Where has Aldon Smith gone?

San Francisco 49ers DE working his way out of a sacks slump

Updated: January 9, 2013, 1:00 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A snowstorm is churning its way toward the Plains, but since Thurston Smith has you here, he'd really like to show this little DVD he put together.

It's not long, he promises as he fumbles through some discs. He made it before his son left home in 2011 to play in the NFL. It's touching and cheesy, filled with prom pictures, Bible verses and slow-thumping R&B music. It's something a parent puts together when he knows his son's life is about to change. Predictably, Aldon Smith, a big, bad linebacker who is paid to terrorize quarterbacks, thought the compilation was a bit much. But someday, Thurston knows, his son will appreciate it.

Life is happening fast for the kid right now. A month ago, Aldon Smith was considered a candidate for defensive player of the year and was zeroing in on Michael Strahan's 11-year-old single-season sack record. He was so hot that in a promo for the "Sunday Night Football" game between his San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots on Dec. 16, his face was featured prominently next to Tom Brady's. Smith got a kick out of that.

[+] EnlargeAldon Smith
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAldon Smith wants to be defined by his play, not by off-the-field incidents.

Four weeks later, he's mired in what many in the Bay Area are calling a slump. He didn't have a sack in that game, or the last two of the regular season, and was recently criticized in one of the local newspapers for appearing disinterested. He's considered one of the biggest question marks as the 49ers begin their quest for the Super Bowl on Saturday in a playoff game against Green Bay.

Thurston Smith doesn't worry too much about it. This, he says, isn't really stress.

Stress is the phone ringing in your North Kansas City home six and half months ago, on a summer weekend, when you're getting ready for church, and a reporter on the other end asks if your kid is OK. Stress is hearing that there had been a stabbing the night before, at your son's house 1,700 miles away, and then having a whole bunch of other reporters with California area codes call.

Thurston had to tell them all "no comment," because he couldn't tell them that he had no clue what was going on because he hadn't heard from his kid. This is where Aldon Smith was 6 months ago. This is how fast his life has moved.

On June 30, at a party he was hosting, Aldon Smith was stabbed twice trying to break up a fight. One of the wounds was centimeters from his heart, but he was OK because he's healthy, muscular and lucky.

Then again, he wasn't OK. The incident, coupled with a DUI days after the 49ers' season ended in the NFC championship last year, raised serious questions about where the second-year linebacker was headed.

Was Smith, a Midwesterner who played the drums in his church choir, becoming an NFL cautionary tale? Could he stay out of trouble? Could he be counted on?

"I worry more in the offseason," Thurston said, "because he's not in a structured environment. I worry about him from the time that last game of the season is over with. He has nothing but time and money on his hands. I know what he's like when he's not structured. He's all over the place. He's young and full of energy.

"If he could play football 12 months out of the year ... I wouldn't have to worry about him at all. Because he's doing something he loves. I think he's doing something that God has blessed him with."

Pursuing a goal

The opponents don't know this, that Aldon Smith is boiling inside, and anything can happen. Smith is at his best when people expect the least. If there's one thing he hates, that motivates him more than anything else, it's when people doubt him.

After last summer's troubles, Smith set several preseason goals: He wanted to hold up his end as a starter, wanted to be the consummate teammate, and he wanted to get 23 sacks. The last one was a seemingly outrageous goal; the NFL single-season record was 22. Smith claims he had no idea of this, and simply picked it because he was turning 23 in September. On his birthday, he told his dad that 22 was a tough year, but 23 was going to be better.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsVon Miller and Aldon Smith became friends during the lockout in 2011. "When we're together, we really don't even talk about football. We're just buddies hanging out," Miller says.

The 2012 NFL season will be remembered for individual greatness, for Adrian Peterson's gallant run toward history, Calvin Johnson's record-breaking catches, and for a wild November when it looked as if three young defensive stars -- all second-year players -- would shatter Strahan's sack mark.

Smith seemed primed to get there first. He had 19 sacks by early December, while Houston's J.J. Watt and Denver's Von Miller hovered close behind. Smith donated $5,099 to the local Boys and Girls Clubs for each sack, and the amount got so big it accounted for roughly one-tenth of his salary.

