Alex Smith has shown he has what it takes to be a successful quarterback in the National Football League. But what he hasn’t shown, at least to many, is the copious amounts of preparation he puts in behind the scenes to enjoy that success.
With nine wins through eleven weeks of the 2011 season, Smith has been working diligently to lead his team to the playoffs. He’s doing all of that while balancing family life, a new marriage and a sixth-month-old son.
Smith’s behind the scenes life was the subject of our most recent Gameday magazine cover story. The image shot by team photographer Terrell Lloyd and enhanced by team graphic designer Ben Mayberry casts Smith in a positive light. It shows he’s in charge.
Not only does Smith have command of Jim Harbaugh’s offense, but he’s enjoying major success on the field while enjoying the pleasures of fatherhood.
Find out more about Smith’s life outside of the 60-minute games you see on Sundays.
Alex Smith: What It Takes
Discover the week of work Alex Smith puts in to win on Sundays.
By Taylor Price, 49ers.com
There have been a number of changes throughout the 49ers organization that have positively affected Alex Smith already this season, some things you see, some things you don’t. There’s the obvious: New coach. New offensive system. And new weapons for him to feature. Then there’s the other side of it: New outlook on life. New son. Newfound fatherhood. New levels of professional and individual success. And even a new tattoo that best sums up what means most to him. The most important change to Smith, though, is the frequency of wins.
Smith is usually the last player to leave 49ers headquarters each night. Typically, it’s because he’s been meeting with the offensive coaching staff. On the bright side, it helps him avoid traffic on his way home. But in the same way he’s determined to get home to be with his sixth-month old son, Hudson, Smith is determined to win with his teammates, the ones he’s become tight with over the years. So that’s why the cerebral, skillful quarterback might spend those late hours suggesting third down plays for an upcoming game plan. Smith wants to win and enjoy the process of working for something he wants so badly. And through his emergence in 2011 – 64.0 completion percentage, 1,709 passing yards with 11 touchdowns against three interceptions – it’s been a collaborative process for the 49ers quarterback. The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft has fully embraced the “team-first” attitude under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback who’s had a hands-on approach when working with his players. “With these coaches, it’s not cookie-cutter,” says Smith. “They’re open to new things, open to getting better. That’s the great thing about this situation here. We’re all in it together.” Smith, who previously ran a version of the West Coast system, has shown through nine games that his talents are well-suited for the system. It also appears Smith has what it takes to extend San Francisco’s season deep into January.
However, it wasn’t easy for Smith starting his 49ers career. Following in the footsteps of Joe Montana and Steve Young is not to be taken lightly. It also makes playing quarterback for the 49ers one of the toughest jobs in sports. But Smith wants that pressure and has embraced the spotlight of bringing San Francisco to its first 8-1 record since 1997. But even more so, the tough-as-nails quarterback, who has taken hits from opposing players and doubters in stride, appreciates the dedication that goes into winning. From taking the right supplements to fuel his three workouts during the week, to the hours of meetings with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, Smith’s success in 2011 is no fluke. It’s a result of the commitment he’s shown to the 49ers. Not only did the quarterback gather teammates together during the offseason work stoppage, he did it while he was not under contract. People dubbed it, “Camp Alex.” But really it was Smith putting himself out there, and now he is seeing tangible results from the labor. Smith has won four road games in 2011 and has four, fourth-quarter comeback wins. Sandwiched in between wins over NFC East foes, the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, Smith prepared meticulously for both games. Those two wins now have the 49ers atop the NFC West by five games. So what does it take to win on Sundays in the National Football League, at the game’s toughest position, no less? Smith helped shed light on this and more specifically, all the ways he’s helping the 49ers win.
