Friend's suicide tempers Smith's drive
Healthy, confident 49ers QB renewed even as he grieves a puzzling death
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Andre Dabagghian desperately didn't want to have that conversation on Aug. 10, 2008. It was nearly 11 p.m. on a Sunday night, and he knew his good friend, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, already had plenty of pressure on him.
Smith was fighting to keep his starting job during training camp. He was enduring tremendous pain in his surgically repaired right shoulder. The last thing Dabagghian wanted to do was drop this bomb: Smith's best friend, David Edwards, had killed himself earlier that day.
The job became that much harder when Smith received Dabagghian's text message and called back a few minutes later. When Dabagghian heard the upbeat tone in Smith's voice, he told his friend to sit down.
So Smith steadied himself in his Santa Clara Marriott hotel room and quietly listened to the details of his friend's death. (Out of respect for Edwards' family, which didn't comment for this story, Smith asked that the manner of suicide not be revealed publicly.)
Smith's heart quickly sank as his former housemate delivered the news. His body tensed. His mind raced. Smith heard every word that Dabagghian said, and still he resisted the truth.
"I was in complete shock," Smith said in a recent interview. "I just didn't want to believe it."
The football star recalled speaking to Edwards on the phone just the day before -- and failing to return a subsequent follow-up phone call from him. Smith is overcome with regret.
"It's hard for me to not have those feelings that I was being selfish about my NFL career, and I wound up not being there for David."
After learning of Edwards' death, Smith called his fiancée, Elizabeth, who rushed over to the hotel. He called his parents, Doug and Pam, who had come to think of Edwards as their fifth child. Smith also called 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, who immediately responded to support the same quarterback he'd publicly feuded with a season earlier.
And after all those gut-wrenching conversations, Smith woke up the next morning and did something that was stunning in its own right: He went back to practice.
"I tried to go out there but I just couldn't get David's image out of my head," Smith said. "I've never lost anybody that close to me before. I still keep a big picture of him by my bed. Even now, I still wake up every day thinking about him."
Smith's finding his way back
It's been nearly 11 months since Alex Smith started what has been the hardest period of his life. He's still finding his way back from that devastating night. He's never been a man who's let people into his life easily, so the death of Edwards was even more painful to accept. But Smith would be the first to say that something blossomed in him shortly after that tragedy. In the wake of the devastation, he's developed a clarity of purpose that might ultimately save his NFL career.
After all, the same man who produced disappointing numbers in his first four NFL seasons (19 touchdowns, 31 interceptions and a 12-18 record as a starter) has been turning heads during the 49ers' offseason workouts. There's more determination in Smith's eyes, more swagger in his stride and more confidence in the once-gimpy right arm that now feels fully healed. Even Shaun Hill, Smith's good friend and the man who's battling for the starting quarterback job, has been impressed.
"He's throwing it well," Hill said. "[His ball] has got a lot of zip on it right now, and his accuracy is coming back. He's looking good out there. I like what I see."
"I think my focus is in the right place," Smith said. "I've never been through anything like what I went through last year, but I've also tried to take the good from it. I didn't do it consciously, but I have grown up. I do feel like I'm in a better place and I also know that sitting out as much as I have has definitely made me hungry."
Smith's teammates and coaches aren't the only ones who have noticed the change. When Smith could have been focusing on last-minute details for his wedding in February, he spent the day before the event grinding through another rehab session and studying the offense installed by new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. He also used to be the kind of guy who took time to watch shows like "The Office" at home with Elizabeth. Now he's eating dinner at 7 p.m., taking his playbook to bed at 8 and going to sleep by 9 so he can be rested for the next opportunity to prove himself.
Smith's friends say they haven't seen this side of him since his days as a sophomore at Utah, back when former Utes head coach Urban Meyer said he was a third-string nobody with a football career heading nowhere. That kind of motivation eventually made Smith a regular presence in the office of former Utah quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen, where Smith immersed himself in Meyer's system. Two years later, Smith had a 21-1 record as a starter. He also had NFL scouts drooling over his combination of size (he's 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 217 pounds), arm strength and athleticism.
