Justin Smith just does his job

49ers teammates say he's a 'simple guy' known for his work ethic

Updated: January 30, 2013, 8:19 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

The Railwood Golf Club is bustling these days, thanks to a spell of mild weather, and on weekends you can play 18 holes with a cart for only $25. Justin Smith wanted it this way. He didn't want to gouge the working man who couldn't take a Monday off to hit golf balls. Smith would prefer, though, that you didn't know he's the owner of this golf course nestled in the rolling hills of Central Missouri.

His name is not on the voicemail, or the website, and that seems typical. Smith is 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, and one of the most important players on the San Francisco 49ers' vaunted defense, but he prefers to remain in the background. When his teammates are getting sacks, it means Smith is doing his job. Smith has a goal. When he's finished with football, he'd like to be able to go to the grocery store without anyone recognizing him.

"He's just a simple guy," said Blair Thompson, a childhood friend. "He grew up that way."

Before Smith and his wife, Kerri, had kids, they used to go back to the course a lot during the offseason. He bought his wife a chainsaw. She'd cut the trees; he'd mow the greens.

There is nothing exclusive or pretentious about Railwood. It exists for everybody in the tiny town of Holts Summit, Mo., and nearby Jefferson City. In the clubhouse, they serve Budweiser and a handful of one-syllable American beers. (Smith, by the way, has an Anheuser-Busch tattoo on his left bicep.) "He gives me trouble because I like wine," said his father, Dave. "He's like, 'Geez, Dad.'"

It is clear that the golf course means a lot to Justin Smith. It was built on his granddad's old farmland. His dad grew up there. When the course was in financial trouble 10 years ago, it was Smith who came in and bought it from some local investors. On the 17th green, the highest point, you can see the Missouri River and Jefferson City, a town of 43,000 where all of this started for a rancher's kid who didn't grow up with cable TV. He didn't have time for it.

Someday, Smith tells his friends, his little boys will know about this land, and this community. Smith might not have known this when he bought it, but Railwood is more than just a golf course. It's a place where people connect. The high school teams hold banquets and fundraisers in the clubhouse. The locals drink coffee and eat breakfast there and talk about sports.

This week, the phone keeps ringing at Railwood. Folks wonder if there will be a Super Bowl party on Sunday.

"It's pretty exciting," said Kelly Whitaker, a longtime Railwood employee who, like others in the area, is friends with the Smith family. "Not too many times do you know somebody who's gotten to the Super Bowl.

"Justin has been a workaholic since at least the seventh grade. He deserves it because he's worked for it."

Justin SmithMichael Zagaris/Getty Images"Justin's an intense football player," says 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "He's a throwback, but he's a great player, too."



A man doesn't play football for most of his life without acquiring some kind of nickname, and there's one that has stuck with Smith since he entered the NFL in 2001: Cowboy. The boots, jeans and flannel shirts with the sleeves cut out were part of the reason he earned this moniker -- "He's not a fashionista," said former Bengals defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan -- but there is a deeper meaning to the name.

Smith, whose Southern accent comes through in about every other sentence, was trying to lug around feed buckets by the time he was 4 years old. His work ethic is his persona. Watch him in the weight room, or fighting off 600 pounds of double-teams, and you can't help but picture him baling hay.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezJustin Smith wrangles his way toward Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

He plays more than 90 percent of the snaps, which is stunning considering he's a big man and he's 33. Smith prefers it this way because he believes he can wear down his opponents. The significance of his presence on the field was underscored after Dec. 16, when he felt a pop in his triceps during a Sunday night game at New England. It was the first major injury of his career. Smith didn't play the next two games, but returned for the playoffs wearing a brace. Before the injury, young 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith had 19½ sacks and was on pace to shatter the NFL's single-season record. In the four games since the injury, Aldon Smith has had zero sacks.

There is an iconic photo from the 2011 season that encapsulates Justin Smith. The 49ers are facing the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. It's the fourth quarter, third-and-17. Smith is bull-rushing Jermon Bushrod -- a Pro Bowl left tackle -- and he pushes Bushrod into Drew Brees. Smith has his arm wrapped around Bushrod, but his eyes are fixed on Brees, and he has one mitt on the quarterback. Blood is trickling down Smith's elbow. Brees is just about to throw an incomplete pass, and all three of them are about to tumble to the ground.

Smith played all 80 defensive snaps in that game, plus a few on offense in a 36-32 San Francisco victory.

"It was kind of the epitome of that game and our season," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Justin's an intense football player. He's a throwback, but he's a great player, too. I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that he's very talented. But when you put in the intangibles that an overachiever may have with that talent, that's the player you get."

Giants OffenseAP Photo/Greg TrottAt age 33, Justin Smith, seen battling Giants offensive lineman Will Beatty, plays more than 90 percent of the snaps.



Dave Smith wasn't there in New Orleans on Tuesday, but he assumes that Super Bowl media day was responsible for one of the most excruciating hours of his son's life. There are those who soak up the annual circus, dancing and wearing beads and chatting it up with rodeo clowns, and then there's Justin.

He sat on the stage, bored as a teenager watching C-SPAN. He was asked about CTE and football safety at least three times. He was asked to hold up a giant hashtag, and Smith promptly told the guy, "I don't have Twitter."

