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The Trials of Aldon Smith

Michael Weinreb | August 7, 2015 | Story Profiles National

FROM THE EDITORS: At 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 6, we were putting the finishing touches on a 4,400-word profile of Aldon Smith, the immensely talented, immensely trouble-prone linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers. The story, written by veteran sports journalist Michael Weinreb, was an intimate look at the 25-year-old Smith’s quest for redemption after a three-year cycle of arrests, punishments, and league suspensions that nearly derailed his career.

In a series of interviews with Weinreb, Smith appeared mostly contrite about his personal mistakes, which had resulted in two DUIs, three felony weapons charges, and an arrest for allegedly making a bomb threat at an airport. He had changed, he insisted, and to prove it, he permitted Weinreb to contact multiple family members, friends, and team officials who could attest to his progress. To a person, Smith’s inner circle believed in him. The 49ers franchise and fan base believed in him. This magazine believed in him, gambling on a cover story about a young man whose fundamental goodness would eventually triumph over his failings. And we were wrong.

Less than two hours after the final copy-edit changes were made to Weinreb’s story, Smith was arrested yet again, this time outside his apartment in Santa Clara. The charges—hit-and-run, driving under the influence, and vandalism—certainly sounded disturbing, but the actions underlying them were deeply stupid. Allegedly, Smith backed his truck into a parked car, had words with the vehicle’s owner, further damaged the parked car when he swung open his door, left the scene before police arrived, and returned 90 minutes later showing signs of intoxication. Though Smith vehemently denied the charges—telling reporters outside the Santa Clara County Jail that “justice will be served, the truth will come out”—it didn’t matter: Just hours after the story of his arrest broke on Friday morning, the 49ers released him. A lengthy suspension from the NFL was likely to follow. And now, both his football career and his personal life are in shambles.

We were as shocked and saddened by the news as everyone else who has followed Smith’s trajectory. But, with our deadline fast approaching, we had a more pressing concern: what to do with Weinreb’s story. Should we ask the author to rewrite the whole thing to reflect this new development? Or leave it unchanged, a point-in-time document representing one reporter’s attempt to understand this enigmatic, volatile, but not unlikable young man?

In the end, we decided to publish the article without alterations, believing that there are lessons to be learned from what Weinreb and so many others saw in Smith—and what we all missed. In the story that follows, Smith says, “I’m not gonna sit back and keep letting this picture [of me] be painted.” That picture, sadly, is now indelibly etched in the minds of Bay Area sports fans. Whether Smith can repaint it, and resurrect a life and career that once seemed so promising, is now entirely in his hands.

On the top floor of a SoMa townhouse that was once a brothel and poker den and is now the opulent headquarters of a real estate company, Aldon Smith lifts up his black T-shirt to show me his stab wounds. There are two scars, one up near his shoulder and another on his abdomen, both courtesy of a terrible night in Smith’s life—one of several he’s had over the past three years.

“I don’t know,” Smith says, “how someone who winds up getting stabbed ends up as the bad guy.” The trouble began when Smith, then 22 years old, cohosted a party in late June 2012 at his house in San Jose. The party, Smith says, was initiated by his roommates, mostly old friends from the University of Missouri, where he'd played college football. Smith claims that he showed up late and was hanging out upstairs in his room when someone, likely a gang member, had pointed a gun at his friend’s face. Smith went downstairs to break things up, he says, but the instigators refused to leave. Then they began to fire at him.

Smith ran upstairs, retrieved a handgun from a safe (which, police would later discover, also contained three illegal assault rifles), sprinted to the balcony, and fired either one or two warning shots into the air. Bedlam ensued. As more than a hundred people scuttled for cover, Smith ran back downstairs, where he noticed that a couple of the gang members were wearing vintage San Francisco 49ers jerseys: Joe Montana’s number 16 and Jerry Rice’s number 80. “I’m Aldon Smith,” he shouted at them. “This is my house!”

This pronouncement, Smith later told investigators, was meant not as a threat, but as an attempt to use his celebrity to defuse the situation. How could anyone wearing a 49ers jersey, he reasoned, want to harm one of the NFL’s most promising young stars—a pass rusher who’d set the 49ers rookie record with 14 sacks the season before? Shortly thereafter, the knife went into him. Smith confides that he doesn’t even know the name of the man who drove the four-inch blade into his flesh that night, though prosecutors eventually charged a reputed gang member named Steven Barba, one of several who allegedly crashed the party.