What was apparent about Smith then is the same thing that seems obvious now: He isn't going to wilt when the odds are stacked against him.
"I'm seeing the same attitude that Alex had back when nobody knew anything about him at Utah," Dabagghian said. "I've been waiting to see that confidence from him as the 49ers' quarterback, and I see that now. Alex really hasn't been this excited to play football since he was in college."
The question, of course, is whether Smith can continue impressing people when training camp starts. Hill has done enough to be considered the front-runner in this competition. He's 7-3 as a starter with the 49ers, and his inspiring play last season helped Mike Singletary go from interim coach -- after the team fired Nolan seven games into last season -- to permanent head coach in late December. For a team that has had so many issues at quarterback recently, it would be hard to overlook Hill's success on the job.
I still feel like I have unfinished business here. That's because I still know what kind of player I can become and I haven't shown that yet. Thankfully, the 49ers have given me another chance.” -- 49ers QB Alex Smith on his NFL career
Smith also is playing for his fifth offensive coordinator in five years, which means there is no guarantee he will find an immediate comfort zone in Raye's system.
He is such a reputed perfectionist that Mullen said: "Alex really wants to think himself into an offense. He wants to know all the nuances of it so he can know how to use it."
That desire to perfect an offense could make it harder for Smith to play with the same instinctive freedom that Hill displays naturally.
But Smith also understands something crucial to his chances of his success: Those aren't the kinds of issues that he can control. He came into the league as a 20-year-old who was so sheltered that he had purchased his first car just a month before. Now, at age 25, he has the look of a mature veteran who's eager to show the world what he's learned.
Smith has changed his throwing motion to be more efficient with the football, and former 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, also has noticed that Smith likely is ready "to play the game the way he wants to play it instead of the way others have been telling him to play it."
Added Smith: "I still feel like I have unfinished business here. That's because I still know what kind of player I can become and I haven't shown that yet. Thankfully, the 49ers have given me another chance."
When asked why Smith received another opportunity to compete for the job, Singletary said: "I basically wanted to see Alex and Shaun at the same starting place. I wasn't certain that Alex was at that place at the beginning of last season. I think he was trying to climb out of something. But I also think he has done that and he's done a good job here. He's competing for the job."
A valuable friendship
Smith would be the first to say that the climbing process that Singletary referred to has yet to end. In some ways, it might never be over. Smith had known Edwards since they first met as freshmen at Helix High in La Mesa, Calif. They didn't seem to have much in common at first sight -- Smith was the introverted, gifted athlete, while Edwards was a quick-witted extrovert with little natural physical ability -- but they bonded almost immediately. Since both were blessed with bright minds, they often pushed each other with sharp debates and probing conversations ranging from sports to politics.
Smith and Edwards became so tight that they were nearly inseparable throughout their teenage years. Edwards often could be found hanging out at the Smith family home in suburban San Diego, and that was even after Alex had left for school at Utah. (Edwards attended UCLA.)
"Calling David a best friend really doesn't do our relationship justice," Smith said. "He was more like an adopted brother to me. He was close to everyone in my family."
Doug Smith, Alex's father, added that Edwards "literally was at every important moment in Alex's life after they became friends."
That included a visit to New York City for the 2005 NFL draft, where Smith, Edwards and Dabagghian toured the town and waited to see whether Smith would become the top pick that year. It had been a magical journey for Smith -- he had received only two Division I scholarship offers before ultimately maturing into an All-America quarterback -- and he wanted his pals along for the ride. When the 49ers selected Smith first overall, his friends joined him as roommates in his suburban San Jose, Calif., house.
They were all living a dream life in those days. Smith was trying to find his way in the NFL, and Edwards and Dabagghian were his most ardent supporters and harshest critics. Edwards was even there when Smith went on his first informal date with Elizabeth. After Smith and Elizabeth hung out at the St. Patrick's Day festival in San Jose, Edwards invited himself to their dinner at a local restaurant that evening.
