SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Aldon Smith believes he is on the path to being sober for good.
Part of the process for the San Francisco 49ers' All-Pro linebacker to rejoin the team following a five-week stint in rehab included a verbal commitment to the NFL that he would stay out of trouble and keep clean.
"I think any time we could all look into our lives and find something we need to work on," Smith said Tuesday, seemingly relaxed. "I've taken my time and I've done that."
A clean-cut Smith - hair trimmed from his previous long, curly cut - returned to the 49ers' locker room after his long absence and five missed games to cheers from teammates who chanted his first name. Everybody knows what he means to this franchise and defense - and the 49ers are hopeful he is as healthy as he looks and ready to return to the field as soon as Sunday's home game with Carolina.
"I'm getting there. Every day's just a step closer to getting to where I want to be," Smith said at his locker after practice. "I've gotten a lot of support, from my family, friends, organization, teammates and everything. And it really says a lot that people care about me outside the field and they care about me as a person."
Smith had been on an indefinite paid leave of absence before being activated to the 53-man roster Thursday, two days after he turned himself in to Santa Clara County authorities on weapons charges. He met last Wednesday with team officials.
The fearsome pass-rusher is in shape despite a couple of extra pounds gained during his stint at an in-patient treatment center for substance abuse. He was at a facility outside California, he said, while declining to offer further details. He said he returned to the Bay Area on Oct. 28 after entering rehab in late September - and he was away for his 24th birthday Sept. 25.
Defensive teammate and fellow linebacker Patrick Willis is among those who sent periodic text messages to Smith during his time away.
"Aldon has been a guy since he came in who has been very productive for our defense, has been a playmaker for our defense," Willis said. "To get him back is a good thing, then, too, with his absence we were able to develop some depth with some of the other guys. It's really going to be a strong point for us. When you have a guy such as Aldon with his talent, the biggest thing we can do for him is just let him know we're here for him, let him know that we're his teammates, but the main thing is just let him grow on his own."
Smith played in a 27-7 home loss to the Colts on Sept. 22 and had five tackles just two days after he was arrested and jailed on suspicion of DUI and marijuana possession. He apologized for his behavior after the game then later announced he would leave for treatment.
San Francisco (6-2) has won five straight games in impressive fashion without him.
Also in September, Smith and former teammate Delanie Walker were named in a lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court by a Northern California man who said he was shot at a party at Smith's house on June 29, 2012.
Smith, selected seventh overall in the 2011 draft out of Missouri, had previously been arrested on suspicion of DUI in January 2012 in Miami shortly after the 49ers lost in the NFC championship game.
Now, Smith is moving forward. He's thrilled to be reunited with not only his team but also his 10-month-old son, Aulis.
"He looks good, man," running back Frank Gore said. "I'm a big fan of Aldon, a young guy who has the potential to be one of the best at the position. I'm happy he's back with the family. I know he can help our team, so that's great."
While Smith is scheduled for court appearances each of the next two Tuesdays, he expects to be in practice.
Smith was charged Oct. 9 with three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, stemming from that party at his home in June 2012.
"Of course, I didn't want to be away from the sport I love. But it was good for me to get away and get my mind together and work, like I say, just to get to the positive spot I need to be at," he said. "I caught some of the games, some that were broadcast over there. So I was able to keep up with the guys and chime in here and there and wish them good luck."
Smith had a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks last season for the NFC champions. He has 4 1/2 sacks and 18 tackles over three games in 2013.
"I'm just taking it one day at a time, getting back here, being around the guys and just getting my life back at home," Smith said.
Also Tuesday, leading 2012 wideout Michael Crabtree was cleared to resume practicing following May surgery to repair a torn right Achilles tendon. The 49ers now have three weeks to activate him.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org