After Smith was stabbed, he and then-teammate Delanie Walker (who also, according to court reports, fired a warning shot from a pistol at some point) ducked into the garage, crouching low to avoid the continuing gunfire. By the time that police showed up, the scene was so out of control that local sheriff’s deputies called for backup from San Jose police and the California Highway Patrol. Two people were shot, one of whom later filed a civil lawsuit against Smith and Walker that was settled out of court (another lawsuit is still ongoing). When police returned to the house the next morning, Smith told them about the weapons in his safe: two Bushmaster rifles and an Armalite AR-10. Legal in Arizona, where Smith bought them while training, they are illegal, he learned, in California.

This was neither the first nor the last of Aldon Smith’s legal troubles as a professional athlete. He’d already been arrested for driving under the influence in Miami in 2012, shortly after the end of his rookie season. He would be arrested again in 2013 on DUI charges in San Jose, and in 2014 in a bizarre incident at Los Angeles International Airport involving an alleged bomb threat. Collectively, those incidents branded him as yet another delinquent athlete—immature, entitled, a danger to himself if not to society at large, a distraction to his teammates, and an embarrassment to the city and the franchise he represented.

In the process, Smith also became a symbol for the moral relativism of the modern NFL front office. When the 49ers allowed him to both practice and play a game immediately after his second DUI arrest (and then sent him off to a rehab program following the game), the action called into question the ethos of a franchise that has long boasted of the perceived integrity of Hall of Famers like Montana and Rice. For all of this, Smith says, he is regretful. The DUIs, especially, he sees now as stupid and dangerous. “Those were mistakes I made,” he says. “I should not have gotten behind the wheel, driving drunk.”

Over the course of multiple discussions held throughout this summer, Smith is by turns remorseful, defiant, anxious, furious, and suspicious (during one interview at his gym, I ask him a specific question about the guns in his safe; he vanishes with his trainer soon afterward and doesn't return). But he insists that he’s not the person his detractors have made him out to be. To this day, the 49ers linebacker—the seventh player chosen in the 2011 NFL draft, the franchise MVP in 2012, and only the third player in league history to net 42 sacks in his first three seasons—seems mystified by the way everything has unfolded. He argues that he has paid the price for his crimes: He went through that rehab program; he sat out the first nine games of last season for violations of the NFL’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies; and he spent 11 days in a work program and three years on probation for the DUI and assault weapons charges. He also claims to have cleaned up his personal life: In April he moved out of the sprawling, six-bedroom San Jose house, with its 9.8 acres, indoor movie theater, pool and spa, and multiple outdoor kitchens. Most of his former roommates are no longer his friends. He now lives alone in a one-bedroom condo in Potrero Hill and shares custody of his two-year-old son, whom he sees three days a week. “I’m downsizing, like, everything,” he says. “My lifestyle is just changing. I’m not trying to go all these places and do all these things.”

Smith, who turns 26 later this month, is now entering what should be the prime of his career. He is one of the few veterans on a 49ers defense that has endured massive turnover amid the contentious coaching transition from the abrasive but effective Jim Harbaugh to the amiable but untested Jim Tomsula. Because of that turnover, the Niners will soon be looking to Smith for something he couldn’t be trusted to provide before: leadership. The stakes—for both the player and the team—couldn’t be higher. General manager Trent Baalke, who has been one of Smith's fiercest defenders since the beginning of his troubles, now speaks to the player almost daily. In spite of everything, the executive still believes that Smith can accomplish everything that’s being asked of him. “He’s a very insightful, very intelligent young man,” Baalke says. “He’s a very good-hearted person. Deep down there’s a lot of good in that young man.”

Smith believes this too, and he wants everyone else to believe it as well. There’s a tale that needs to be told, he says to me repeatedly. The narrative about Aldon Smith that’s out there now doesn’t match the reality of his daily existence. It doesn’t reflect the pensive young man who’s developed a passion for the city of San Francisco, who’s deep into fashion and art and food, who taught himself to play the drums and the piano, and who had never been in trouble with the law until he arrived in the NFL.

“I’m not gonna sit back and keep letting this picture be painted,” he tells me. As he enters the most important season of his pro career, Smith is ready for the world to meet the real Aldon—and to prove that he's not the man you think he is.

Growing up in the Midwest as the son of a former army reservist, Smith was an intermittently difficult kid who struggled amid changing circumstances. When he was two years old, his family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and soon afterward his parents split up. Smith remained with his mother, Kembrya, while his father, Thurston, relocated to Raytown, Missouri. Aldon (referred to in his family by his middle name, Jacarus) was in and out of sports as a youth, joining teams and then quitting, but by his sophomore year he’d become a star on the basketball team at Washington High in Cedar Rapids. When his mother accepted a job in Atlanta, Smith chose to move to Missouri to live with his father instead.