At one point in his one-hour session, someone asked Smith how it felt to go from a goat herder to the Super Bowl, and his face immediately lit up. It was Artrell Hawkins, a former teammate in Cincinnati who now works for Fox Sports Radio.

"It's pretty amazing seeing you sitting up there," Hawkins said to Smith from the crowd. "I was with you when you were a rookie, now you're a potential hero."

Smith laughed.

"Who would've thought it?" Smith said.

Teammates love him because they can count on him. In 12 years in the NFL, Smith has missed a total of three games -- those two in December, and one on Sept. 9, 2001. He wasn't hurt that day in what should've been his rookie debut. Smith, a first-round draft pick from the University of Missouri, had spent the entire summer in a contract holdout. When he finally arrived in September, his new teammates, naturally, were skeptical. They'd grown tired of the Justin Smith Watch.

"We expected a guy to come in that was going to be really naive," Hawkins said, "who didn't know how to work and was kind of a prima donna. We got a completely different deal and a different player."

The rookie was an Adonis -- blond-haired, blue-eyed, ripped to shreds. As big as he was, Smith could seemingly run all day, Hawkins said. Despite missing that first game and all of training camp, he wasn't all that far behind. He still wound up breaking a Bengals rookie record with 8½ sacks.

But Smith was sort of miscast in Cincinnati from the start. He was drafted to put up double-digit sack figures every year, and when he didn't, his critics called him a bust. Bresnahan, the Bengals' defensive coordinator from 2005 to 2007, said Smith was far from that. He was just out of place. The Bengals had him playing tackle in a 4-3 system, and they'd wanted to switch to a 3-4 but couldn't because of injuries. Smith never complained.

"Justin was the blue-collar heart and soul of the defense," Bresnahan said. "He's a guy the young guys wanted to emulate."

Smith went to the playoffs once in his seven years in Cincinnati. In 2007, the Bengals put the franchise tag on him. He managed only two sacks that season -- well off his average of more than six a year -- and was allowed to hit the free-agency market.

In the winter of 2008, he had trips planned to Minnesota, Jacksonville and San Francisco. He went to California first. After a helicopter ride over San Francisco and meetings with the coaches, he canceled his other visits and signed a six-year, $45 million contract.

"When he made that move out there, you could tell it kind of rejuvenated him a little bit," said Thompson, who played football and basketball with Smith at Jefferson City High. "Sometimes, just a change of environment can do a person a lot of good. It was a different place, a different setting and a different group of guys. It seemed like he was excited all over again."

Justin SmithAP Photo/Ben MargotThe teammate they call "Cowboy" is a force on the field, but just wants to have a normal life once he has finished playing.



Success did not come quickly for Smith. In his first three seasons in San Francisco, two coaches were fired. For a while, he wondered if that 2005 playoff appearance with the Bengals would be his last.

But the 49ers' fortunes were slowly turning. Jim Harbaugh was hired in 2011, and San Francisco kept adding giant pieces to its front seven. The addition of Aldon Smith was big for the 49ers last season. Justin, possibly sensing his impact, made a point to take the kid, a fellow Mizzou player, under his wing. They worked out together during the lockout, and the veteran pushed the rookie. Justin is the set-up guy, drawing double-teams, which frees up Aldon Smith for sacks.

"That guy is unbelievable," said offensive tackle Alex Boone. "That guy will rip you apart. He'll do it again over and over. I feel like I've grown so much in this league by understanding football through his eyes. He tells me all the time, 'Do this. Don't do this. Don't ever do this no matter what anybody says, and if they pay you, don't do it, either.'

"He's a great mentor, a great friend, and getting a year under playing against him has made everything else slow down."

When Justin Smith got hurt, he mentored his backup, Ricky Jean Francois. Smith had never really been in that spot, and in the days after the New England game was conflicted about what to do. He needed surgery, and had no clue if he'd make it back for the postseason. He couldn't stand the thought of missing a possible run to the Super Bowl.

Smith doesn't tell anyone -- not even his family -- if he's in pain. During games, he says, there are painkillers to control that. But when those wear off and Smith goes home, Dave Smith knows his son is hurting. The only time his boy was upset as a kid was when he was cooped up inside. He'd always try to lift things that were too heavy and do things that seemed too hard. They never considered it exceptional because they had nothing to compare it to.

Dave and Ginger Smith were at a banquet when Justin was a junior at Jefferson City. They went up to talk to Larry Smith, who at the time was the head coach at Missouri. They figured Smith wouldn't know who Justin was, and then the coach told them that he was the best football player he'd seen since Junior Seau.

The Smiths wondered if the coach was "blowing a little smoke" and said that to all the parents. They went over and talked to a couple of other parents. The coach hadn't said anything like that about their kids.

"When they offered him a scholarship," Dave said, "we about fell over."



But that's the thing about Smith. He doesn't act like he's big time, so maybe it's hard to see it sometimes.

Smith's idea of a good time is grilling some pork steaks, sitting on his deck with friends and listening to Waylon Jennings on his Jambox. He has made millions, but has only one TV in his house. He didn't have cable as a kid, and didn't care. He was too busy feeding the cows and doing push-ups.

But in Jefferson City, and at Railwood, they'll make a big deal over Justin Smith on Sunday. They'll drink beer and hold parties. They'll watch an ordinary guy do something extraordinary.