Alex Smith could have moved on at various points during his eight-year stint with the 49ers. But he chose to stay because, as a one-time No. 1 pick in the draft, he felt a responsibility to the then-struggling franchise.
On Sunday, he’ll return to find his former team in a new billion-dollar stadium, with a loaded roster and dealing with the weighty expectations of a Super Bowl contender. In that way, Smith said, his 49ers mission has been fulfilled even if he is no longer wearing their uniform.
“I felt like it was complete. I felt like we had rebounded,” Smith, now the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, said during a conference call Wednesday. “It took a lot longer than I thought, (but) we got the organization back where it needed to be and better than when I came here. So, yeah, in a sense, definitely. Didn’t have any regrets when I left.”
Smith said he’s flown over Levi’s Stadium – he and his family have remained living in the Bay Area in the offseason – but has not visited. And he doesn’t know what to expect from the crowd when he takes the field Sunday.
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After all, he’s heard the emotional gamut from 49ers backers over the years.
During a 2010 loss to the Eagles, he was blasted by boo-birds at Candlestick Park. Fans chanted: “We want Carr! We want Carr!” with coach Mike Singletary having to be talked out of sending David Carr, Smith’s backup, into the game.
With the help of then-first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, Smith rebuilt his standing the next year. The 49ers finished 13-3 and Smith capped the season with a dramatic shootout win against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs, San Francisco’s first postseason win in nearly a decade.
But when it came to Smith and the 49ers, the peaks always seemed to be followed by a nasty plummet.
The following season, the team was 6-2 with Smith as the starter and in the midst of his best statistical season when a concussion knocked him out of a game against the St. Louis Rams. Colin Kaepernick flourished in his first start the next week and Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick the rest of the year.
Smith was traded to Kansas City for what turned out to be two second-round draft picks in March 2013. The teams played in last year’s preseason, but this is the first showdown against his former teammates, coaches and front office where the outcome counts.
Smith said there’s no bitterness.
“I was so excited about (coming to Kansas City) when that happened,” he said. “I felt like that chapter was done for me and I was really excited about moving on to this next opportunity. I think because of everything that happened over the course of my career, I was so much more appreciative of how fragile the opportunity is to get to start and play in this game and, for me, I was just full go on it and going to do everything I could to take advantage of it and run with it and not look back. So, no bitterness at all.”
Smith always had the ability to control his emotions, something that vexed former coaches like Mike Nolan and Singletary, tough-talking, defensive-minded men who were accustomed to seeing more fire from their players.
His new coach, however, said Smith’s level-headed style will serve him well Sunday. Kansas City coach Andy Reid said he’s noticed no extra excitement from his quarterback this week.
“I’m not too worried about him in that area,” Reid said. “He’s been around a while. He knows you got to go through the process and then play the game. The emotions, all that stuff, doesn’t necessarily help you.”
Harbaugh once played golf at Pebble Beach with Smith as his caddie, which prompted observers at the time to describe their relationship as father-son in nature. Harbaugh called Smith a “lifelong friend” this week.
“I believe a trusting, lasting friendship overcomes all things,” Harbaugh said on KNBR radio. “And he is thriving in Kansas City, there’s no question about it. Now we look forward to competing with him. Now he’s on the other side of the field.”
Smith, meanwhile, also seemed more interested in the upcoming competition than he did past relationships.
“I haven’t talked to coach (Harbaugh) in quite a while,” he said.