For Smith, everything slowly seemed to be falling into place back then. After throwing one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions as a rookie, he had improved noticeably under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner in his second season. With Turner placing him in a quarterback-friendly offense, Smith completed a career-high 58.1 percent of his passes while throwing 16 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions. The belief was that 2007 would be even better, as the 49ers hoped to vault into playoff contention after finishing 8-8 a year earlier.
It was a scenario that seemed plausible until Smith tore ligaments in his right shoulder after Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard sacked him in a loss on Sept. 30, 2007. Though Smith was in so much pain that he had to sleep sitting upright for the remainder of the year, he first tried competing with the injury. When Smith's play declined drastically, he publicly admitted that he was severely injured and said Nolan hadn't understood his concerns. By the end of the year, Smith was certain Nolan had tried to undermine him with teammates by suggesting Smith was soft. (Nolan, now the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator, was not allowed to comment for this story because of team policy.)
It was a nightmarish experience for Smith, who didn't play in the final six games of that year and ultimately underwent season-ending shoulder surgery on Dec. 11, 2007: "There were things that got out of the building back then that shouldn't have left. I think we both would want to go back and change that."
Dilfer is more pointed in his assessment of those events.
"Alex wasn't banged up," Dilfer said. "He was injured. That should've been presented better to everybody, or he should've been sat down. The organization sort of threw him under the bus."
What's also important to note about that time is that Edwards wasn't around very much any more. He'd taken a job that required him to work mainly in Iowa, and by the end of 2007 he was moving back to San Diego to prepare for law school. Edwards and Smith still spoke on the phone frequently. Edwards also made monthly trips to the Bay Area. But there was just enough separation that it was easy for Smith to think he could've missed something about his friend's issues.
Smith's friends now suspect Edwards might have been grappling with a chemical imbalance. He could've been living with feelings of suicide for years. All Smith knows is that he couldn't see it coming as he tried to stabilize his imploding career.
"I was concerned with football," Smith said. "I feel like it took me away from David for a little bit. He was back in San Diego. He was trying to deal with some things."
That feeling overwhelmed Smith from the moment Dabagghian informed him of Edwards' death. Smith had seen Edwards enjoying himself on two separate occasions that summer -- first at Smith's engagement party and later at a Smith family vacation in Shasta Lake. Smith also had talked to Edwards just a day before Edwards' death. There was no depression in Edwards' voice then, no reason for Smith to think his friend had reached a point of no return.
In fact, that last phone call is what pains Smith as much as anything about this tragedy. When asked what he talked to Edwards about, Smith said: "The whole conversation was about me. He wanted to know how the competition was going, how my shoulder was feeling, how I was doing. That's the kind of guy he was."
Elizabeth Smith added that her husband had a tough time forgiving himself for what happened after that talk. When Edwards called later that night, Smith ignored his cell phone, figuring that he'd return the call later.
What Smith ultimately was left with was the kind of tragic mystery that could drive an analytical mind like his crazy. The closest person in Smith's life had given no indication that he had lost his will to live. Edwards had left no note in the wake of his death. Elizabeth and Smith's parents tried to explain that Edwards was fighting something nobody could prevent. But Smith still blamed himself for the final result.
Said Dabagghian: "I was really worried about Alex in the two or three days after I told him about David. The perfectionist side of him was thinking about David, but he also was worried about what was happening with his team. You wouldn't find anybody who would feel sorry for Alex because of everything he has, but in that situation you would've felt that. Almost everything in his life was going wrong at that point."
Smith still managed to make it through those difficult days that followed Edwards' death. Smith's parents held a memorial service at their home three days later that included a backyard barbecue, which was Edwards' favorite event. Smith also gave the eulogy that day, although he initially struggled with the responsibility. While choking back tears, he told some funny stories about Edwards before reminding people to remember the person his friend was instead of the way he died.
"I basically said everything I would've said to him if he was still here," Smith said.
As painful as that moment was for Smith, it did start a healing process for him that would prove invaluable in the coming weeks. Even when he lost his job to J.T. O'Sullivan and later underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last September, Smith didn't let those issues crush his spirit. Football always had been his release when things weren't going right for him. Now he used it as a means of escape even though he was sidelined.
