Sunset » Facing the questions of a few hundred elementary school kids here during an assembly about drinking milk and eating nutritious foods on Monday, former Ute and current 49er quarterback Alex Smith comfortably handled each inquiry like a telegraphed blitz ...
What do you like to do other than play football?
"Snowboard, bowl, watch movies, read," he said.
What do you eat for breakfast?
"Cinnamon Toast Crunch."
When you're finished with football, what will you do?
"Go to law school. It's a dream I've had for myself."
What is your favorite football memory?
"My last year at the University of Utah, playing a team called BYU. I'm not a big fan of theirs. ... We ended up winning."
Then the questions turned to pro football, and Smith bobbed a bit out of his comfort zone.
What's the hardest team you've played against?
"I've played a lot of hard teams in the NFL."
Why do you like football?
"Good question ..."
For Smith, that last one is a killer.
Four seasons into his pro career, the former No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft isn't quite sure why he likes a game that used to seem so cordial to him, that embraced him, that smiled on him, that made him a rich man, but that also, competitively speaking, suddenly turned its back on him and left him battered, confused, mocked, labeled as a bust.
"It's been hard," he said, in a corner of the stage, after the kids had filed back to class. "When you struggle, when you're hurt, you're kind of out of sight, out of mind."
Wedged into the minds and memories of football fans in Utah is the remarkable success Smith enjoyed during his time with the Utes, particularly the last college game he played, the four touchdowns he threw in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, the 35-7 win he brought them.
Even now, Smith reflects back on that time with unadulterated fondness, before football got complicated.
"I think we would have beaten anybody that year," he said. "We executed so well. We had athletes. We were so solid. We were good, better even than this year's team."
After that last win, Smith was pretty much gone. He didn't want to return to play for a new coach -- Urban Meyer was leaving -- with a new offense, so he entered the draft, a move he never really envisioned for himself until just before it happened.
"It was surreal," he said. "I played that whole season in college and never had a single inkling that the NFL was a possibility."
Next thing, Smith went No. 1 to San Francisco, a bad football outfit. He benefited economically, by way of a $24 million guarantee, and was handed a playbook the following day, immediately feeling the responsibility for what he'd gotten himself into. He went on to play in nine games that first season with mixed results.
"It was crazy, intense and stressful," he said. "I can only remember bits and pieces of my rookie year. It was a rough experience playing-wise. The whole thing was weird."
In 2006, after new offensive coordinator Norv Turner arrived, Smith seemed to settle in. He got comfortable, and played every game. "I'm the only 49er quarterback in team history to take every snap in an entire season," he said. His stats weren't eye-popping, but he threw for 2,890 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. It was a decent foundation for a 22-year-old QB.
Turner headed for San Diego the following season, and, once again, Smith struggled ... big time. His quarterback rating tumbled to a subterranean 57.2 in 2007.
"I was thinking too much," he said. "I see myself as a cerebral player, but that can hurt you, too. When I played at Utah, I was just out there playing, not thinking. Thinking too much made me play too slow. That's something I battled with."
Another battle: injury.
After just a few weeks, Seattle defensive tackle Rocky Bernard hit Smith and Smith suffered a serious shoulder separation, although, at that time, rest was deemed the remedy.
"I tore three ligaments," he said. "That was a circus. Three weeks later, I was playing on it. It turned into a mess. Finally, I thought, 'I'm not doing us any good out here.'"
'Niners coach Mike Nolan took exception to Smith's assessment, essentially calling his quarterback soft. That bugged Smith to no end, and the quarterback finally lashed back at his coach, who had bashed him in the press.
"That was bad," he said. "I was a coach's player, a hard worker. I took my job seriously and was trying to tough it out and do the right thing, and, then, to have the coach challenge me, challenge my toughness, my commitment, in the media, that was hard to take."
Smith underwent surgery on the shoulder in December.
When 2008 rolled around, Smith competed against two other quarterbacks for the starting position that was once his. The ultimate indignity came when journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan, a scrub who had bounced from New Orleans to Green Bay to Chicago to Minnesota to New England to Carolina to Detroit as a backup was named San Francisco's No. 1 guy.
As it turned out, it didn't matter because Smith, just a couple of weeks later, while throwing a deep ball in practice, broke a bone in his shoulder. A wire left behind from his surgery sawed the bone in half, requiring more surgery, and ending the quarterback's fourth season.
"I've been rehabbing my ass off ever since," he said. "I'm now not quite 100 percent, but I'm close."
A lot of observers thought Smith was done with the 49ers, or, more accurately, the other way around, the team not wanting to pay him some $9 million for this coming season. Two weeks ago, he renegotiated with the club, agreeing to play for less than half that amount in each of the next two years.
The former Ute hasn't performed up to expectations, but calling him a bust is too easy, too one-sided at this juncture. On account of the injuries, and the disruptions in the coaching staff, a bit more time is yet required.
For his part, Smith said, at last, he feels at ease and confident about what he can still accomplish in San Francisco.
"I have so much unfinished business there," he said. "I know I can be a great player in the NFL. I have a lot to prove, but I have the support of the guys in the locker room. I know I haven't been dependable, but I'm going strong now. I have a great future. It's just a matter of time. It's going to happen."