NEW ORLEANS — Barely two months ago, Alex Smith stood alone under center as the NFL's hottest starting quarterback for one of its best teams.
One concussion later, he is lost in the crowd.
San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl media day this week, the hardest thing about talking to Smith was finding Smith. While the team's stars spoke on stages set up on the Superdome field, Smith had no assigned spot and thus wandered through the media hordes on the sidelines, nearly invisible and seemingly irrelevant.
He was given no lights, no microphone, no chair, no team escort, no big bottle of Gatorade, no relief from crowding, bumping reporters who wanted to know how the former star who had led the 49ers to the precipice of greatness could stomach this new view as a scrub.
It was his lowest moment. It was his finest hour.
Benched for second-year player Colin Kaepernick even though he led the NFL in completion percentage at the time, demoted to a 49ers footnote even though he led this team to six wins in nine games, Smith stood in this pocket of humiliation and did what all great athletes are supposed to do, but almost never do.
He took one for the team.
"It's tough, for sure, I'm not going to lie to you," Smith said. "But I love our team, I love our locker room, and that's bigger than me. You don't pout or mope. You stay ready. The good ones stay ready."
Make no mistake, Alex Smith is one of the good ones. In the buildup to this titanic clash between the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, maybe he's been the best one.
During this Super Bowl week filled with players either proclaiming they are best ever (Randy Moss? Really?), or denying reports that they took performance-enhancing drugs (Deer antler spray, Ray Lewis? Really?), Smith has been a breath of fresh humanity. He's the one guy who could be forgiven for being disillusioned, yet nobody has shown more devotion. He's been peppered with questions that allowed for a certain selfishness, yet nobody has given answers more selfless.
He has complimented Kaepernick. He has lauded the coaching staff. He has vowed to be ready if needed, an attitude that has remained steady in the 11 weeks since one of the most celebrated and controversial benchings in recent NFL history.
"I'm not really trying to be a good role model," he said. "I'm just trying to be a good person. I'm just trying to be a good teammate."
The Superdome will be filled Sunday with helmeted superheroes, yet none will be more inspirational than the guy who won't leave the sideline.
"No other individual could have handled this the way Alex handled it," tight end Vernon Davis said. "Somebody else might be going off the ledge right now, bitter and upset."
Smith is the leading man who shows up with a sore throat and is immediately demoted to understudy. Smith is the top salesman who misses work because of flu and is immediately passed over for a promotion. Smith is the epitome of the inherent unfairness that is present everywhere from the highest corporate office to the youngest Little League baseball team.
Yet Smith is the example of how the best weapon against these daily blows is not jealousy or rage, but responsibility and resilience.
"It's not your show, it's a different role, I've had to adjust, obviously," said Smith, 28. "But I want to be the same teammate that I've always expected my teammates to be."
The story is not just how or when he was benched, but why he was benched. On Nov. 11, one season after leading the 49ers to the NFC championship game, Smith had led them to a 6-2 record when he suffered a concussion after the collision in the first half of an eventual 24-24 tie with the St. Louis Rams.
At the time, in Smith's previous eight quarters of football, he had completed 32 of 35 passes for 385 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. That's right, in that stretch he had more touchdown passes than incompletions.
Alex Smith handles demotion like a Super Bowl champion
He was replaced as the 49ers' starting quarterback by Colin Kaepernick after a concussion, but Smith hasn't complained.
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