It's often sad to see just how much can change in a dozen years. When Aldon Smith stepped across the stage in the 2011 NFL Draft, no one could have predicted how his life would turn out. From the moment he stepped on the field as a rookie, it seemed like the league's next great pass-rusher had just begun his career. Surely, he would be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps even on the first ballot. A few bad decisions later changed his career forever and a dozen years after he was drafted, Aldon Smith was convicted of a DUI and sentenced to a year in prison. How did he get here?
Smith was a natural athlete while growing up in the suburbs surrounding Kansas City. As a senior at Raytown High School, he caught 34 passes for 570 yards and four touchdowns as a tight end but proved to be just as effective on defense by recording 12 sacks. The University of Missouri was impressed with his all-around athleticism and offered him a scholarship. After redshirting his freshman year, Smith played just two years in Columbia where he would particularly make a name for himself as a redshirt freshman, garnering awards such as first-team Freshman All-American and Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year while setting the school record with 11 sacks.
His sophomore year was quieter as he played in just nine games, but the NFL took notice when he declared early for the Draft. Perhaps he was drafted too high when the 49ers took him seventh overall. He only had two years of college play under his belt. Surely, the 49ers' veteran-laden locker room would keep him out of trouble as his natural gifts blossomed. Wouldn't it?
He never started a game as a rookie, but somehow he found a way to set the franchise's (and very nearly the NFL's) rookie record for most sacks in a season, racking up an incredible 14. With veteran defensive end Justin Smith often playing directly in front of him to block the potential blockers, Aldon Smith seemed at ease. His long arms looked like windmills as he whirled, twirled and swirled around helpless offensive linemen.
It almost seemed like a fairy tale. A small-town kid makes it big in the big city, instantly getting accolades and aplomb from so many people who only saw the spectacular play on the field. They couldn't have known what all of that attention and money would do to him. Money and attention affect people in different ways and Aldon Smith is no exception.
After barely missing out on NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and the Super Bowl, his demons began to surface. There was his first DUI arrest just a week after losing the NFC Championship. While it was a serious offense, the public brushed it off as a youthful indiscretion. The 49er Faithful grew more concerned that summer when Smith suffered several stab wounds after attempting to break up a fight at his party. It didn't help matters when he was charged and convicted of illegally owning an assault weapon. While it was later downgraded to a misdemeanor, the situation begged the question: What was going on with this mild-mannered man from the Midwest?
With his image merely bruised, Aldon Smith racked up 19.5 sacks in 2012, his external bond with his fellow "Smith brother" stronger than ever. He even nabbed his first career interception against one of the game's greats, Tom Brady. But after Justin Smith tore his triceps, Aldon couldn't seem to find the quarterback for the rest of the year.
Without their pass-rush tandem at its best, the 49ers suffered down the stretch, losing the Super Bowl without recording a single sack. From then on, it seemed like Aldon Smith was a kid left to his own vices. Over the next couple of seasons, as the DUI's piled up and the acts of general stupidity curtailed a once-promising career, the Faithful were left wondering: How could this happen?
The 2014 season was a rough one for all involved within the 49ers' organization. Before the team could stumble to an 8-8 finish, Aldon Smith would be detained in the airport, having become belligerent when a TSA agent alleged he had stated he was carrying a bomb. It didn't matter that he was cleared of all charges. In the eyes of the public, he was guilty of the greatest sin for a person of fame and fortune: stupidity.
The countdown on his time in San Francisco ticked faster as he was arrested for yet another DUI in August 2015. This time, it was a hit-and-run. Exhausted by his frequently embarrassing acts in public, the 49ers released him the next day. In the end, the shooting star from Raytown, Missouri had not only damaged his reputation but that of the team that had first given him the opportunity to realize his dreams.
His career plummeted after his release from San Francisco. Smith played for the Raiders in 2015, recording just 3.5 sacks, before being suspended for all of 2016 and 2017. Frustrated with his lack of availability and general acts of irresponsibility, the Raiders cut him before 2018 even began.
With his career in limbo, Aldon Smith's life was a mess. He struggled with his mental health and (possibly) alcoholism until he began sleeping underneath his car. It was certainly an unusual choice, but at the time he felt unworthy of the soft support of his lumbar and the comfort of his comforter. He had messed up too much to even think about having some form of personal affection. He hated himself and he hated what he had become.
But just before the COVID-19-laden 2020 season, Aldon Smith was reinstated by the NFL and was given a lifeline by the Cowboys. He made the most of his opportunity and recorded five sacks. While that number was puny compared to what he had produced just a few years earlier, it was monumental for a man who had been out of the game for the past four years.
His comeback flatlined the following offseason after he turned himself in when an arrest warrant was issued for second-degree battery. Having recently signed with Seattle, the Seahawks quickly released him.
So where did it all go wrong? The story of the prodigal son has been reincarnated many thousands of times over the centuries. Perhaps it was mental health. Perhaps it was alcoholism. Perhaps it was just simple irresponsibility that snowballed out of control. Perhaps it was all of these. Or perhaps it was none of these examples. But what is certain is that Aldon Smith, a once-promising star in the NFL with the world at his fingertips, will now have the next year to think about all that went wrong. What once was an American success story is now an American tragedy.