NEW ORLEANS — Barely two months ago, Alex Smith stood alone under center as the NFL’s hottest starting quarterback for one of its best teams.
One concussion later, he is lost in the crowd.
At the San Francisco 49ers’ Super Bowl media day this week, the hardest thing about talking to Smith was finding Smith. While the team’s stars spoke on stages set up on the Superdome field, Smith had no assigned spot and thus wandered through the media hordes on the sidelines, nearly invisible and seemingly irrelevant.
He was given no lights, no microphone, no chair, no team escort, no big bottle of Gatorade, no relief from crowding, bumping reporters who wanted to know how the former star who had led the 49ers to the precipice of greatness could stomach this new view as a scrub.
It was his lowest moment. It was his finest hour.
Benched for second-year player Colin Kaepernick even though he led the NFL in completion percentage at the time, demoted to a 49ers footnote even though he led this team to six wins in nine games, Smith stood in this pocket of humiliation and did what all great athletes are supposed to do, but almost never do.
He took one for the team.
“It’s tough, for sure, I’m not going to lie to you,” Smith said. “But I love our team, I love our locker room, and that’s bigger than me. You don’t pout or mope. You stay ready. The good ones stay ready.”
Make no mistake, Alex Smith is one of the good ones. In the buildup to this titanic clash between the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, maybe he’s been the best one.
During this Super Bowl week filled with players either proclaiming they are best ever (Randy Moss? Really?), or denying reports that they took performance-enhancing drugs (Deer antler spray, Ray Lewis? Really?), Smith has been a breath of fresh humanity. He’s the one guy who could be forgiven for being disillusioned, yet nobody has shown more devotion. He’s been peppered with questions that allowed for a certain selfishness, yet nobody has given answers more selfless.
He has complimented Kaepernick. He has lauded the coaching staff. He has vowed to be ready if needed, an attitude that has remained steady in the 11 weeks since one of the most celebrated and controversial benchings in recent NFL history.
“I’m not really trying to be a good role model,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a good person. I’m just trying to be a good teammate.”
The Superdome will be filled Sunday with helmeted superheroes, yet none will be more inspirational than the guy who won’t leave the sideline.
“No other individual could have handled this the way Alex handled it,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “Somebody else might be going off the ledge right now, bitter and upset.”
Smith is the leading man who shows up with a sore throat and is immediately demoted to understudy. Smith is the top salesman who misses work because of flu and is immediately passed over for a promotion. Smith is the epitome of the inherent unfairness that is present everywhere from the highest corporate office to the youngest Little League baseball team.
Yet Smith is the example of how the best weapon against these daily blows is not jealousy or rage, but responsibility and resilience.
“It’s not your show, it’s a different role, I’ve had to adjust, obviously,” said Smith, 28. “But I want to be the same teammate that I’ve always expected my teammates to be.”
The story is not just how or when he was benched, but why he was benched. On Nov. 11, one season after leading the 49ers to the NFC championship game, Smith had led them to a 6-2 record when he suffered a concussion after the collision in the first half of an eventual 24-24 tie with the St. Louis Rams.
At the time, in Smith’s previous eight quarters of football, he had completed 32 of 35 passes for 385 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. That’s right, in that stretch he had more touchdown passes than incompletions.
In his last full game before the injury, Smith had completed 18 of 19 passes in a rout against the Arizona Cardinals, clearly showing that in his eighth NFL season, he finally arrived.
Then, just like that, he was gone. Unlike other players who often attempt to hide dangerous concussions for fear of losing their jobs, Smith acknowledged he was still suffering from blurred vision, and was replaced by Kaepernick for the next game, against the Chicago Bears. The 49ers won that game easily, and the new kid was so impressive that Smith immediately became old news. Smith was medically cleared to play the following week, but he spent that game on the sideline. He has played in only one game since, throwing one pass during one meaningless moment.
Nobody will argue that Kaepernick, who has led the team to a 7-2 record with a strong arm and swift feet, is a worthy starting Super Bowl quarterback. But it’s hard to argue that Smith couldn’t have led the team to the same destination, and it’s impossible to make the point that he was treated fairly.
“It’s not about fair, that’s not what this is about,” Smith said. “We play football. I’m the backup. That’s what it is.”
That Smith’s admission of concussion symptoms cost him his job will send a chill throughout a league filled with players who already take great personal risks for the sake of a snap. But Smith says if he had to do it all over again, he would still protect himself and his family.
“We’re all going to finish this game at some point, you have a lot of life ahead of you, and we only have one brain,” he said. “It was an easy decision.”
The results of that decision are rarely seen in a sport where successful starting quarterbacks for championship-caliber teams are changed in the middle of the season about as often as team logos. Only two quarterbacks have started a Super Bowl with less experience than Kaepernick’s nine starts. The last time this game featured such an odd quarterback benching was in the middle of the 1987 season, when the Washington Redskins’ Jay Schroeder returned from a shoulder injury just months after leading the team to the NFC championship game. He was nonetheless replaced by Doug Williams, who led the Redskins to a Super Bowl championship.
Schroeder, who is now the head coach of the Village Christian High football team in Sun Valley, still remembers the frustration.
“It’s extremely difficult, because you are doing what they asked you to do, and you are doing it well, and then…” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a tough situation. Life is not fair. A lot of things aren’t fair.”
So in this biggest of football weeks, while his coach, Jim Harbaugh, is being praised for such a gutsy decision, and while Kaepernick is being hailed as the new big thing, Alex Smith has disappeared. Or has he? In some ways, the Super Bowl scrub is more visible, more accurate, more effective than ever.