Quietly, over the span of a few months, he evolved into one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL. He broke Reggie White's record as the fastest player to 30 career sacks (Smith did it in 27 games; White did it in 28), and eclipsed the single-season franchise mark of 17.5 by Fred Dean that had stood for nearly three decades. But he was no longer anonymous on Nov. 19, when he had 5 sacks in a victory over the Chicago Bears on "Monday Night Football." Smith texted his friend Miller that night after the game. The count to history was on.

But none of the young pass-rushers made it to 23, and Smith's hopes all but ended on a cold and rainy Sunday night in New England on Dec. 16, when his teammate, Justin Smith, went down with a triceps injury.

Justin and Aldon Smith, who played at the University of Missouri roughly a decade apart, are called the "Smith Brothers" even though they're not related. They complement each other. The 49ers had found great success running a stunt between Justin and Aldon. Justin Smith would occupy the guard and the tackle, allowing Aldon to loop inside unscathed. But with Justin out, Aldon was forced to try to beat tackles around the edge, and often fought double teams.

The result was zero sacks in the final three regular-season games and questions about his production. Aldon Smith looked tired. His snaps doubled in 2012 as he went from a situational player to a starter. But if he was frustrated about the sack record slipping away, he never expressed it.

"Not at all," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It's amazing with him being so close like he was to the title, he never made it a point, never said, 'Guys, I've got to get this.' Not one time did I ever hear him talk about sacks. He just went out and played the game."

The 49ers' front seven is a tight-knit group, and Smith's biggest concern in the summer of 2012 was that he'd let the other six down. By police accounts, he did not start the fight at his house that led to the stabbing on June 30; he was trying to break it up. (A spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's office said that suspect[s] in the stabbing are still at large). But Smith still made a point to apologize to his teammates for making poor decisions and for doing anything to put their dreams in jeopardy.

"You're never going to learn from your mistakes unless you face them, and Aldon did that," said Matt Suther, Smith's former AAU coach and mentor. "He didn't hide from any of that stuff.

"He's mad that it happened. He's sad that it happened. I think it put some things in perspective for him in terms of everything can be gone tomorrow."

Aldon Smith and Justin SmithKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsThe Smiths -- Aldon (99) and Justin (94) -- are a formidable pair of pass-rushers. But how will Aldon fare now that Justin is sidelined by an injury?

A curious kid

The first 20 years or so of his life, whenever Aldon Smith did something, the world didn't really notice. He was not heavily recruited out of high school, he played in the shadow of Blaine Gabbert at Missouri and operates today with a sizable chip on his gigantic shoulders.

"I notice it," Smith said when asked if he thinks he's still overlooked today. "It is what it is. It's kind of irritating, but I don't need those type of things to make me happy or to help me."

Smith was born in Mississippi, and was curious and energetic pretty much since birth. When he became mobile, those attributes started getting him in trouble. One day, his great-grandmother Bertha was watching him. She slipped away to grab something in the kitchen for a few seconds, and in that short span, young Aldon had darted across the room, in his walker, to an open-flame heater. He burned his hand so badly that day that he had to wear bandages for weeks. He still has a scar.

His family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when Aldon was about 2. His parents eventually split up, and Thurston moved to Raytown, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City, while Aldon stayed with his mom, Kembrya. Smith became a star on the Cedar Rapids Washington basketball team and was starting as a sophomore. A year later, his mom was offered a job in the Atlanta area. Smith didn't want to move south, so he went to Missouri to live with his dad.

It seemed like an odd decision, especially because they clashed often. Thurston Smith was a former Army reservist who was tough on his kid. His house rules required that his son carry a 3.0 grade-point average in high school or he couldn't play sports. He demanded that Aldon be respectful and responsible. At the time, Thurston was a computer network administrator for the Raytown school district, where Aldon transferred to upon his move to Missouri, which meant Dad had access to all the grades and the records and knew every day if his son was late to class.

If Thurston could do things over again, he said, he might change the way he reacted to his son sometimes. "But I wouldn't change being totally proactive in his life," he said.

When Aldon played football and basketball, Thurston saw something incredible, a passion he'd never seen in his son.

When his team lost, he'd quietly go to his room, and it was almost as if the world had ended. When Aldon Smith was focused, he could do anything. On a late December afternoon recently, Thurston pulled out one of his son's old high school transcripts. On it was a smattering of C's and D's from his early days, and then there was his senior year, when Aldon pulled down A's and B's.

