SAN DIEGO — It’s one of the most outdated, obsolete and archaic stadiums in the NFL. Only the O.co Coliseum in Oakland is more antiquated.
But to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, Qualcomm Stadium’s got all the comforts of home.
Smith grew up in Qualcomm Stadium, where he sat in the stands and cheered for his beloved San Diego Chargers (and Padres, who now play in a spiffy downtown ballpark).
He won two high school championship games in this 46-year-old stadium, which sits 7 miles from where Smith attended Helix High School. Smith made a forgettable college debut for the University of Utah in this relic. And he may have played the finest game of his college career at Qualcomm as well.
Today, Smith will play just the second regular-season game of his nine-year career in Qualcomm against the Chargers, even if it’s just for a few series in a game that has no bearing on the Chiefs’ playoff position.
“When you’re a little kid … in the farthest-off recesses of your hopes, you dream maybe you could be a quarterback someday … and if you could ever get a chance to play in the NFL,” Smith said. “Then to have the opportunity to do it and go back there …
“I distinctly remember going to games and watching the Chargers play, watching Stan Humphries play, so to be able to do this is really, really special. And to go back there and be able to play obviously makes it that much more special.”
When Smith was with San Francisco, the 49ers played four preseason games in San Diego, and in his one regular-season start, the Chargers won 34-7 in 2010. Sunday’s game, too, will take on the feel of an exhibition game once coach Andy Reid pulls his starters.
“You try to win every single game you possibly can in this league,” Smith said. “You only get 16 of them. These are such rare opportunities. Regardless of who is out there, we’re trying to win the game. This is a division game. (San Diego) is a team that is trying to get in the playoffs as well. It’s a chance for us to get a lot of things done.”
Smith led the Helix Highlanders to a 25-1 record. In the school’s only loss during that time, another future NFL star on the team, running back Reggie Bush, fumbled inside the opponent’s 10.
Bush was the object of a feverish recruiting battle that ended up putting his college choice, Southern California, on severe probation and forced him to vacate his Heisman Trophy. Smith was lightly recruited, drawing interest from Utah, Fresno State and Louisville, where his uncle, John L. Smith, was head coach at the time but would soon be leaving for Michigan State.
“I took a lot of (grief) from Alex because we ran the wing-T,” said Gordon Wood, the Helix coach at the time and now an administrator at Lake Elsinore, Calif. “But the funny thing is he still threw 30 touchdowns passes (with just four interceptions). He just didn’t take as many attempts to do it.
“We had a series of plays called Disneyland and Christmas where he would call the plays. I would give him a couple of parameters, and the fun thing was to watch him call the game, similar to how I would call it.”
Smith chose Utah and made his college debut as a freshman at the end of the 2002 season against San Diego State at Qualcomm. It didn’t go well.
He completed two of three passes for 4 yards. He was sacked once. And he threw an interception that was returned 29 yards for a touchdown in a 36-17 loss to the Aztecs. He wouldn’t play the rest of the season.
“I was really frustrated,” said Smith, who was unhappy that the coaches burned his redshirt year with a handful of plays. “I felt like I got lied to. I was told I was going to play all year. That’s why they took off my redshirt. But it didn’t happen. I think the coaches were more worried about themselves than doing right by me.”
Smith contemplated transferring, perhaps to Michigan State, but remained at Utah when Urban Meyer replaced Ron McBride as head coach.
Smith led the Utes to a 21-2 record as the starter, including a 12-0 record in 2004, which led to his becoming the first overall pick by San Francisco in the 2005 NFL Draft.
“Back then, we were one of the first teams running the spread,” said Dan Mullen, then the Utah quarterbacks coach and now head coach at Mississippi State. “It seems like everybody is running the spread now … even the NFL. He put up some numbers, but he would be more of a runner if you didn’t defend him, he’d take off running and rip off some big runs.”
Smith put up some of his biggest numbers when he returned to Qualcomm Stadium at the end of the 2004 season.
He completed 22 of 33 passes for 298 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions and ran 15 times for 45 yards in a 51-28 rout of San Diego State. The Utes scored touchdowns in their first four possessions and seven of the first eight times they touched the ball.
“We were really rolling that year, my second year in the system,” Smith said. “I had a great day back in San Diego again. A chance to redeem myself.”
It took a while, but Smith finally lived up to his draft status in 2011 when Jim Harbaugh became head coach of the 49ers, Smith’s third head coach in seven years.
Smith led the 49ers to the NFC championship game in 2011, and San Francisco was 6-2-1 last season when Smith left the lineup because of a concussion only to lose the starting job to Colin Kaepernick, who finished the season as the club’s quarterback in the Super Bowl.
That led to a trade to Kansas City, where Smith has guided the Chiefs — a 2-14 team a year ago — to an 11-4 mark and a berth in the playoffs. In the last three years, Smith is 30-9-1 as a starting quarterback, and his 28 interceptions since 2010 are the fewest in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 1,400 attempts.
That list includes future Hall of Famers Aaron Rodgers (29 interceptions), Tom Brady (34), Peyton Manning (38) and Ben Roethlisberger (39).
“I still think he’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve coached, if not the best quarterback, and I’ve had some pretty good ones in my time,” said Mullen, who coached Heisman Trophy winners Tim Tebow and Cam Newton at Florida before Newton transferred to Auburn.
“Alex is the real deal. He’s always acted like a professional, even back when he was playing in college, taking care of his business, he does things the right way, extremely intelligent. “
Mullen bristles at the term “game manager” when it is applied to Smith.
“I always want a game manager,” Mullen said. “A game manager to me is a quarterback who is going to do what it takes to win the game. If it means he needs to throw for 400 yards, he’ll throw for 400 yards, if it means he needs to check into the right run plays, he can check into the right run plays.
“I’m into winning games. The quarterback is the most important position in winning games. A game manager … is someone who is going to do whatever he needs to do to make sure he wins.”
Two weeks ago, Smith pitched a perfect game — compiling a 158.3 passer rating, including a career-best five touchdown passes in a 56-31 rout at Oakland. Last week, he plunged to a 41.3 passer rating, completing just 16 of 29 passes for 153 yards and two interceptions in the home loss to Indianapolis.
He’ll have to wait until next week in the playoffs — most likely at Indianapolis — to find the redemption he enjoyed in that game against San Diego State in 2004.
“It’s a tough spot where we’re in,” he said of the season finale.
“It doesn’t do much for us … you want to keep that rhythm going into the postseason, but you want to stay healthy as well. If we win, it doesn’t change anything.”