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Smith's awe-inspiring NFL journey was remarkable to watch

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Alex Smith

Alex Smith’s time with the 49ers was defined by questions -- all that began with what if.

What if the 49ers had chosen that other quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft?

What if the 49ers did not have seven offensive coordinators in the first seven seasons of Smith’s career?

What if the 49ers stayed with Smith instead of turning to Colin Kaepernick in 2012?

They are all reasonable questions. But the answers are complete conjecture and thoroughly irrelevant.

Smith on Monday announced his retirement after an NFL career unlike any other -- a 16-year period that revealed his character as a player and a person.

Smith came to the 49ers as the top pick in the draft. He looked so young. He was so young, just 20 years old.

It was a struggle from the beginning. And he was forced to grow up in a hurry.

His first season consisted of seven starts, 11 interceptions and one touchdown pass, which came in the final game of the season. Things got only moderately better from there.

He had little chance to succeed in those first seven seasons with the 49ers. Smith had an abysmal supporting cast on offense. And he got even less support from head coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.

The question was often asked about how the 49ers’ fortunes would have been different if Aaron Rodgers had been chosen No. 1 overall.

 

Rodgers has turned out to be one of the all-time greats. But Smith is an all-timer in the area of being able to handle difficult situation after difficult situation after difficult situation.

How would Rodgers have fared if he had gone to the 49ers instead of the Green Bay Packers? Would he have put up with all the dysfunction going on around him? It is impossible to answer. What we do know is that Smith was determined to finish what he started.

After six NFL seasons, he was free to leave the 49ers. His family wanted him to get out of town -- as any supportive family would have recommended at that stage.

But newly hired coach Jim Harbaugh wanted him to stay. And Smith did not want to take the easy way out. He wanted to prove to himself and everybody that he was part of the answer, and not part of the problem.

The previous season saw a particularly unruly Candlestick Park crowd jeered Smith, and a chant of “We Want Carr!” echoed inside the concrete edifice. Yes, things had gotten to the point where the fan base actively called for David Carr to take over.

One season later, Smith had his shining moment with the 49ers in front of many of those same fans in a heart-pounding victory over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs.

It appeared Smith had finally found a home in the place he had lived for the past seven years.

But this was the story of Smith’s football life. Just when it appeared as if he had arrived and overcome adversity, he experienced damaging setbacks -- either emotional or physical.

The 49ers pursued free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning -- at least to some degree. Smith remained as the starter after Manning signed with the Denver Broncos.

Smith had one of the best games of his career in the middle of the 2012 season. In front of a national-television audience, he completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over the Arizona Cardinals. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for the first time in his career.

Six days later, he sustained a concussion. Kaepernick entered the game. Smith never started another game with the 49ers.

“I mean, it sucks,” Smith said at the time. “I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion."

He was upset, all right. But he handled the situation better than anyone could have expected.

Smith became an advocate for Kaepernick. Sources said Smith would go to offensive coordinator Greg Roman with ideas on what to add or subtract from the game plan to provide Kaepernick and the team with the best opportunities for success.

Kaepernick played well after taking over for Smith. The 49ers advanced to the Super Bowl but lost to the Baltimore Ravens. Smith never left the sideline.

 

By all accounts, Smith also was the perfect teammate for Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. After earning trips to three Pro Bowls, Smith found himself as the lame duck quarterback in 2017. He played great, and he was a great teammate to Mahomes. Smith was traded to Washington to allow Mahomes to take over.

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All of those blows to the ego were nothing compared to what Smith endured as his final act in the NFL.

After sustaining a compound fracture of his right lower leg, an infection nearly cost him his leg. Even his life was threatened.

But, somehow, Smith came back. He started six games last season, and there has never been an easier choice for NFL Comeback Player of the Year in the history of the sport.

In that aforementioned playoff game against the Saints, Bay Area News Group photographer Jim Gensheimer captured a photo of Smith crossing the goal line to give the 49ers a short-lived lead in the fourth quarter.

It was one of several memorable plays. I was on the sideline at the time, in position to get to our postgame set quickly after the game. My vision was obstructed for that third-and-8 play. I saw Smith run to his left, and then he disappeared from view.

I heard the crowd roar, so I figured there was a good chance Smith got the first down.

But, then, Smith sprinted past me en route to the end zone. The photo taken from the opposite sideline shows me with my mouth agape, stunned at what just happened.

And that is kind of how I feel today, as Smith announces his retirement.

He is one of the few in this sport who was able to step away on his own terms.

That is only fitting because Smith has never let anyone dictate boundaries to him.

And there is no reason any longer to think about all the what ifs. It is time to appreciate everything Alex Smith endured and overcame from beginning to end.

And, yes, I’m amazed even more today than I was that day when I watched him unexpectedly cross the goal line.

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