RENTON, WA - Wrapping up his first week of practice as a member of the Seahawks on Saturday, defensive end Aldon Smith has been a figure of uncertainty this offseason. Returning in 2020 following a four-year hiatus from the game of football as the result of a string of off-the-field incidents, capped off by charges of domestic violence in 2018, Smith is likely on his final chance to play professional football—a chance that may have already been squandered.
After more than a year's time spent courting him, the Seahawks finally signed Smith to a one-year deal on April 15. But just four days later, a warrant was issued for his arrest in the St. Bernard Parish of Chalmette, Louisiana. Turning himself in on April 21, Smith was arrested for second-degree battery following a physical altercation between him and an individual who, per the Criminal Investigations Bureau, claimed to be an acquaintance of his.
Smith was scheduled to have his arraignment held on July 14, but it has since been delayed until August 24. This allowed him to participate in the team's training camp, though his availability past that date is very much up in the air. On Wednesday, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll downplayed any potential complications that could create for the team down the road, maintaining their commitment to helping Smith keep his life on the right track.
Following Saturday's practice, he reiterated—and expanded upon—that sentiment when asked about Smith's history of alcohol abuse.
"We've been very upfront about our willingness to support," Carroll said of the team's communication with Smith. "The efforts that we've made to organize the time that he's been here, to make use of the support that he already brings with him and the background. He knows what he's into, he knows what this is all about. And so, we're gonna be there for him, we're gonna look after him—he's one of us. So he's gonna get everything we've got, every step of the way."
In speaking with the media himself, Smith declined to comment on his ongoing legal situation. Keeping his answers short and concise at first, he eventually spoke on what he believes his time away from football taught him.
"I learned a lot," Smith stated. "Football is an opportunity that a lot of people don't get, and when you get opportunities in life you should make the best of them. You know, there's a lot of people who wish that they could play this game. I'm glad that I just got a chance to be able to do the things that I needed to do to get, you know, mentally right that I could be in a position that when I came back, I could be focused and give it what I need to give it to play."
On a quest for self-improvement, Smith attributes the progress he feels he's made to "a tremendous support staff." But the biggest step, he says, was opening himself up to that support in the first place.
"For me," Smith began. "It was just making myself vulnerable and being willing to trust and lean on the people, you know? I've always people that were there but I would always try to carry everything on my shoulders. So letting people help me and accepting that help was a major game-changer."
Carroll says that's been evident in his experience with Smith.
"He did demonstrate vulnerability in that he was very open and very upfront," Carroll noted. "And he said, 'I need some work right now. I need some help right now and it's gonna take me a while to get this done, that done.' He was not trying to cover for himself, you know? And he didn't pull any punches on it at all. ... I think he deserves all the support in the world to show that he can make this and so that's what we're gonna do. We're gonna compete like crazy to do that."
The Missouri native's indefinite suspension—which began in October of 2016—was lifted on March 14, 2020. Not even a month later, he inked a one-year contract to play for the Cowboys, for whom he posted 48 combined tackles and 5.0 sacks on 20 pressures.
"It was a blessing," Smith reflected on his time in Dallas. "I was gone for a long time and during that time, you know, a lot of thoughts cross your mind. You don't know if you're gonna play this game, if you wanna play this game, how you feel, you know? I'm a human and I deal with emotions. I think just having the people around me who are positive and telling me, you know, just positive things and then me believing that positive stuff. You know, that got me in a place where I knew I could play the game, I knew I was ready to play the game and I was blessed with the opportunity to get back and play the game, and I'm grateful for that."
Struggling to find consistent pass rush through the first half of the 2020 season, the Seahawks attempted to trade for Smith. But after talks with the Cowboys stalled, they instead came away from the trade deadline with defensive end Carlos Dunlap via a deal with the Bengals. Prior to that, the Seahawks were reportedly in Smith's market following his reinstatement that offseason.
Ultimately, well over a year's worth of work went into finally bringing Smith to the Pacific Northwest this past April. The Seahawks extended him an offer in March, but he didn't jump to accept it right away. According to Mike Fisher of CowboysSI.com, Smith had been dealing with undisclosed "issues" at the time.
A month later, Seattle brought him in for a visit. After getting eyes on him and speaking to him directly, the team once again opened its doors to the 31-year old and he accepted. Carroll credited Ken Norton Jr., who served as Smith's defensive coordinator in Oakland in 2015, as a leading voice in determining the edge rusher's fit in the Seahawks' culture.
"I wanted to feel him, you know, and feel where he's coming from," Carroll explained. "We talked to him a number of times before we made a decision and we did a lot of homework, lot of research on him as a person, his background. A number of our coaches have been with Aldon at other places, which really helped us. They'd seen him work on a day-to-day basis. That really was important. [Norton] was really important in this decision.
"We've looked for him to be consistent and for him to stay connected to the word, which he has done that basically. You know, it's really, as much as anything, you gotta feel it—feel that we're communicating well, he's talking clearly to us, his intentions show up. And so, we have all the reason to continue to back him. I want him to succeed at this in the worst way and I want him to come through and show that he can do what he needs to do. We're gonna give him every opportunity. The level of communication is very clear and he's been very open with us. And he's told us when things were harder than others, and he's been upfront in that regard. And that's helped us understand and believe and trust that he's working at it and that it isn't easy and it's a lifelong commitment that he has to make. And we really sense that the more we can support him, the more obviously we can be there for him, the stronger it makes him. That's really what our intent is here."
Many players with problematic pasts have walked through the doors of the Virginia Mason Athletic Center and quite a few have come out better men. But some personalities have ultimately overwhelmed the Seahawks' rehabilitative culture. And at the end of the day, it's impossible to ignore some of the track records they've looked past for the sake of potential success on the gridiron.
Smith's career was once derailed by several instances of abuse and violence, and the toll has continued to rack up even after his return to the sport. The Seahawks have chosen to stand by him despite yet another legal case—one that reportedly features damning evidence against him. As they have for so many years under Carroll, they've opted to see the best in a troubled individual.
Certainly, they've determined the upside he brings on the field outweighs the risk.