The 49ers have defeated the Redskins 19-11. Smith throws a 30-yard touchdown pass to rookie fullback Bruce Miller on his way to leading the 49ers to their fourth road win of 2011. On the flight back from Washington D.C., Smith starts talking with his offensive linemen right away. They’re ribbing him about a big-time hit he took from Redskins rookie Ryan Kerrigan, but more so, the guys are ecstatic from the win. Once the initial game chatter dies down, laptops with edited game film get passed back to the players. That’s where Smith and his teammates can get visual confirmation of things that happened in the game. Smith and his members of his O-line, tackle Joe Staley, guards Adam Snyder and Mike Iupati, who all sit nearby on the plane, start to watch the game film together hunched around one monitor. “We’re always joking about stuff that went on in the game,” says Smith, “The screw ups and the big plays… It’s down and dirty in the trenches, so much of what they do is not pretty. So it’s funny to see stuff that goes on, on the back side of the play, something fans will never see.” The relaxation ends quickly for Smith. After landing in San Jose, he heads back to wife Elizabeth and their son. “Then maybe go to sleep,” he says with the wry smile of a new father. “That’s the trip back.”
Harbaugh changed the 49ers schedule this season for the better in Smith’s mind. Mondays are now the player’s day off, which gives players a full day to recuperate from a game. Smith, the consummate leader, is still in the building like many of his teammates the day after the game. But before he goes to work on his off day, Smith spends as much time as possible with young Hudson, who is now six months old. “Seeing him, it always makes me smile,” says Smith, who proudly takes part in all aspects of parenting, diaper changing included. “It always takes you right away when he’s laughing, smiling, crying or whatever it may be. You’re a dad and everything else is second after that. It’s hard to describe what it’s like being a father – what it does to you. With him, I forget about anything that happened that day, good or bad. I could have the best day or the worst day and he immediately takes your mind off of it. It’s a great thing.” Smith’s obligations to his team, however, take him away from his family. Fortunately, Elizabeth understands the nature of Smith’s unique profession. “She always has her hands full. She’s the best,” says Smith. “Monday is my day off and Tuesday is not as tough of a day, so I can do more there.” It’s after 7 in the morning; Smith gets in his pickup truck and heads toward team headquarters in Santa Clara to get his first workout of the week and to meet with coaches. First up is a lift with strength coach Mark Uyeyama and his staff. “A big thing for me this year has been working out on Mondays,” admits Smith. “I’m always tired after the game; it’s the hardest one because I’m sore. But it’s the best thing. I end up feeling better as the week goes on because of it.”
Next for Smith’s off day is a second film review of the Redskins game, just Smith himself evaluating his play and the offense’s overall performance. “Then I’ll head up and talk to the coaches, I’ll talk to Geep (Chryst), I’ll talk to G-Ro (Roman). We’ll overview the whole game, specific plays, where we need to improve and the things we did well.” But the best part about Mondays, according to Smith, “We’re immediately on to the next game, the next opponent.” The Giants entered Smith’s vocabulary that day. The game planning for New York wasn’t complete yet, but Smith still went over the 6-2 team’s personnel and general tendencies with his coaching staff. Then to finish the day, Smith watched New York’s last four games. Sometimes, if a previous opponent has played a team that runs a West Coast offense, Smith will watch that game tape, too. “I try to get a general feel for what they’re doing on first and second down, third down, red zone, when the games on the line, what are they calling, things like that,” says Smith. “You try to get a general feel for personnel.”
It’s the same morning routine for Smith the following day. Spend as much time with wife and son before stepping out the door for work. There, he gets his second weight lifting session before the team meets together for the first time of the week. Smith especially likes the Harbaugh-led meetings, ones that individually acknowledge players achievements in all three phases of the game. Harbaugh dishes out game balls and then shows off a few blown up photos from key plays in the Redskins game which will be displayed in the meeting rooms and hallways of the 49ers locker room. Harbaugh keeps the mood light, but then the focus quickly shifts to the next opponent, the New York Giants. Smith wraps up the day with more film study, specifically watching New York’s first and second down plays before heading home to spend quality time with the family.