Thurston Smith was demanding, requiring that his son maintain a 3.0 grade point average to play sports and insisting, he tells me, that Aldon be “respectful” and “responsible.” Back then, Thurston was working an IT job in the public school system in Raytown, allowing him to keep tabs on Aldon’s grades and attendance record. (“He’s, like, a nerd,” Aldon says of his father.) As Thurston tried to impose structure on Aldon’s life, he and his son clashed regularly—in part, Thurston says, because they are so much alike. “You tell me I can’t do something,” he says of himself, “and I’ll show you I can do it.” His son, he believes, has that same streak of stubborn resolve that sometimes lapses into outright defiance.

The trouble that Aldon got into in high school was mostly innocent, his father says: no arrests or serious issues, just typical teenage mischief. In his spare time, Aldon taught himself to play drums and performed with the church choir. But, he tells me, he was anxious and guarded with people.

“The trust got broken a lot when I was growing up,” he says. “I didn’t really have a lot of people who were my friends. Didn’t have a lot of friends who I should have been hanging around with.” Even now he doesn’t have many close confidants—which has sometimes, he says, caused him to be drawn to the wrong crowd.

As an athlete, Smith was still a work in progress when he arrived in Raytown, but he blossomed soon after, playing on a very good basketball team and a not very good football team. He built himself into one of the top recruits in the state, drawing offers from several Big 12 schools and landing at Missouri on a football scholarship. He was 6 foot 5, long and agile, difficult for offensive linemen to block. Off the field, however, he was given to occasional fits of pouting and insubordinance. “He came from a single-parent household, and you always see some insecurities when it comes to that type of stuff,” says Matt Suther, who coached Smith on an AAU basketball team in Kansas City and has helped mentor him ever since. “He moved at an age when it would be tough to move, when you’re formulating what your identity is.”

So Smith learned to operate, as so many elite athletes do, with a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Forced to redshirt his freshman year at Missouri, a frustrated Smith dominated the players ahead of him on the depth chart during practice and stewed about when he might get his chance. Still, his college coach, Gary Pinkel, would later say that Smith had “zero” trouble while at Missouri and that his work ethic improved year after year. In 2010, when his Tigers beat Oklahoma for only the second time in 21 tries, Smith made a key first-quarter interception and returned it 58 yards to swing the momentum of the game. By the time he left Missouri, after three years, he appeared to have grown up and found himself, and he was seen as a raw but compelling NFL prospect. Even so, his character remained a concern: The scouting service Human Resource Tactics, whose reports are trusted by many NFL teams, noted that based on a personality test he’d taken, Smith was a “higher-than-average risk.” Out of a possible 10, he scored 1 on “interpersonal style, receptivity to coaching, and dedication” and 2 on “focus, affective commitment, and interpersonal style,” according to the report, which was leaked to Fox Sports in 2014.

When I ask Smith about that scouting report, he replies that this is the first he’s heard of it. The problems in San Francisco didn't stem from some defects in his personality, he says. They came about because he imported a “college lifestyle” to the NFL, replete with partying and club hopping and “getting more drunk than I should.” He found himself surrounded by people and locked into situations that brought out the worst in him. And he gradually became the risk that the scouting service had prophesied, jeopardizing a football career that otherwise seemed blessed with unlimited potential.

When Smith was smacked with his first DUI in Miami in 2012, it was, he says, nothing more than “a dumb move.” The second DUI, in 2013, was slightly more complicated: He claims he’d been drinking at a teammate’s house, woke up early to leave, and got into his car at around six in the morning. Then he passed out and backed the SUV into a tree, his foot pressed so hard on the accelerator, according to a witness, that the tires began melting. After a neighbor knocked on the car window, Smith roused himself and parked the car, staying inside. When the police arrived, he got out of the car and walked toward them—and “that was it.” His blood-alcohol level was 0.15, nearly double the legal limit. He was charged with DUI and marijuana possession, and suddenly his future with the 49ers was in serious question. “Just disappointment in myself,” he says of his feelings at the time. “I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen.”

The next day, Smith went from jail straight to practice with the 49ers. That Sunday he played every defensive snap against the Indianapolis Colts, checking into a rehab facility for substance abusers only after the game. Critics charged that the 49ers were coddling him, that the front office and coaching staff had entirely abandoned their moral compass in the service of remaining competitive, wringing everything they could out of a damaged young man before sending him packing.

