“The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
When I heard about Aldon Smith’s arrest a couple weeks ago — his third in two months — the first thing I thought of was this quote from the 1993 film “A Bronx Tale.”
If there was ever a player who had talent, it was Smith. If there was ever a man who wasted it, well, that was also Smith.
A player who once recorded nearly 19.5 sacks as a second-year pro and helped propel his team to a Super Bowl berth is the same person who once falsely reported a bomb threat and was accused of biting his girlfriend. There are few individuals who’ve played the part of both hero and villain the way Smith has.
Smith was the No. 7 overall draft pick taken by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, and he made an immediate impact, earning All-Rookie honors as he accounted for 14 sacks and 31 tackles — wildly exceeding expectations like the very 49ers team he had joined.
There were rumblings of character concerns for Smith going into the draft, but they were quickly forgotten under the weight of his fantastic play and the team’s success.
In 2011, led by an electric coach in Jim Harbaugh, the Niners shocked everyone by going 13-3 and coming within 3 points of defeating the eventual Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants.
I was at that NFC Championship game, and as the pain of the heartbreaking loss began to wash away under a rainy night at Candlestick Park, I remember feeling confident that we’d be back next year — only next time, we’d finish the job.
We had Harbaugh. We had Frank Gore. We had Patrick Willis. We had Aldon Smith! Nobody had it better than us.
Five days later, Smith was arrested in Miami Beach on suspicion of driving under the influence. The charges were eventually reduced to reckless driving, and everyone, more or less, moved on, attributing the incident as a mistake made by an immature 22-year-old.
Smith was even better the following year, starting all 16 games and finishing with 19.5 sacks — only one fewer than league leader J.J. Watt. Both Watt and Smith were in their second year at the time, and it looked as if the two would be responsible for the next great defensive rivalry in the NFL.
Smith established himself as one of the NFL’s most fearsome pass rushers, putting on incredible performances like his 5.5 sack night against the Chicago Bears.
As he earned All-Pro honors and helped (partially) finish what he started, Smith led the Niners to Super Bowl 47, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. In the aftermath of the season, he was listed at No. 7 on the top 100 players of 2013, and the NFL community began to describe him with adjectives such as “freak”, “unstoppable” and “human cheat code.”
In other words, many believed he was arriving at his peak. But no one could have guessed that this was his peak.
On Sept. 20, 2013, Smith was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence after crashing his car into a tree in San Jose. He played two days later in a game against the Colts in which he records a sack.
Smith checked himself into rehab after the game and missed the 49ers next five games.
Before returning to the team on November 10, he turned himself in on three felony counts of illegal assault weapons possession related to a 2012 house party he hosted, in which two people suffered gunshot wounds and Smith was stabbed twice.
He went on to finish the season with 8.5 sacks in 11 games and finished with two sacks in the NFC Championship Game — San Francisco loses to Seattle.
At this point the fan base and organization is getting worried. He’s still playing great, but his legal issues begin to serve as an off-the-field distraction along with rumors that Smith may be slipping back into the throes of alcoholism. Nonetheless, there is cautious optimism that Smith will clean up his act and have another All-Pro season.
In April 2014, Smith is arrested for making a false bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport, though charges were not filed.
Several months later, the NFL announces on Aug. 30, 2014, that Smith will be suspended for the first nine games of the season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse and personal conduct policy. He ends the year with only two sacks and 10 tackles as the 49ers finish the season with a disappointing 8-8 record. Harbaugh and the team agrees to part ways. It is the end of an era and the beginning of a decline for the 49ers. Unsurprisingly, the fan base and organization are on their wits end with Smith at this point.
On Aug. 6, 2015, Smith is arrested on hit-and-run, DUI and vandalism charges. He is released by San Francisco the next day.
A month later he is signed by the Oakland Raiders on a one-year contract. Hours after signing the contracting, Smith is charged with three misdemeanors related to the Aug. 6 incident.
Smith plays the first nine games of the season, recording 3.5 sacks and 21 tackles before the league suspends him for the rest of the year related to the Aug. 6 DUI arrest. The Raiders re-sign Smith.
In the summer of that offseason, a Periscope video is released in which Smith is apparently smoking marijuana.
His face isn’t shown but it certainly sounds like his voice in the video. After a woman asks whether he should be live streaming, he replies “They don’t know it’s me. It’s not like I put ‘Aldon Smith.’ ” He denies it’s him in the video but checks into a treatment facility days later.
After checking out of rehab in October 2016, he asks to be reinstated to the NFL, but in December 2016, his request is denied. In January 2017, the 49ers sue Smith in order to recover more than $300,000 he owes the team. A month afterward he is investigated by San Francisco police in a possible domestic incident, but no arrests are made.
In March 2017, he was involved in a car accident with an SFPD vehicle, injuring the two officers. Smith’s girlfriend, the driver, was arrested on suspicion of DUI, but Smith was only detained for public intoxication and was released once he sobers up.
On Feb. 21, 2018, Smith asked a judge to reduce his child support payments. Three days later, he became engaged to his girlfriend in front of Joe Montana, according to TMZ. On March 4, Smith was sought by SFPD after a domestic violence incident in which bite marks were found on the victim and Smith reportedly drank two bottles of tequila before fleeing the scene.
On March 5, he was released by the Raiders.
The next day, he turned himself into SFPD and was booked on domestic violence charges. He pled not guilty on charges from the March 4 incident. On March 23, he was arrested for violating a court order by contacting the alleged victim of the domestic violence incident.
He appeared in court to face the same case and to be fitted for an electronic ankle brace that monitors alcohol consumption.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he was extremely intoxicated when he arrived, and it was determined he had a blood alcohol level of 0.40 (which actually rose to .41 while in custody), and, as a result, he was taken into custody for violating a court order. For reference, this chart from University of Notre Dame states that a blood alcohol content of 0.40 or higher puts a human being at risk for a coma or even death. He is now being held in San Francisco County Jail on $500,000 bail.
This is just the latest noteworthy arrest for Smith, and it gets more depressing with each new chapter in this tragedy. Smith likely has a debilitating alcohol addiction, something he shares with 15 million Americans , but to pin all his issues on alcohol alone would be overly reductive. He has serious issues with making responsible decisions, surrounding himself with positive influences and respecting rules or law. His domestic violence record is deplorable and yet another piece of a troubling pattern of violence against women in the NFL.
It’s interesting to consider potential factors in Smith’s behavior such as the connection between chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and violence or substance abuse. CTE is thought to result from repetitive brain trauma and has been observed most often in soldiers and professional athletes from contact sports such as football. Harvard Medical School explains that symptoms of CTE include behavioral changes such as “problems with impulse control which can lead to aggressive or violent behaviors, or problems with substance abuse.” Smith’s history is consistent with these categories, but at this point, it’s only speculation that there’s any substantial relationship here.
It’s inarguable that he’s made horrible decisions and committed terrible actions that have disappointed mentors, friends and loved ones, but what has been lost in the headlines is that this is a human being in tremendous pain.
Aldon Smith may have wasted his talent as a football player, but that doesn’t mean he has to waste the rest of his life either. Let’s hope he doesn’t.
Rory O’Toole writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].