Quarterback Lost His Job, but Still Has Purpose ; Smith Tutors Replacement on 49ers as He Makes Best of Awkward Situation

By Shpigel, Ben | International Herald Tribune, January 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

Quarterback Lost His Job, but Still Has Purpose ; Smith Tutors Replacement on 49ers as He Makes Best of Awkward Situation


Shpigel, Ben, International Herald Tribune


Alex Smith is not bitter that he lost his starting job after he suffered a concussion in the middle of the season, and he has mentored his replacement, Colin Kaepernick.

Alex Smith put on the headphones and then did what he has done for the past two months with the San Francisco 49ers -- he waited without complaint. A minute passed. Then two. Then three. The imminent radio interview was not so imminent anymore. The producer apologized. Smith smiled.

Reporters encircled him. The crowd swelled. Smith smiled some more. He knew this had been coming -- not the delay, naturally, but the crush of news media attention at the Super Bowl, where the backup quarterback is often a fun story, a cute story, and not an avatar of empathy and class.

Smith, in the middle of his best National Football League season, lost his starting job in November. He was sidelined with a concussion, then demoted in favor of the strong-armed dynamo Colin Kaepernick, creating a situation that, offensive lineman Alex Boone said, "could have gone sideways in a hurry."

It did not. Defusing awkward and uncomfortable situations is a Smith specialty. Eight tumultuous seasons as the 49ers' on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again franchise quarterback had steeled him. However stung, he never pouted or griped. He tutored Kaepernick. He encouraged him. He endured.

"Tough at times, for sure," Smith said. "Tough to accept. Tough to watch. But we're in the Super Bowl, and this has been an amazing experience."

All around him at the Superdome on Tuesday, teammates answered questions about tattoos and Twitter, gumbo and God. Some even focused on football. For more than an hour, Smith expressed how it had felt to lose his job. He will do it again Wednesday, and then Thursday before resuming preparations for the biggest game of his career -- which he will watch from the sideline.

About that: Smith says he is not bitter. He realizes his good fortune. People around the United States are laid off every day, lapsing into straits far more dire than Smith's. He has earned millions of dollars in his career. "I'm still employed," Smith said.

But listen closely, and subtle cues hint at disappointment. Asked how much time had elapsed before his frustration subsided, Smith started to speak, stopped, and then said: "Things happen in sports. It's the deal." Asked if he had envisioned how different this experience would be if he were starting, Smith said, "Honestly, I mean ..." Long pause. He continued, "I'm not thinking about it, to be totally honest with you."

Smith's torn emotions are natural, almost expected. Just ask Brett Elliott, who empathizes with Smith, perhaps as few can. In 2003, as the starting quarterback at the University of Utah, Elliott broke his wrist while diving on a 2-point conversion attempt against Texas A&M University. In came Smith. Elliott never played another down for the Utes, transferring to Linfield College, a Division III program in his native Oregon.

"On a smaller scale, I know exactly how he feels -- or, I think I know," Elliott, now a graduate assistant at Mississippi State University, said in a telephone interview last week. …

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