While rehabilitating his shoulder, Smith continued to study film and attend meetings. He also kept up with the game plans that former offensive coordinator Mike Martz designed every week. Players on injured reserve usually go home after rehab and vanish from the locker room. Smith decided he wasn't going to use his injury as a reason to distance himself from his teammates.
For Smith, losing his best friend had taught him the importance of not taking life -- or opportunity -- for granted.
As Smith's father, Doug, said, "Alex got to be an observer of the game when he was out. He used it as chance to learn."
"It was hard when I hurt my shoulder again," Smith said. "But you also do start to see the bigger picture better after something like that. I had a better grasp on life and what really mattered. And I wasn't going to dwell on things that were outside of my control."
That time was a breakthrough moment for Smith in ways that casual observers couldn't see. Instead of absorbing all the pressure that came with being a young, aspiring quarterback in the NFL -- as he'd done earlier in his career -- he learned the value of blowing it off. He stopped worrying about what the media were saying about him. He spent less time wondering who would coach the team after Nolan was fired.
Smith also didn't grapple with the possibility that the 49ers might dump him.
"I didn't know what was going to happen at the end of the year because there was a lot going on," Smith said. "But I also decided that all that uncertainty didn't matter to me. I wasn't going to sit at home and dwell on it. I was only going to worry about being the best player I could be."
The 49ers obviously saw some encouraging signs as well. Instead of releasing Smith earlier this offseason -- he was due to be paid $24.6 million over the last two years of his current contract -- they restructured his deal to a reported $4 million per season for this year and the next. The team's decision to keep Singletary also was a promising move for Smith. After going through those rocky times with Nolan, Smith so appreciates Singletary's candid, no-nonsense nature that he refers to his coach as "a man of honesty and integrity."
Alex still has moments when he needs to go through the grieving process. He didn't really get that opportunity when all this happened.” -- Elizabeth Smith on her husband Alex
Singletary also sees how far Smith has come in a short time.
"Difficult moments can make men mature in ways that age and time can't," Singletary said. "When Alex first came into the league, he was this wide-eyed kid who had a look that said, 'I'm in the NFL. Here we go.' But once you go through some tough times, your focus starts to sharpen and you know what you have to do. That's where Alex is at now."
Singletary added that he's talked to Smith about the importance of enjoying the game again.
"I told him it's a matter of feeling good out there," Singletary said. "That's the biggest thing he has to do because it's the key to playing well. Alex knows he can play this game. He just needs to put things back in place."
Smith admits that that process still isn't as easy as he'd like it to be. There are days when he'll be walking with Elizabeth and he'll stop to reflect on the loss of his best friend. There are moments when he'll look for a text message from Edwards or wonder when his buddy will come walking through the front door of his house.
"Alex still has moments when he needs to go through the grieving process," Elizabeth said. "He didn't really get that opportunity when all this happened."
But Smith has taken some important steps in addressing his pain. When he and Elizabeth were married at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, they gave a tribute to Edwards.
Shortly after dinner arrived, they glanced briefly at each other through tears.
"We said we'd had a lot of weight to carry, but we also said it was time to start over," said Elizabeth, who also had an uncle die recently.
"This is a new year, a new season and a new start. There may be people who aren't with us any longer. But we also have to move forward."
It's that belief that is so apparent in Smith today.
He knows that his career with the 49ers remains up in the air. He realizes that all these good vibes won't mean anything if he can't keep turning heads in training camp. But Smith also understands something just as critical: His world will not implode if Shaun Hill is the 49ers' starting quarterback this season.
That's because Smith already has won a bigger battle -- the kind that ultimately made him a stronger person overall.
Said Dilfer: "Everybody can see that he's a different person now. Losing David and getting married have hardened him as a man in a good way. Now he's a guy who will draw a line in the sand and tell you when he thinks something is bulls---. That's something you need if you're going to be an NFL quarterback."
"My focus is definitely in the right place," Smith said. "There are a lot of peripheral things that you have to deal with in this league, and I dealt with a lot of them when I came in. It's everything from being on your own to facing the media. But I'm at a point where I'm not going to let anything distract me. I know who I am. And I know where I want to go."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.