Media obligations start to enter Smith’s workload by the midpoint of the week. As a starting quarterback in the NFL, you’re required to talk on Wednesday of every week and after every game. It’s the right thing to do as the offense’s designated spokesperson. Smith represents the 49ers well in that regard every Wednesday when answering questions from a high-rising podium near the team’s practice fields. Then, he does a sit-down interview with NFL Network’s Steve Wyche. That’s all squeezed in between Smith’s lunch break, where he even finds the time to stop in the locker room to talk with a longtime respected Bay Area journalist to be accommodating while in a rush to get back to meetings. That’s why Smith has done so well handling the pressure of being the quarterback. Moreover, he’s embraced the role playing with a core nucleus that has been together for most of his 49ers career, players like Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Joe Staley, to name a few. “I love it,” says Smith of that aspect of his profession. “It’s what makes this job so great. Nothing is like the game of football in the sense that we all rely on each other so much, coaches, players, are all included in this. The coaches are putting together a game plan and teaching us the game plan, players getting it and going out and executing it. And then literally, the whole team, all 11 guys have to do their jobs to have success, especially on offense.” That closeness with teammates is a big reason the 49ers are succeeding in 2011. Smith has to rely on his peers, “just to have a chance to do my job.”
The trust all goes back to the commitment. “It’s that relying on each other,” says Smith, “That accountability, we put in so much time in the week and to get out there on gameday, we’ve got to rely on each other to get the ‘W.’ It’s not always pretty, it’s ugly and you’re fighting, competing together and you don’t get that anywhere else. I think that’s what makes this job so special. It’s how close we all get because we get to go through these things together, the ups and downs, the blood, the sweat, the good times, we go through it all together and we rely on each other. We’re all in it.” Later in the day, Smith walks off the 49ers practice field with Gore and Davis, elbowing his tight end in the ribs as the two shared a laugh. Smith heads to the team cafeteria for a quick dinner and heads off to meetings that finish around 6. He’s not done working though. Smith spends three more hours watching film, focusing more on New York’s third down plays, building off his film study from Tuesday. But before he goes home for the night, the quarterback meets up with his coaches to discuss the third down plays that are being installed into the game plan. “Sometimes they’re meeting as a staff and I jump in with them a little bit and talk out things,” says Smith. It’s 9 at night by this point. Smith is the last player around. He gets in his truck and heads home to the family, closing out his 12-hour work day.
It’s not hard for Smith to enjoy being around team headquarters, not when he’s having fun with the guys in the locker room. “The group of guys we have, and have had here, are such a high-character group of guys,” says Smith, who likes to joke around with wide receiver Michael Crabtree, whose locker is a few spots from his quarterback. “They work so hard. It means so much to them. And especially with the guys we’ve added this year, they’re made of the same material.” Several new additions have only bolstered a strong locker room in Smith’s mind and have been a big reason for the team’s strong start to 2011. “There’s so many guys who just stay, put in extra time, stay in the film room, stay in the training room, working out, making sure they’ve done every little thing they can do so on Sunday, they’ve left as little to chance as possible.” Smith hasn’t left anything to chance. He wraps up Thursday with another protein shake, a quick snack in the cafeteria and a visit with his coaches. There’s still more to be learned, so Smith heads back for more film study.
Walking off the practice field on Veteran’s Day was Smith, along with Crabtree and rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As the players headed to the locker room, James Brown’s “Living in America” was blasting over the team’s practice stereo system. Harbaugh had patriotic music playing at points of the practice, something Smith particularly enjoyed. “I love music on Fridays,” says Smith as he flips through text messages before debating on what hat to wear to a production meeting with FOX’s No. 1 broadcast team of Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Pam Oliver. “Maybe I should wear this FOX hat,” jokes Smith, who puts on a khaki hat that was given to him at a previous production meeting. The conversational interviews that take place before every NFL game and allows the broadcast crews more insight into the teams they’ll discuss on Sunday. And in those conversations, broadcasters try to understand why the 49ers are enjoying newfound success with Harbaugh. “It’s more intimate because there are no cameras or microphones,” says Smith. “I’ve been doing these for seven years, so I know the crews a little bit usually. It’s relaxed. The good ones cut right to it; they don’t want to talk about the same old stuff.” Smith, wearing his FOX hat, heads off to speak with Buck, Aikman and Oliver.
