On September 13, Aldon Smith's life went full circle.
He suited up against the Rams for the first NFL game ever played in SoFi Stadium and recorded 11 tackles and a sack in his Dallas Cowboy debut. A little over a year earlier, that stadium was still being constructed, and Smith was minutes away, in a Los Angeles sober-living rehabilitation center.
Stepping on to that field last September was a culmination of sorts, the verification of an unbelievable comeback. But by any true and reasonable measure of success, stepping through the doors of that community down the street and choosing to fight for his life, without any teammates, coaches, cameras, or fanfare present, was more impressive.
His sack of Jared Goff was the 40th of Smith's career, but it was his first in five years. Drafted in the first round by San Francisco in 2011, Smith had run out of second chances by 2015. Numerous arrests and poor decisions left him essentially exiled from a league that his mind and body could no longer compete in anyway.
"I went through some dark times," Smith said. "When you're in dark places, it's hard to see the light. I know that might sound cliche, but it really is tough for you to see that there's a possibility that anything could get better."
When Dallas signed Smith last April he was less than a decade removed from one of the most dominant starts to a career football has ever seen and less than a year removed from homelessness. The Cowboys extending a contract to Smith in 2020 was a shock to the football world. And though it may have fit nicely with Jerry Jones' "second chance" philosophy, Smith's comeback can't be credited to the Jones family or Mike McCarthy or the Dallas Cowboys organization.
Smith isn't anyone's reclamation project. He's a man who confronted what was killing him, and he found the real him underneath it.
Potential might be what we value most in athletes. There's nothing we like more than discussing how much greater a young, already great player can become. In the literal sense, we're projecting their future; predicting what they'll accomplish. Subconsciously, though, we might be projecting ourselves onto them; hoping to vicariously enjoy their success every step of the way.
So we don't like it when they don't live up to the greatness we projected upon them. And we really don't like it when they throw it all away. That's what Smith was to football fans: someone great who made mistake after mistake until it was clear that his future simply wouldn't exist to us.
But carelessness is what makes you late to work or leave the refrigerator door open. What was going on inside of Smith was repeatedly ruining his life and hollowing out his self-esteem.
"It was like, [the world] sees this person with so much to lose, but he sees himself as somebody who's empty," he remembered.
If that sounds vague, what he was using to numb that feeling was specific: alcohol.
Back in 2011, Smith skipped his final two years of eligibility at the University of Missouri, and a veteran-laden 49ers team used the seventh overall pick on the then 21-year-old. He arrived in the NFL with the rare combination that every team is looking for: supreme God-given talent and a chip on his shoulder.
But a chip on your shoulder can only be considered healthy if you're trying to prove to the world something you already know is true about yourself. Smith had no idea who he was. There were past traumas he'd dangerously internalized, and things he remembered caring about as a child--art, music, animals (his first dream was to become a veterinarian)--were being erased and replaced with false identities he needed to survive.
"I was dealing with a lot of issues---demons, you can call them what you want. There were things that had nothing to do with football that dated all the way back to childhood. With the success I was having, I never took the time to deal with those issues."
He took cues on what people seemed to expect from someone like him; big, strong, fast, intimidating, on the precipice of great achievements. He filled a whole life and personality with those assumed qualities. It was working. And it was killing him.
"When you're in a cycle of constantly trying to be somebody that you're not you can only do it for so long," Smith warned. "To maintain that cycle took things like drinking or whatever. To maintain that image of trying to be somebody else, it weighed on me."
The things that everybody wanted from him--the things that he was providing--were doing nothing to solve what he was going through. Two years into his career he was on pace to break defensive records. In 2013, it seemed more than likely that he would have the type of career that we've seen from J.J. Watt, if not even more dominant.
"The outside validation was good, but I think I was in a place where they didn't even understand half the pain that I was going through so the outside validation didn't mean anything."
It might seem obvious to someone who has some sense of self-identity that Smith just needed to achieve a little bit of inner validation. Instead he drank himself out of football.
"I was one of those people who didn't believe that I could be helped."
Rock bottom can be hard to identify when your life becomes a persistent stumble. It wasn't like Smith had individual moments of personal realization when he was too drunk to function. Or when he was being arrested for driving under the influence. Or when the league was suspending him under their personal conduct policies. Or the continued lows that followed. "Sleeping under a car was pretty bad," Smith said, matter-of-factly. "There [were] a lot of low times."
But drinking helps you keep pushing off self-reflection. It was in 2019, when he was years removed from his NFL career, working at a car dealership, that the trajectory of his life came into devastating focus. Back when he was an NFL superstar, he could afford any car in that dealership. Now he was detailing cars, preparing them to go out on the lot for others to buy. "I was washing cars," Smith said. "I didn't even have an ID so I couldn't cash my checks. I [was] trying to figure out how to cash checks to get money."
It wasn't that he was ashamed of the job or that he missed being able to buy expensive things. It was that he was still young, and his physical gifts hadn't faded away. It was that while he detailed those cars, others were preparing for NFL games. "This is what I'm doing?" he thought. "I know I'm one of the best players in this league."
The contrast was stark and clear to him. Smith's life wasn't his own. He found some support and willingly went to an alcohol rehabilitation center. He didn't do it because it was the quickest route back to the NFL. He did it because the other option would only continue to get grimmer. "I was actually happy [in a sober living center] because I don't think I had a home to go back to," he said. "I was kind of homeless. At least I had a roof over my head."
