NEW ORLEANS – The Patron Saint of the Benched, Demoted, Passed By and Screwed Over arrived at Super Bowl XLVII media day and was immediately surrounded by cameras and recorders – reporters five, six deep in a circle around him.
Alex Smith was the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers into November of this season, playing as well as anytime in his NFL career, completing 25 of 27 passes and throwing four touchdowns over a two-game stretch. "I felt the most comfortable I've been on a football field in a long time, maybe ever," Smith said.
Then he was concussed in a game against the St. Louis Rams. His backup, Colin Kaepernick, came in, played well and never gave the job back. Even when Smith was medically cleared to return, coach Jim Harbaugh decided to make Kaepernick the team's long-term starter.
Smith hasn't seen the field since as the 49ers have advanced to the Super Bowl where they will play the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
It happens, both in football and in life. You don't get the job. You don't get the promotion. You don't get the date. You don't get the sale. You get replaced by the younger, flashier golden child. It happens even when you yourself have done nothing wrong.
It's never, ever fun.
Yet there is something surreal about having it happen and then having to stand there for an hour and answer question after question after question about what it's like to have it happen. How do you feel? Was it fair? How are you accepting it?
For most, dealing with rejection often means introspection, some quiet healing and perhaps some cursing of the boss over a stiff cocktail.
For Alex Smith, it meant a star turn at a media day hyping a game he isn't expected to see any action in, everyone waiting for him to create a controversy.
"I'm not going to lie about any of that," Smith said. "[It's been] tough at times for sure, tough to accept, tough to watch, but we're in the Super Bowl. And this has been an amazing experience. It's a great team. I love being a part of it. I have said before, it's bittersweet a little bit, but still, it's been a great thing to be a part of."
It was a good answer. He had to repeat it about 23 more times when the same question was asked again and again.
Sports is big on motivational sayings and one of the more popular ones is about how it doesn't matter that you get knocked down, it matters that you get back up. In Smith's case he got back up from the concussion fairly quickly, but since then he hasn't had the chance to do much of anything.
Except, and this is the bittersweet part, handle this very public demotion with about as much grace and honesty as possible. It wasn't that Smith avoided saying anything negative Tuesday, it's that he seemed comfortable in expressing the honest frustration of the situation while maintaining a reasonable team-first mentality.
Everything he said came out like he truly believed it. This wasn't just repeating some rehearsed, crafted answers.
He wasn't lashing out because he was some superhuman without pride or drive, but because it doesn't help and winning a Super Bowl, even as the backup is too precious an opportunity to let slide by. If you don't like the possibility of being replaced, then don't play a team sport, he noted.
"Go play golf," he said. "Go play tennis.
"In my mind it's focus on things you can control and there was nothing about that I could have changed. Stuff like that happens. It's football. There's going to be injuries, it's a physical game.
"We're in the Super Bowl, this is a great thing. It's been an amazing ride. We've still got one left here. My role changed however many weeks ago and I've taken on a new role. That's my job. Now it's to stay ready to go and help this team any way I can."
Harbaugh praised the way Smith has helped Kaepernick prepare for games and his work on the scout team. Meanwhile, Smith says his lifelong ability to compartmentalize things has been the key – he can be frustrated and furiously positive at the same time.
And he's the first to note that being a backup quarterback in the NFL isn't equal to many bad turns in life. This was not some woe-is-me act.
"I still have a job," he noted – and a high paying one at that.
There were really only two things he sounded mortified about on Tuesday. One was the tendency of television cameras to focus on him standing on the sideline during games reacting to whatever Kaepernick did on the field, be it good or bad. "Ridiculous," he said. The other was answering repeated questions about a report that he's seeking a release from the 49ers. "I don't know where that came from," he said more than a dozen times.
Yes, he acknowledged, he wants to be a starter. He's 28 and in his prime. He played well enough to get the 49ers to the Super Bowl last season, but two fumbled punt returns in the NFC title game doomed the team. If he hadn't been hurt, who's to say San Francisco wouldn't be here anyway. He isn't lacking confidence in his ability.
That said, he insists he hasn't made any request because the last thing he wants to do is upset the playoff run.
"That stuff can wait," he said. "There is plenty of time for that in a week." Smith did acknowledge that while he hadn't planned it as such, in a strange way he's become even a bigger role model than when he was the starter. It's easy, he noted, to do the right thing when everything is going well.
The way he's carried himself since the disappointment, a disappointment that is more common than being the best player or employee, is something anyone can learn from. This is a lesson for kids, and Smith, a father himself, knows it.
So on an unenviable day in front of the media, he didn't hide from anything. He didn't minimize his feelings. He simply conveyed how he was dealing with it by being the best he can be at the job he's asked to perform.
It may not be how he dreamed his Super Bowl experience would go, but Tuesday was one impressive and important performance about how to handle the disappointments of life.
When the 49ers hour-long session with the media was over, Smith didn't bolt from the pack of reporters that never really subsided. Instead he pleasantly answered extra questions, many already asked ad nausea, for a few extra minutes. Finally a 49ers team representative pulled him away. He was needed on the other side of the field, where a team photo was about to be taken.
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"I had no idea [what to expect]," he said as he stepped away from the media circle. "It was all right."
With that he bee-lined for the photo shoot, where most of his teammates were already waiting.
He wound up taking a spot in the front row.
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