Once a Saturday walk through and a few short meetings wrap up, family responsibilities take over around the Smith household. Not only does Alex spend a great deal of time with his boy, he gets a chance to see his dad each week. Doug Smith wasn’t Alex’s coach at any point of his career, but he makes sure to attend every one of Alex’s games, after all, he taught the 49ers quarterback how to play the game. Smith’s father means so much to his children; the four Smiths got matching tattoos this summer for Doug’s 60th birthday. “He’s the last guy that would get a tattoo,” Alex says of his father, a former high school principal. But Smith and his three siblings insisted they get the matching ink with their father while on a family trip to Santa Barbara. There’s a great story behind it, too. The tattoo represents the Smith family perfectly. Smith’s great grandfather came to the United States through Ellis Island as 12-year-old Austrian immigrant. He was of Serbian descent and adopted the name John Smith like many who came to America. Smith’s great grandfather soon migrated west, working on the railroad where he’d eventually settle in Idaho to have his son, Smith’s grandfather Robert. “The tattoo on my back is one of the symbols of Serbia,” says Smith. “It’s a cross that’s supposed to have a symbol around each corner. We wanted to make it individualized, so the word across my back under the cross means ‘father’ in Serbian. It’s a tribute to the line of fathers and when I became a dad, and it was a gift to our father for his 60th birthday. It’s also a tribute to my dad and the fathers before him.” Smith spends time with Elizabeth and Hudson before heading to a hotel where the team stays the night before game. Then it’s more M&Ms for Smith, meals and meetings. He calls it a night and starts visualizing the game plan working out on Sunday.
It’s quite fitting that Smith hits the field on Sunday at 11 a.m. on the dot. He might not plan it, but the quarterback who wears No. 11 is right on cue to begin his pregame routine. He starts with medicine balls, swinging them around like he’s taking swings in the batter’s box. Then it’s time to play catch, first with Kaepernick, then with Davis, typically replicating the movement he’ll later experience in the pocket. Smith even takes time to share an embrace with his former center David Baas, who signed with New York in free agency. Then it’s off to the locker room to get dressed and ready for the game. Smith comes out of the locker room in full uniform looking to throw, something he did for the entire afternoon.
On his own accord, Smith has developed the habit of always playing catch. In between timeouts, possessions, whenever, he’ll find someone to throw to. It’s helped him stay sharp. “I’m not trying to ever go too long without really having thrown or moved around,” he says. Smith moves around a lot on the 49ers opening drive against the Giants and for much of the first half. He throws for 151 yards in the first half in a game plan designed for him to make plays on the perimeter. Smith’s best throw, however, comes in the second half on a pass absolutely rifled into Davis’ belly on a crossing route. The all-world athlete did the rest of the work out-running and out-leaping a pair of New York defenders for a 31-yard touchdown. The 49ers would go on to win 27-20, due in large part to Smith’s strong play against a formidable opponent. Smith threw for 242 yards in the win and proceeded to shake hands with members of the Giants after the game. Camera crews stopped Smith for an on-field interview, before he ran off to the locker room, waving to passionate fans on his way through the entrance. “This is why you do it, why you put in the time to give yourself a chance to have a shot at victory,” says an ecstatic Smith after the latest 49ers win. “To pull it off, especially against a team like that, these next few hours is why you do it. These wins, they’re so sweet, and we just got a great group of guys, we get to celebrate with each other, you hold up your part, it’s great.” Appropriately, after a long day in the latest long week of work, Smith exited the 49ers locker room wearing the team-distributed blue collar shirt.
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