Once he'd strung together a promising stretch of sobriety he found FOX NFL Insider Jay Glazer and his "Merging Vets and Players" (MVP) foundation in Los Angeles, which helps veterans through various hardships. Glazer also trains NFL players in the offseason. He welcomed Smith into his community.
A few things stuck out to Glazer: Smith's easy ability to bond with the veterans and players who had gone through difficult times and his willingness to talk openly about his addiction and the way it had humbled him. There was vulnerability all around him, among men who had been products of environments where vulnerability had never been rewarded. Smith was beginning to find himself in recovery.
Less importantly, but perhaps as surprising to Glazer, were the physical traits Smith possessed, even after his time away from football. Glazer had trained hundreds of NFL-caliber players. None of them had abilities like these. It was the kind of thing people said about Smith back in 2011.
Smith channeled positive energy and the momentum of his sobriety into months of training with Glazer, and he was shaping into something new. If Smith isn't precisely as quick as he was at 21-years-old, he is most certainly stronger than he has ever been. Glazer, being as connected in NFL circles as he is, was starting to speak up.
"I started to call teams like, "He's not the Aldon Smith of the past. He's that plus something else,'" Glazer said. One of the people who was invited to see Smith's progress firsthand was Mike McCarthy, a then unemployed coach. He left impressed.
But it was in those meetings in alcohol rehabilitation centers, in events with veterans trying to adjust to civilian life, in training with former players who were trying to recover from their own obstacles, that he realized none of them were asking him to be anything. He started to validate himself, something he hadn't done in literal years. He was proud of the path he was on, and he even allowed himself to be proud of things he'd achieved in his past.
The following January Mike McCarthy was hired to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. A few weeks later he announced his coaching staff. It included defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who coached Smith at San Francisco during his prime. After nine months of vocal sobriety and four seasons since he'd played in the NFL, the Cowboys extended a contract offer to Smith.
He wanted to sign it at Glazer's house and asked that Glazer's son be present. "I want him to see what his dad helped do," Smith said.
The feeling the moment he signed the contract wasn't necessarily euphoria or disbelief. "How I really felt was, 'Yeah I'm happy I'm signing this contract, but I want to show everybody who I am.'" He found his identity in sobriety, and he was going to get to take it with him while doing the thing he'd always been great at.
But ultimately, Jerry Jones wasn't the one who needed to be convinced Smith would be allowed to play in the NFL again. After the contract offer, Smith still had to meet with Roger Goodell and ask to be reinstated into the league.
"I was looking forward to the meeting," Smith said emphatically. "I wanted to just talk to him and whoever else was on the call. I wanted them to understand what I had gone through and where I'm at now."
Smith was reinstated into the NFL after 54 months away.
"Something that was important for me to get across: I struggled with something that a lot of people struggle with. It's not only substance abuse. It's just life. Life stresses. I want to be able to help out people and let them know if I can address those things and you can get at the root of what is biting at you, you can change your life or even make your life better."
The mind can be as fragile as it is unbelievably strong. We all know emotional pain, insecurity, heartbreak, grief. We usually take for granted the things that inch us away from those feelings--a friend or family member that's there for us in the right moment or a hobby or interest that resets us and reminds us of how we define ourselves. We also take for granted the things that can pull those negative feelings closer and closer to someone until they can't breathe--things like alcohol. Smith's mental health had been disregarded for so long that it stripped away any use for his physical strength. And there weren't many people physically stronger than Aldon Smith.
There are no identical roads for addiction; how it forms and how to successfully fight it will differ from person to person. But Smith doesn't need any time to prepare an answer for someone who is struggling or getting in the way of their own success.
"Your happiness should be your priority. Love for yourself should be a priority. You're a priority. You're important and you should be able to do what it takes to make those things happen."
Watching someone struggle with addiction or losing someone to that struggle is a deeply painful and paralyzing experience, even if you've never suffered from the disease. As of Thanksgiving, Smith has lost 31 people in his life to suicide or overdose. He wants to be a source of help for people from this point on.
His battle will continue every day. Recovery requires immense humility, and the NFL requires believing you're the best in the world. Smith will have to continue to strike that balance. Like anyone in recovery---like anyone in life--he'll have to continue to walk the line of caring how he treats people without necessarily caring what they think of him.
Smith returning to the league after five years away is hard to believe. That he might be the Cowboys' best defensive player this season barely makes sense. On Thanksgiving, he chased around the Alex Smith, his top competition this season for Comeback Player of the Year. Alex Smith, who was a teammate of Aldon in San Francisco, is coming off a broken leg injury in 2018 that required nearly a dozen surgeries.
The Cowboys lost the game 41-16 in a game that Aldon Smith described bluntly as "disappointing." But just being on the field, playing on national television on Thanksgiving Day is something Smith doesn't take for granted.
"It means a lot. I'm glad that I've been given this chance to go out and play, so I just plan on making the best out of the opportunity I've been given," Smith said after the game.
So what does the new Aldon Smith want to accomplish in his second NFL career?
"I want to prove that I'm the best defensive player in this league, if not the best player in this league," he said. "I can still accomplish that."
He says it with a little laugh. Not the type of chuckle that sentence might have triggered in some of the people who just read it.
It sounded a little like the laugh of someone who knows something that you're just going to have to wait to find out.
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