JUSTIN SMITH doesn't have time for insignificant things. Like, teeth. During one of his first workouts with the 49ers after signing as a free agent in 2008, the 6'4", 285-pound defensive end chipped at least two of them after crashing into a teammate. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula saw him spitting out fragments and asked if he wanted treatment. "Nah," Smith grunted, and then he chuckled. "Hell, I got a bunch of 'em."
This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2012 issue
Smith also doesn't have time for high-maintenance teammates. While playing for the Bengals, who took him with the No. 4 pick out of Missouri in 2001, he spotted another highly drafted rookie sitting on a stationary bike as practice was about to begin. Smith walked over and asked what was going on. The rookie mentioned a physical ailment. Smith turned to Cincinnati D-line coach Jay Hayes and, after his standard grunt and chuckle, said loud enough for the rookie to hear, "This job ain't for everybody." Then he walked off to practice.
Then there is self-promotion. On the list of things Smith has absolutely no time for, this ranks at the top. When 49ers p.r. boss Bob Lange approached him in June with a reporter's request for a sit-down that would pull back the curtains on the man whom second-year San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith calls "the last true American badass"—a boots-wearing, beer-drinking country boy who's tried hillbilly handfishin' (snaring catfish bare-handed); a player who only emerged as a star a decade into his career; a defender so talented he was voted All-Pro at both end and tackle last season—the veteran Smith looked at Lange from the corner of his eyes and gave him the grunt and chuckle. No dice. Lange got the same response seven weeks later when he asked Smith to do a national magazine cover shoot.
"Hey, I don't need that stuff," Smith said. "Let the other guys have the attention."
"For him to get publicity means he's above the team, and that's not him," says Ted LePage, who was an assistant coach at Jefferson City (Mo.) High when Smith was a standout defensive end and tight end there in the 1990s. "The team has always come before anything else with him."
For a guy who hates the spotlight, Smith, 32, sure dominates it on Sundays. Last year, in his 11th NFL season, he played 91% of the Niners' defensive snaps, a remarkable figure at such a demanding position. He can do so because he's as strong at the end of games as he is at the beginning. Smith isn't athletic in the sense of being limber or agile, but he's fast and relentless, qualities that repeatedly show up on last season's game tapes. Like when he forced a fumble 17 yards downfield against fleet Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin on a screen in a 24--23 Week 4 win. Or batted away an Eli Manning pass on fourth down to preserve a 27--20 defeat of the Giants in Week 10. Or steamrolled an offensive lineman to pull down Saints QB Drew Brees with one arm and force an incompletion in a 36--32 NFC divisional-round victory.
It's not a reach to say that the 49ers wouldn't have made the postseason for the first time in nine years and advanced to the conference championship game without Justin Smith. Tomsula calls him a multiplier—meaning he sets the example that everyone else tries to follow.
HE BEGINS training for the next season no later than a week after his final game, and he works the phones as hard as he does his body to ensure that teammates join him. Smith's regimen is the stuff of legend, not so much because of the type of exercises he does or amount of weight he uses—it's because he never lets up, sometimes slipping silently behind his training partners to vomit from overexertion. Last year during the lockout, when players were prohibited from having contact with teams or using their facilities, Niners offensive lineman Adam Snyder accepted Smith's offer to work out together. The 6'6" Snyder, who had played his first six seasons at around 325 pounds, wanted to shed a little weight while adding strength.
"Next thing you know I'm 290 pounds and stronger than I've ever been," says the 30-year-old Snyder, now with the Cardinals. "The way he works, I can't even put it into words. We're only a few years apart, but you see him do what he does and you think, Man, I can do that. It just pushes you."
Smith is a throwback who loves boots and blue jeans as much as he loathes ties and sport coats. Fittingly, the gym rat met his wife, Kerri, who was a varsity long-distance runner, in the weight room at Missouri. (They have two boys.) While he prefers Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, he won't hit the mute button if Waka Flocka or Lil Wayne is filling the locker room.
"He was a great teammate, a phenomenal teammate," says Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, who was with him from 2003 to '07 in Cincinnati. "Wherever his place was in the locker room, whatever chair he was sitting in, guys would gravitate toward him. He was so funny and got along with guys from every background. Just a great dude. He was respected because he treated everyone the same and worked so hard."
Smith's work ethic traces back to his early youth. His father, Dave, owned a 1,200-acre cattle ranch outside Jefferson City. Dave would rise early each morning to put feed in five-gallon buckets and load them on a flatbed before heading out to the herd. Three-year-old Justin wanted to be in the middle of things and would grab a bucket and raise it toward the back of the truck.
"Sometimes it would fall back and his head and face would covered by feed," says Dave. "He'd get upset because, even then, he wanted to be the strongest."
Justin bordered on obsessive when it came to pushing himself physically. Instead of cutting the grass with a self-propelled mower, he'd use a push mower because it provided a workout. In high school he and his buddies would make money by loading, unloading and stacking 70-pound bales of hay in Missouri's summer steam bath.
"That's about as hard a work as you will do," says LePage. "Many times it's dusty and dirty and hot, just good old manual labor at its best. When you're done, you know you've done a day's work."
