Over 16 seasons in the National Football League, Alex Smith led his teams to 99 victories, threw for nearly 200 touchdowns and completed more than 20 miles of passes, good enough to rank 27th on the all-time quarterback list.
After suffering a gruesome leg injury that required multiple surgeries and a subsequent infection that threatened his life, he made a spectacular return and won the league’s comeback player of the year award.
Smith announced his retirement last week, capping an exceptional football career.
None of those facts, though, really explain why I’m such an unabashed Alex Smith fan. It has nothing to do with what he did in front of tens of thousands of fans on a Sunday. It has to do with what he did quietly and without fanfare for a little boy more than 15 years ago.
Back in 2002, Adam Hunt — the 17-year-old son of my cousin Jeff Hunt and wife Stephanie — was a promising young football player at East High School getting interest from college recruiters, but he had an undiagnosed heart condition and suffered a heart attack one day while warming up for practice.
Coaches quickly performed CPR and kept him alive long enough to get him to the hospital, but he died five weeks later.
It was a tragedy that the whole family felt, especially Adam’s youngest brother, Spencer.
“Spencer was so close to his brother Adam,” their dad told me. “We used to tease Spencer and call him Adam’s shadow because he’d always follow Adam around and do whatever Adam did. When Adam was playing football games, Spencer would follow him and carry his helmet.”
Adam’s death hit Spencer hard. He wouldn’t get up in the morning or go to school, and the family was at a loss. It went on for more than a year.
“He was just distraught. I mean we really worried about him, and we didn’t know what to do or how to pull him out of it,” Jeff said.
Smith, at the time, was entering his senior year at the University of Utah, majoring in economics and taking classes from Spencer’s grandpa, Kay Hunt, who would take Spencer to football and basketball games and sometimes bring him to class with him.
When Smith heard what happened to Adam, he approached his professor and offered to meet with the youngster, spend a little time with him — maybe lift his spirits.
So one morning, Spencer’s grandma, Linda, picked him up, took him to the campus bookstore where they bought Smith’s highlight tape from that season, then went to Kay’s office. Spencer said he sat and waited for his grandpa, but never expected to see his hero coming around the corner.
“My heart stopped. For the first two or three minutes, I couldn’t talk,” he told me last week. “He kind of went down to my level and gave me a little hug and asked me how everything was going.”
Nine-year-old Spencer was stunned, and, as kids often are, tongue-tied, worried he would say something dumb. But when they got talking about football, he relaxed.
“After we broke the ice it was full bore,” Spencer said. “We must have talked for another hour-and-a-half or two hours.”
After their talk, Smith signed a ball for Spencer and posed for a picture and they parted ways, without publicity or fanfare.
“That was the cool thing about it. He didn’t need the [TV] news to break it,” Spencer said. “He just wanted to meet a Utah fan who was going through something hard.”
That one encounter, of course, didn’t turn things around for Spencer, his dad said. Life doesn’t work that way. He struggled with his brother’s death for years. “But it sure picked him up,” Jeff told me. “It meant a lot to him and it meant a lot to us, because it was the first time in a long time we’d seen Spencer smile and be happy.”
Spencer is now 26 and finishing up his college degree and will be attending the U. in the fall. He still has his framed picture with a very young looking Smith and the starstruck youngster along with the signed football next to his bed.
Smith, of course, would go on to lead the Utah football team to an undefeated season that year, to a Fiesta Bowl win, and to be the first overall pick of the NFL Draft.
I’m fairly sure that this act of kindness was not a one-time thing. He set up the Alex Smith Foundation that provides scholarships and other assistance to teens in foster care. Beyond that, there are almost certainly other youngsters with stories like Spencer whose lives he touched.
It’s why I’ve admired Smith throughout his career as a very good quarterback and an even better person. And if his generosity left an impression on me, you can be sure it remains a treasured memory for young Spencer and his family.
“It doesn’t matter what quarterback you name. Alex Smith is the greatest quarterback to ever play football,” Spencer said. “Joe Montana? Nah. You name it. Whoever. Alex Smith will be my No. 1 quarterback forever.”