"I keep this because I want to show it to him one day," Thurston said. "I'm going to say, 'You know what? This is how smart you are.'"

He knows Aldon would shrug his shoulders if he pulled it out now. But someday, he said, it will mean something.

His freshman year at Mizzou, Smith had to sit out the start of fall drills while the NCAA reviewed his high school transcripts. He ended up redshirting that season, and hated sitting out. But by the time he hit the field the next season, it was clear Smith was one of the best defensive players in the Big 12. He was 6-foot-5 with a freakish wingspan and unlimited potential. He dominated against Texas, recording 11 solo tackles, and finished with 11 sacks on the season, breaking a school record held by Justin Smith.

As a sophomore, Aldon Smith played with a broken calf bone against Oklahoma and intercepted a Landry Jones pass to lead his team to victory over the No. 1 Sooners. He declared for the NFL draft at the end of the season and was picked seventh overall by the 49ers in 2011.

"We played Oklahoma after they played Oklahoma," said Miller, who starred at Texas A&M. "I remember watching him on film thinking, 'Man, this guy is good.' One particular play I remember, he had a sack where he beat the guy so fast he thought the quarterback had thrown the ball.

"When he plays, he has an angry streak, that kind of chip on his shoulder. He's going to do whatever it takes."

Aldon SmithDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesPlaying with a broken bone in his leg, Aldon Smith helped lead the Missouri Tigers to an upset win against Oklahoma.

Fast friends

Smith and Miller became friends during the 2011 lockout. They were rookies with no team to go to, so they started to hang out. They take trips together in the offseason, to Miami and Las Vegas, and call and text each other after games.

They joked, two summers ago, about someday joining forces on the same team like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did with the Miami Heat. Miller said they'd round out their Big Three with their pal Marcell Dareus, a second-year defensive end with the Buffalo Bills.

Smith inspires Miller to work hard and do things better. Miller, who watched Strahan break the sacks record on TV as a kid, said of course he wanted the record. Who wouldn't want to be the best? But he especially had fun pursuing it with one of his closest friends in football.

"We have one of those friendships that when I see him calling me, I feel like I need to pick up," he said. "I feel like he feels the same way. Our friendship is bigger than anything. When we're together, we really don't even talk about football. We're just buddies hanging out.

"I really can't explain it. I enjoy being around the guy. He's funny. He doesn't care what anybody else thinks of him."

Aldon SmithMichael Zagaris/Getty ImagesAldon Smith helped San Francisco hold off a furious New England rally in a pivotal Dec. 16 game.

Hard work pays off

Smith didn't get any sacks in the New England game, but it still was memorable for a number of reasons. Smith always seems to play better in night games, in the spotlight. On national TV, he intercepted Tom Brady. It was the first pick of Smith's NFL career, and it was a crucial one as the 49ers held off a furious rally in a 41-34 victory.

The locker room after the game was more businesslike than giddy. Smith dressed at an unmarked locker, and as he headed for the bus, nose tackle Ian Williams shouted, "'Preciate your hard work, baby!"

It was all Smith needed to hear. He has not been a distraction for his team. He has held up his end, and has done a lot more.

"Aldon has everything," said Neil Smith, a former defensive end who played for the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers, and led the NFL with 15 sacks in 1993. "He has big hands, long arms, long range and speed. He can rush from the up position and the down position.

"If Aldon can be as humble as he was growing up, and if he really keeps himself focused, I really believe this kid can be and will be the greatest rusher ever."

Aldon will welcome the return of Justin Smith, who is back in practice but has a brace on his left arm and will no doubt be limited. Aldon will have to adjust. He's done it many times before in his short and frenetic NFL career.

For now, Smith is just focused on extending his season as long as he can. Later, he'll occupy his time with some hobbies. He has a piano in his house in San Jose, and is learning to play. He wants to dabble in acting.

Smith said being young, suddenly rich and in the NFL is not an excuse to make mistakes. He said it has forced him to grow up fast. Now he's trying to rewrite his headlines.

"I feel like I'm a good person," he said, "and I have a lot to offer. And I love this game. I may not say the most words, I may not seem like the nicest guy if you look at me. But I get along with everybody. I'm trying ...

"I guess I'd say don't judge me off of some of the things that happened."