sit and bitch and be miserable and hate life or, you know, I can stick with it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Didn’t know when I could play. It could’ve been the next game, or the middle of the Super Bowl. And I knew if I was going to have that chance, I might be playing for my next team.
“So I wasn’t going to let it derail me. I felt like I was on a good path, and I didn’t want that to knock me off.”
Josh, the older brother, says no one in the family handled it as well as Alex. Andre Dabbaghian, one of his closest friends, remembers saying in November that the Chiefs were probably going to be looking for a new quarterback but Smith reminded him that he would still be under contract.
Smith had so many good friends on the 49ers. Guys with whom he’d been through so much. Those guys went from a 10-loss season with Mike Singletary to 13 wins the next season with Harbaugh in 2011 — within a special-teams fumble of the Super Bowl with Smith playing quarterback. He knew this was the best team he ever played on, and he wasn’t going to be the guy to make a stink and distract from the bigger purpose.
“I made myself felt in the building,” he says. “But it’s hard. We’re winning games, making a run. I had a new role. I didn’t like it, but I was going to take it on. I knew there would be another day, and to me, that’s the thinking.
“Was I pissed at Coach Harbaugh? Yeah, absolutely. To say the least. But it’s a team game, and there’s something special about that. The locker room is a special place … I wasn’t going to put myself above a team in the middle of a season.”
So Smith became the league’s most overqualified backup quarterback. He was engaged in the quarterback meetings, helped Kaepernick where he could, helped teammates during the week.
At the Super Bowl, he insisted to everyone who asked that he wasn’t thinking about anything beyond what everyone figured would be his last game with San Francisco. Smith watched from the sideline as Kaepernick’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete in the end zone with fewer than two minutes remaining.
Smith hugged some teammates. Said some goodbyes. And, soon, was reminded what his friend said back in November about the Chiefs needing a quarterback.
Alex Smith is smiling more. Friends see that. Makes them smile, too. None of them expected this life for Alex, and even if they did they could not have expected this career.
He is a lifelong West Coaster making a new life in Kansas City because of a remarkable string of successes and failures, of achievements and disappointments. Those friends are proud of how he’s come out of it all.
“He’s the same as he’s always been, honestly,” says Dabbaghian, his close friend. “That’s pretty refreshing when I think about it.”
Dabbaghian says his friend is as focused as ever. He’s been waiting to see that again, and maybe the ups and the downs of the last five years have helped.
In Kansas City, Smith gets the chance that he feels was robbed from him in San Francisco. He’s the starting quarterback. This is his team. This town is where his wife will live and, if everything goes to plan, where his kids will go to school.
He gets going when he talks about Kansas City. He’s only been here a short time, but knows enough to compliment the barbecue and the people. He and Reid have a unique simpatico — not only shared roots in Utah, but both men are hypercompetitive and grateful for a fresh start in a new place. Smith and Reid have a longstanding mutual admiration. That’s part of why they’re both so happy to be here.
Smith says that the thing he’s proudest of in his football career “is doing it differently.” He was an overlooked recruit who became the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, and labeled a bust before going 19-5 with a 95.1 passer rating the last two seasons.
Now the only team he ever played for told him he’s not good enough. So he’ll have to do it differently, again.
“You get a taste of playing in the playoffs and what that’s like, and it’s a completely different world,” Smith says. “You get a taste in those meaningful games, you get that taste and you can’t get it out. You want more. That’s what I want.”
Smith’s focus is clear. He is convinced that a Super Bowl championship was taken from him through a coaching decision. This will be in his heart and on his mind until he works his way back.
“Yeah,” he says. “Without a doubt.”