In part, the decision was out of the 49ers’ hands—the terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement prohibited the team from suspending Smith at that point. But even if he had to be in uniform that day, the 49ers could have chosen not to play him. It’s a decision that Baalke doesn’t exactly fiercely defend. He does insist that he, Harbaugh, and team owner Jed York thought that they “were making the best decision we could for the organization and the player.” But asked to expand on that rationale, he demurs: “Whether or not we stand by that decision is irrelevant at this stage,” he says. (One gets the feeling that even Smith doesn’t fully comprehend the reasoning behind the decision to let him take the field: “That was crazy,” he says of the Colts game. “I’m a baller, so they wanted me to play.”)

Niners CEO York publicly defended Smith at the time, as did Baalke and Harbaugh (who was himself arrested for DUI back in 2005, while coaching at the University of San Diego). However, Smith says, they told him privately that he’d better figure out how he wanted things to go in the future. They couldn’t keep going to bat for him, they said; he had Hall of Fame potential, but they weren’t going to watch him fritter it away. At that moment, Smith says now, he realized that the people who had drafted him and were paying his salary were laying themselves on the line for him. He understood, too, that the public perception of him was skewed to the point of caricature—and that, somehow, he needed to begin changing that impression.

And yet, even after this moment of revelation, even as he began to reevaluate his lifestyle and seek counseling and advice from people around him, Smith courted trouble again—this time in an even more baffling fashion. In April 2014, he traveled to Los Angeles with a few teammates to attend an awards show in which his then girlfriend (the MTV talk show host Nessa) was participating. While going through security at LAX on the return trip, Smith says, he spotted a woman working for TSA who resembled someone he knew. When he told her so, his friends laughed, but the officer apparently was not amused. Smith wound up being pulled aside for a secondary screening, at which point his friend said, “They’re searching you like you’ve got a bomb or something.” His reply, Smith says, was, “You know I ain’t got no bomb.”

The official accounts contradict Smith’s version: According to the TSA agent, Smith asked her to “strip search me.” She said no, and Smith then told her multiple times that he had a bomb. Smith maintains that the agent’s account is false. “Nothing happened where I felt like I said anything wrong,” he insists.

In any case, Smith and his friends went to McDonald’s, waited about 15 minutes for their food, and then walked to their gate and sat for another 10 minutes, at which point TSA officers arrived and ordered Smith to come with them. Despite one officer’s report that Smith “had the odor of alcoholic beverage emitting from his breath,” he says that he hadn’t been drinking that day. The situation escalated, he says, because he was confused and incensed by the officers’ orders. “I’m not coming with you,” he told them. “You’re not telling me anything.”

The officers called in backup. Smith was surrounded, but he still refused to go with them until they told him why he was being detained. Smith argues that he had good reason not to cooperate. His friends recorded the entire confrontation, he tells me, roughly 90 seconds of which landed on TMZ: As a bomb-sniffing dog canvasses the area and Smith is led away, he repeatedly curses at the officers, asks his friends to record everything, and insists that he’s “done nothing wrong.” He was never read his rights, he says, and was put into a jail cell with an officer who aimed a Taser at him and insisted that he keep his mouth shut. Another cop was “trying to take a selfie. It was like a circus, and I didn’t even know why I was in there. So I was pissed.”

In the end, Smith posted bail, and Los Angeles city prosecutors chose not to file charges against him. But the whole unfortunate incident became another stain on his lengthening record, and another reason for local media to question the 49ers' enabling of damaged and disorderly players. But, even then, the team refused to give up on Smith. Instead, after several meetings between Smith and Baalke, the 49ers chose to pick up the $9.75 million option on Smith’s contract for the 2015 season. The 49ers did, however, restructure the contract to limit the team's risk. Smith has been receiving monthly “bonuses” since April, the Chronicle reported last month, and he'll get paid a weekly bonus once the regular season starts. None of this money is guaranteed; if Smith screws up again, the team can cut him without financial repercussions.

Baalke emphasizes that the 49ers set up “requirements that Smith was going to have to meet” in order to remain with the team, and points out that Smith remains “one bad decision away from being in the same spot” he was in before. While the GM is cryptic regarding the team’s specific requirements for Smith, it’s clear from everyone involved that the player—who appeared in a mere seven games last season, logging a career-low two sacks—has little room for error.

With the 49ers' season starting on September 14, the pressure on Smith is gradually and perceptibly building. This is his option year, his last chance to prove that he can be an impact player with the 49ers without being a perpetual distraction. And given that the Niners recently lost a number of starting defensive players to retirement, including fellow pass rushers Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Chris Borland, an additional burden will fall on Aldon Smith as one of the squad’s last remaining veterans. “I’m the old guy now,” he jokes.

