Alex Smith is saying goodbye to football.
He deserves a hearty goodbye said back.
The longtime NFL quarterback who was the No. 1 pick in the draft in 2005, a few months after he finished up leading Utah through an unforgettable season, winning everything in sight, and prompting Smith to say later: “I think we would have beaten anybody that year. We executed so well. We had athletes. We were so solid. We were good, better even than [the 2008] team.”
The man was and is right.
That 2004 outfit was, indeed, the best team Utah has ever put on the field, and that’s saying something. It featured a whole lot of excellence, all around, and Smith was the leader of, the most important player in that bunch.
He said he absolutely loved playing for the Utes, especially that season, his junior year under Urban Meyer, storing away fond memories of an undefeated run and a Fiesta Bowl win that saw the quarterback throw for four touchdowns in rousing victory.
But he also said his favorite moment from his time at Utah was beating a certain school located 45 miles to the south, “playing a team called BYU. I’m not a big fan of theirs. … We ended up winning.”
He went on to play for the 49ers, Kansas City and Washington, at last earning the AP Comeback Player of the Year award this past season after returning from a horrific leg injury in 2018 that not only required the better part of 20 subsequent surgeries, but also nearly killed him after an infection took hold.
And yet, there he was playing again in 2020, putting up a record of 5-1.
That grit and those guts made what one of Smith’s long-ago coaches in San Francisco said about him both pitiable and laughable.
Over a decade ago, Smith suffered a shoulder separation.
“I tore three ligaments,” he told me. “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.’”
Amid all of that, Smith’s head coach Mike Nolan questioned his toughness, bashing him in the press, calling him, in so many words, one of the worst insults any football player can be called: soft.
“That was bad,” Smith 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.”
Well. Smith proved his coach wrong.
Comeback players of the year aren’t soft and never were, particularly this Comebacker, an individual who demonstrated as much leathery soul as a football player possibly can. Anybody who witnessed parts of Smith’s journey back likely has those images burned into their minds.
Smith wondered, as mentioned, whether he’d even survive the aftermath, let alone be able to walk and play with his kids again.
There’s a good chance the quarterback, who threw for 35,650 yards over his pro career, along with 199 TDs, wanted to go on playing, but decided ultimately not to pursue a new contract.
His NFL career wasn’t Hall of Fame caliber, but it was elongated and productive — including three Pro Bowl appearances — and suited Smith, a smart, conscientious player who weathered plenty of storms beyond the two injuries cited here.
His character was fully on display when Kansas City drafted Patrick Mahomes, with Smith already in the fold. A lot can be drawn from the way Smith handled that. Unlike many established vets who don’t want to aid or groom their successors as starters, Smith worked with the rookie, helping him better understand the game. The results are … obvious. Give Smith a boatload of credit for his professionalism in that regard.
He’s one of the best players to ever come out of a Utah school, and a fine human, too.
Smith is a proud Utah alum of whom all Ute alums can be proud.
I remember fondly a meeting/interview for a column I had with Smith at an appearance he made at an elementary school in Sunset, Utah, back in 2009. It was a few years into his pro career, which included its share of early mountains to climb for the QB, including learning and relearning attack philosophies from a plethora of alternating offensive coordinators with the Niners. At the school assembly, put on so Smith could encourage children to eat healthy foods and drink plenty of milk, the quarterback opened himself up to questions from the kids, who managed to ask some interesting ones. He answered them, one by one.
It went, in part, like this …
What do you like to do other than football?
“Snowboard, bowl, watch movies, read,” he said.
What do you eat for breakfast?
“Cinnamon Toast Crunch.” (OK, so the man’s not perfect.)
What is your favorite football memory?
What’s the toughest team you ever played against?
“I’ve played a lot of hard teams in the NFL.”
Why do you like football?
“Good question … um.”
When you’re finished with football, what will you do?
“Go to law school. It’s a dream I’ve had for myself.”
That last answer may have changed. Smith is saying now he wants to spend more time with family. One thing is certain: The former QB is intelligent and conscientious and capable enough to do whatever he chooses.
He is only now turning 37. Think what he might get done — beyond the wonderful and noble intention to enjoy family time — in the decades ahead.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.