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Kragthorpe: Alex Smith sure to inspire Utah graduates

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Kurt Kragthorpe

By Kurt Kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

First published Apr 30 2014 09:04AM
Updated Apr 30, 2014 10:11PM

Like any major project with a looming deadline, the University of Utah commencement address that Alex Smith is prepared to give Thursday night has messed with his mind.

"It’s been sitting in my head the entire offseason," the former Ute quarterback said last week in Kansas City.

Smith will deliver good material, undoubtedly. He’ll take it seriously, and he’ll be funny, having joked that his advice would include how being able to run fast or throw a football a long way would help ensure the graduates’ financial futures. He also reminded media members that they’ll have to address him as Dr. Smith, thanks to his honorary doctorate.

Not that he needed my help, but I could have suggested his speech’s theme: Thank your parents, and be good parents. That’s hardly original, I know. Yet it captures Smith, who’s a son of a high school principal and a health and human services director and is a father of two young boys.

The most amazing statistic about the QB who went 21-1 as Utah’s starter, including the 12-0 season of 2004, is that his 30th birthday is next Wednesday. Smith is the oldest 29-year-old person I’ve ever known, starting with the accumulation of college credits that enabled him to come from high school in San Diego and earn an economics degree in two years.

He’s remembered well on Utah’s campus, and not only for his football exploits. "From a teacher’s perspective, a joy," is how Brian Riedesel described him this week, having taught him in an educational psychology course. "I can’t imagine anyone who knew Alex not wanting the best for him."

Amid the struggles, the injuries, the benchings, the intermittent success and the promise that the best may be yet to come in his NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith consistently has reflected his upbringing.

Two scenes from the past decade resonate with me:

• Media Day, Super Bowl XLVII, New Orleans, 2013. Having lost his starting job with the San Francisco 49ers to Colin Kaepernick following a concussion, Smith became a big story. During that hour, as he stood on the Superdome field, waves of interviewers kept asking variations of the same question about the apparent unfairness of it all. Smith never wavered.

He wouldn’t cave into bitterness. His father, Doug, the educator, wouldn’t have stood for it. When I pointed that out the next day, Smith smiled and nodded in confirmation.

• Training camp, 49ers headquarters, Santa Clara, Calif., 2006. After a horrible rookie season, Smith was immersed in his quest to improve. He also wanted to make a difference beyond football.

Soon after her son became the NFL’s No. 1 pick in 2005, Pam Smith had taken him to watch a team of foster children play eight-man football for their residential high school. "It really struck Alex," she once told me. "The truth of the matter is, they couldn’t have been further apart in their worlds."

One day after practice in August 2006, Smith greeted students from a transitional program that assists foster children. That’s how the Alex Smith Foundation was launched. It has become a model of sports-related philanthropy, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which cited its efficient operation and success among the 30 foster teens who have received full college scholarships and extended support.

Mike Nolan, Smith’s original coach with the San Francisco 49ers, once remarked how Smith’s performance "affects so many people." He meant it in a football context, as a quarterback. That’s true, but Smith never limited his impact to those boundaries.

That’s what he should talk about Thursday. Riedesel, his former professor, said, "I hope he inspires everybody."

It’ll happen, I’m sure. Before, during and after his University of Utah tenure, Dr. Alexander D. Smith has learned well.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

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