The list of people who have taken a turn counseling Smith is considerable, including Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley (a onetime troublemaker who eventually turned his career around), the Raiders’ Justin Tuck (who has the same agent as Smith), and team chaplain Earl Smith. The consensus among those who have advised Smith is that he is intelligent and introspective enough to recognize and overcome his own failures—that he is not inherently unredeemable. “Aldon, man, is a very, very, very talented young man,” Haley told reporters this summer. “He has a variety of skill sets, he’s very instinctive. He’s just got to stay on the field.… He can’t allow other people to push him [in] the wrong direction.”

Still, there’s a defiant streak in Smith that doesn’t necessarily make it easy for him to accept help: “I’ve kind of done it myself,” he says, a bit defensively, of his rehabilitation. When I ask Smith if he considers himself an alcoholic, he shakes his head no. He just likes “to have a good time,” he insists.

Perhaps he’s deluding himself. Or perhaps he’s altered his life enough to feel that he has a handle on his drinking. “To the best of his ability, he’s trying,” says Earl Smith. “I’m rooting for him as an individual.” His agent, Doug Hendrickson, points out that Aldon has passed every league-mandated alcohol test he has taken since his sentencing on the weapons and DUI charges (the terms of his probation don’t prohibit drinking altogether).

Indeed, Smith says that you won’t find him hanging out regularly at bars anymore; now he's more likely to be at home, hanging with his son, Aulis, whose mother lives in Modesto. Smith repeatedly marvels at how smart the toddler is—“He ordered peanuts on the plane while I was asleep one time,” he laughs—and how much parenthood has altered his perspective on life. That new realization has led him to others: During his suspension, he began working with a handful of teenagers at the Boys & Girls Club, kids from places like East Palo Alto who had grown up under difficult circumstances and were dealing with some of the same issues of self-identity with which he’d struggled at that age. He also volunteered at a UCSF hospital, visiting terminally ill children. His own problems, he acknowledges, paled in comparison.

Smith set about creating a simpler life for himself: He says that he’s better off without the house in San Jose, without the friends who were dragging him down a dark path. Thurston Smith says that his son is “finally getting it.” He’s struck up new friendships, including an unlikely one with a mortgage broker nearly two decades his senior, Ron Fiore, who helped him negotiate the deal on the San Jose house (now being rented out). Fiore works with a number of professional athletes, many of whom, he says, aren’t much concerned with the details of their mortgages. Smith was one of the few who asked him about the numbers, about the business itself, about real estate development and architecture. They speak often about design and fashion, Fiore tells me. When they were at a party together not long ago, Smith sat down and spontaneously began singing and playing the piano. “Not many people I’ve met have that many surprises,” Fiore says. “I was blown away by how hard this kid worked on himself, mentally and physically. He literally has transformed. I think we’re going to see a whole new Aldon.”

I heard many of the same sentiments when I spoke to other people around Smith: He has grown up; he is still so young; he has a solid relationship with new coach Tomsula, who was previously the team’s defensive line coach. The old Aldon Smith was just a kid with too much money and too much house who drank too much alcohol, they say. The new Aldon Smith knows that he can’t be around the people who fueled the lifestyle that nearly killed his career. “Growing up as a kid, shit, you don’t think about that stuff,” his AAU coach, Suther, says. “I know he’s definitely shrunk his circle of [friends]. Unfortunately, it becomes harder to trust people when you’re in a situation like [he is].”

In May, Smith was the featured speaker at the Charlie Wedemeyer football banquet, part of a local high school all-star game that was played at Levi’s Stadium. He told the kids that they wouldn’t all make it as football players, but they could be whatever they wanted if they applied the lessons that football teaches. “Don’t let somebody else write your story,” he told them. “You can make the decision. How do you want your story to be told? What do you want to stand for?”

After he spoke, a woman approached to say that he reminded her of her son, who was killed at age 18 in a random shooting at a stoplight. She told him that she was a strong judge of character, that she could tell that he’s a good person. She was proud of him, she said. It was another of those moments when Smith realized how lucky he is to still be here with the 49ers. “I felt maybe I was going to get traded to a different team,” he says of the darkest days after his arrests and suspension. “It’s different than if you’re somewhere you don’t really care about." But San Francisco is a place he does care about. “The energy of the city is good,” he says, “the people are cool, the food is good.” Across the room in that SoMa townhouse, a Warriors playoff game is flickering on the television screen. Smith tells me that at the height of his troubles, his greatest worry was the prospect of being cast out of San Francisco. Hopefully, he says, that won't happen now. Hopefully, he'll get a chance to stay here and rewrite his own story.

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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