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Alex Smith remains steady through the highs and lows

Published: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 10:30 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS

The text Alex Smith received earlier this week from Mike Shumann, former 49ers wide receiver and now KGO-TV sports anchor, was not written to be mean. Shumann played six years in the NFL. He knows how brutal pro football is. The text was more of a homage, an affection really, to everything Smith has endured as the once starting quarterback for the 49ers.

“I have a dream,” the text began. “I dream that Colin Kaepernick got hurt in the game and Alex Smith came in and won the Super Bowl for the 49ers. It would be poetic justice.”

When asked his response to the text, Smith blushed.

I’ve never seen a pro football player blush before.

“I’ve received a lot of support from friends and family,” Smith said. And then he dropped it. He appreciated the sentiment. He would never wish injury on anyone, even for the guy who took his job when Smith was injured. He took Shumann at the meaning of the text: Alex, you helped the team get to the Super Bowl. You should be rewarded beyond standing on the sidelines, holding a clipboard, being a good soldier. And no one has been a better soldier in the NFL than Alex Smith. Smith didn’t just take one for the team when he lost the job to Kaepernick nine games last season. He took one for his pride, a professional’s most prized possession.

“Alex could have the divided the team (when Kaepernick was given the job),” said 49ers tackle Alex Boone, one of Smith’s best friends. “He could have done terrible things, terrible things.”

Smith could have turned the locker room into a snake pit. Ignoring Kaepernick, snipping at him, shunning him. Smith had allies in the locker room. He could have created a raging sea for the second-year player. And why not? He spent the first six of his NFL career in the sweatbox, only to arrive at Mt. Olympus on Oct. 29.

“I had my best game of my career,” said Smith of his last full game of 2012, against Arizona, where he completed 18 of 19 passes, that 94.7 completion percentage setting an NFL record. And then Smith got that concussion against the next opponent, St. Louis, after completing seven of eight passes.

Coach Jim Harbaugh then made the switch.

“I was disappointed, pissed off, not pleased,” Smith said.

So what did Smith do? He coached up Kaepernick. He was there in every meeting, helping, instructing. Smith didn’t even throw a paper airplane into Kaepernick’s locker. Was Kaepernick surprised at Smith’s generosity?

“A little bit,” Kaepernick said.

Why didn’t Smith say to Kaepernick, “You think you got it tough? Starting your first game in pro football at 23? You have no idea what tough is. Good luck, bud.” Why didn’t Smith say that? “That’s not how I am wired,” Smith said.

For eight years Smith handled good times and bad times with the same equanimity. He never dodged a question or a criticism. So I had to tell him something I have never told a professional athlete before. I was surprised as the words come out of my mouth.

“Alex, I have a son and I want him to grow up to be just like you.”

Smith lowered his head and blushed again. He never said anything. I embarrassed him. I almost felt badly about it.

That Smith is gone after this Sunday is a foregone conclussion. Kansas City, Buffalo and Philadelphia are getting the most speculative airtime. The rumor here is Smith will ask for his release. The 49ers will grant it. This is their homage to him for thinking of the team first and not destroying the chemistry Harbaugh so desperately has built. Go with grace, Alex.

Whether he can admit it outwardly, Smith knows Kaepernick is the better athlete. Smith knows people are using a word about the current 49er quarterback that was never used with him.

“Kaepernick is dynamic,” said Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.

Smith can see where Kaepernick can be sensational in ways he couldn’t, a stronger arm and fast legs being two of them. He didn’t have to be told what he was facing. He graduated from Utah in three years with a degree in economics because “I wanted to know how different economies worked.” His Wonderlic score was 40 out of 50, one of the highest ever posted by an incoming NFL rookie. His intelligence has sorted this all out, even the uncomfortable conclusions.

“If the 49ers fall behind 17-0 to the Falcons in the NFC title game (as they did),” said Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, “I don’t believe Alex leads them back.”

During Super Bowl week Smith has been asked the same questions more times than a calculator has numbers. He could have saved himself effort by saying, “I’ve answered it already. I have nothing left to say. Thanks.” That’s what he could have said. That’s what most players would have said. Not Smith. He’s answered the same questions — Smith has logged in two hours so far in media sessions — without refusing anyone. And he never raised his voice or showed irritation.

“I slip up about every 100th time,” said Smith, meaning he has to pause sometimes to clear his brain of what sounds to him like a jumbled tape-recorded message.

He knows being the 49ers’ starting quarterback comes with heavy baggage. He knows the expectations are high, unyielding and outrageous. He knows life is unfair. That’s why people will root for Alex Smith when he leaves the 49ers. He came out of this thing with his head held high, his dignity intact. How can we not admire someone like that?

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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