SMITH APPROACHES football with the same zest, which is why he struggled in his first Pro Bowl, after the 2009 season. At first an alternate, he was notified just a few days before the game that a spot had opened for him. When he reached Miami the players told him full speed was not allowed. The idea was to take it easy so no one would get hurt.
On his first snap Smith, who'd waited nine years for an All-Star invite, bull-rushed the guard and put him on his backside. He was 4G on a field of players moving at dial-up speed. The lineman looked up at him in surprise, as if to say, What the heck are you doing? Smith dropped his head. He apologized and offered the player a hand up.
The next season he returned to the Pro Bowl, and again he had to be reminded that the game was more exhibition than competition. Again he struggled with it. "The Pro Bowl is the biggest joke the way it's played," says one coach from that year. "It's like a pillow fight or an NBA All-Star Game. You don't even have to shower afterward. I was seated near [Smith], and you could just tell it was killing him, the way the deals are made out there. He's old school. He only knows how to play hard."
One opposing guard that Pro Bowl was Kris Dielman of the Chargers, who ran into Smith's parents at practice. Earlier in the season Smith had been ejected from a 34--7 loss to San Diego after obliviously pushing away the hand of an official during a second-quarter scrum. Says Smith's mother, Ginger, "Kris told me the most excited he's ever been was when Justin got thrown out because he knew he wouldn't have to go against him."
In 2009, Alex Gibbs, then the Texans' offensive line coach, had his team stop running to Smith's side. "We couldn't do anything over there," recalls right tackle Eric Winston, now with the Chiefs. "He's so good it's tough to do anything with him. He's the most underrated player in the game, which is crazy to say."
What's crazy is a soon-to-be 33-year-old playing nine out of every 10 snaps for a full season, at a position where he is constantly pounded on, and still dominating. The 49ers ranked No. 1 against the run in 2011 and No. 2 in points allowed. Smith was the linchpin. He plays on the right end in San Francisco's fluid 3--4 scheme (hence the Pro Bowl votes at tackle) and consistently occupies two blockers, if not three, so that the linebackers can flow and make plays. Teammates and opponents alike call him "country strong," meaning he has tremendous functional strength. He can toss blockers around like those hay bales from his summers in Missouri.
Smith has also become a student of the game, something that couldn't be said during his seven seasons with the Bengals. "He would get his DVD cutups and joke that he was going to use them as coasters when he got home," former Cincy defensive tackle John Thornton says. "That was Justin. Everyone knew he didn't have to know everything, because he was going to go out there and play hard and make plays anyway."
That batted pass against the Giants, in a victory that helped earn the 49ers home field in the playoffs, is evidence of his new penchant for study. With 37 seconds left at Candlestick, New York had fourth-and-two at the San Francisco 10, trailing by seven. Some might have thought Smith was in the right place to knock down Manning's attempt because he was lucky or he had failed to push up into the pocket out of fatigue. But Smith was where he was on that play because he'd been in the film room during the week.
"He told us in the huddle what was going to happen," says Niners linebacker Parys Haralson. "He said they were going to get rid of the ball quick, so get your hands up. The dude is always thinking out there."
Haralson, like most of his San Francisco teammates, can't speak about their All-Pro end without smiling. Smith has a nickname for everyone, and if he doesn't, his default moniker is Stud. His sense of humor is sharp and dry. But sometimes it does sail over his teammates' heads, like during a game when he said an opposing tackle had his furniture out of order. "His chest is in his drawers," he finally explained.
Normally Smith saves serious comments for small groups, but in the off-season he spoke to the assembled Niners about seizing the moment, because this defense likely won't be together for long. San Francisco has all 11 starters back, but safety Deshon Goldson's contract expires after this season, and four others—linebacker NaVorro Bowman, cornerback Tarell Brown, safety Donte Whitner and Smith himself—have deals scheduled to end after 2013. "I know with some of the guys we have and with free agency, we're not going to be able to keep this team together forever," he told the local media. "Even agewise, the whole team won't be the same."
During the lean times with the Bengals, who had only one winning season in his seven there, Smith consoled himself by saying he'd played as hard as he could. It wasn't that he accepted losing, but he needed a way to cope with it. In San Francisco he has a team capable of winning the Super Bowl, which is why last season's loss in the conference final cut him in a way no loss had before.
"You realize just how close you were," he says.
If the 49ers take the next step and win the title, he might realize something else: A little attention isn't so bad after all.
Better Late ...
Justin Smith joins the ranks of big men whose excellence somehow was overlooked until long into their careers
Although Washington made three mid-career Pro Bowl trips as a member of the Bills, it wasn't until his 11th season that this run-stopping nosetackle was recognized as the best at his position, earning his first All-Pro nod at age 33, as a Bear in 2001.
The second runner-up in the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year voting, Smith, 32, made his debut on the All-Pro team, where he was the oldest lineman on either side of the ball and one of four players to make it from the conference's stingiest scoring defense.
In 1983, a decade after being drafted fifth overall, and nine years removed from reconstructive knee surgery, the 6'7", 291-pound tackle became the oldest first-time All-Pro defensive lineman when at age 33 he was recognized for 11½ sacks in a Super Bowl season.
Every Wednesday during the season, Chris Burke breaks down game tape for an inside analysis of the X's and O's at SI.com/NFL