When my dad and I get into arguments, it’s usually about Alex Smith. When my friends and followers on social media tend to disagree about something, it’s also usually about Alex Smith. If Alex Smith was just some regular dude on the street, you’d think nothing of him—honestly, he looks harmless. But Alex has become a bit of a controversial figure around these parts (I mean, I don’t scream at my dad about him just for fun). In 2005, the San Francisco 49ers chose the Utah quarterback for the first overall NFL draft pick. Expected to revive a historic franchise and follow in the footsteps of Joe Montana and Steve Young, Alex instead turned in disappointing and inconsistent performances. He was not a symbol of hope, but an object of ridicule, most evident as he felt the sting of 70,000 boos and chants of “We want Carr!” (As in David Carr, the backup quarterback at the time) at Candlestick Park in a 2010 game versus the Philadelphia Eagles.
But when Jim Harbaugh signed on as head coach for the 2011 season, Alex, the Niners, and their fans experienced a 180. A formidable team was coming together, a franchise was on the verge of resurgence, and finally, a quarterback was beginning to find his groove. After finishing the regular season 13-3, Alex and the Niners faced off against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in a shootout for the ages. The last two minutes of the game were tumultuous and with only 14 seconds left to go, the fate of the Niners rested in the hands of the man bearing #11. Would he crack under the pressure and be reverted to more animosity, or would he finally redeem himself after years of struggle and failure?
Well, this part of the story had a happy ending: Alex threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis to win the game in a final score of 36-32. It was a conclusion that etched itself into football lore, and it was the redemption that Alex had been seeking. Whether or not you’re a Niners fan or even a football fan at all, you owe it to yourself to watch this humbling and inspiring story. Before the 2012 season started, a student from Academy of Art University created the short film Sportsfan, which documents the rise, fall, and renewal of the 49ers, but particularly focuses on Alex’s journey as a quarterback. From a filmmaking standpoint, the editing and the style is simply remarkable but as a fan or even just as an audience member, it’s difficult not to get emotional. The feeling of rock bottom makes the feeling of euphoria all the more sweet. Please do free up half-an-hour from your day to watch this.
Of course, what the film doesn’t mention is that the 49ers lost to the eventual 2011 Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, in the NFC Championship round (Which was on the Niners’ special teams and not Alex). The closing quote in the film by Jim—“Alex Smith is our starting quarterback. He’s earned that.”—also leaves a bittersweet taste, as Alex’s 2012 mid-season concussion sidelined him and made room for second-year phenomenon Colin Kaepernick to take the Niners’ reins all the way to the Super Bowl, to be played on February 3 versus the Baltimore Ravens.
Despite that moment of redemption versus the Saints last year and Alex being a pretty solid starter for the first half of the 2012 season, I feel that some people will still continue to say anything to bring him down and dismiss the good things he’s done. Why don’t people take into account that he was also the victim of bad coaching under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary and the seesawing of six different offensive coordinators? What about his injuries? Why can’t more people just appreciate that he’s seen it through all the good and the bad and still took everything with class and grace? He has still done more than any one of us could ever accomplish in our lives (Oh hey, look, that’s where my piece about criticism comes in!). I can’t defend him for the moments he truly was awful. I can’t deny that Kaepernick is the much more dynamic and exciting athlete and that he’s earned his praise and his spot as the new starting quarterback. I’m not Team Alex or Team Kap—I’m Team Niners. But I have admiration for Alex. My heart breaks a little bit knowing that if the Niners take trophy number six back to San Francisco, it would be as if he had absolutely nothing to do with the victory; or if he did, people would only remember him for how he came up way short in all the years past. Actually, he still was part of the six games the Niners won in the first half. It’s no use arguing that we would have never gotten this far if he was still our quarterback. The only thing we know is what actually manifested in the wins, the losses, and the one tie, and all hypothetical situations are not important.
After watching and reflecting on Sportsfan, I felt more compelled than ever to explain why I stand with Alex. He is a storied individual and a true team player who never let up in the face of adversity. To have this chapter of his story end as abruptly as it did re-injects the element of tragedy. But maybe it’s not the end. He could still have a Drew Bledsoe moment in New Orleans next Sunday. He could still earn a ring and ride a convertible to cheers and confetti along Market Street. He could even still wear red and gold next year and be a quality number two to Kap’s number one.
But maybe he will indeed be in a different uniform next year and all San Francisco will have left of him are his associations with years of pain and frustration, yet the glimmers of happiness and optimism in these last two years. As much as I wish he could stick around, it’s a new era here in the Bay. And if he has to leave, he can do so with his head held high. He deserves something more.
Whether or not you want to believe it, we all can learn something from Alex Smith, about learning how to handle yourself when the world is against you and how to pick yourself back up. About picking yourself back up but having another setback when you’re relegated to a different role. About being kind and gracious and being all for the team. However his next chapter is written, I know he’ll carry himself with the resilience that he’s shown throughout his tumultuous time here. That’s the Alex Smith I see and love, and that’s how I’ll choose to remember him as.
RECOMMENDED READING: I quite enjoyed Tim Kawakami’s recent column and interview with Alex. He recalls how getting his start in college football was quite similar to how his concussion opened the door for Kap and praises his successor. It’s been thrown around a lot here, but seriously…the guy is all class.
(PHOTO CREDIT: NFL)