Even as a toddler, Aldon Smith couldn’t resist fire.
As the story goes, one day back in Mississippi his great-grandmother, Bertha, left him alone for a moment.
He seized the opening to immediately zoom across the room and touch an open-flame heater.
The heater scorched his hand so seriously it had to be bandaged for weeks, and left a scar.
The anecdote, courtesy of ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill in a fascinating 2013 profile of Smith, might be seen as the isolated act of a curious, vigorous child.
It also could be seen as something that would foretell a continual compulsion to play with fire, most recently manifesting itself in the Raytown (Mo.) High and University of Missouri product’s fifth run-in with the law since the 49ers drafted him in 2011.
In almost each alleged transgression, including the one that got him kicked off the team (he was accused last week by Santa Clara police of drunken driving, hit and run and vandalism), Smith has invoked some form of plausible deniability and/or suggested the incident would make for a new beginning.
In this instance, he said: “Justice will be served. The truth will come out. There’s no DUI … I want everybody to understand the situation that happened could have been handled differently.”
By “handled differently,” Smith seems to be suggesting by someone else other than him.
That’s ultimately the common denominator in his downward spiral: denial over deniability.
It’s tempting to view the undoing of Smith, the seventh pick in the 2011 NFL draft, as a reflection of entitlement conferred by stardom and riches _ and multiplied by immaturity.
Maybe that’s part of the problem.
And perhaps he’s been emboldened by his survival through three DUI allegations, an NFL suspension, a trip to rehab, a confrontation with Transportation Security Administration officials and three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon at a party at his house in which two people were shot and he was stabbed.
In interviews with a San Francisco magazine for what was to be its September cover story, Smith was remorseful about the previous DUI matters but defended himself on other issues.
“I don’t know how someone who winds up getting stabbed ends up as the bad guy,” he said, offering an account of the TSA incident that contradicted the agency’s report.
Last year, Smith told CSN Bay Area that being a father to a 17-month-old son, Aulis, had changed his perspective.
“Anybody who has a kid, it’ll change your life,” Smith said. “Somebody who looks up to you and you see the effect you have on his life and how important you are to him … It makes you make decisions and you think twice about things.”
Whatever justifications or explanations he might have, whatever he says about seeing the light, the pattern and bigger picture say something frightening.
Whether it’s Smith crying for help that he can’t quite get, or whether he simply isn’t able to learn from his mistakes, nothing seems to be making him change his ways.
Ways that are leading him on a path of self-destruction with no end in sight.
Instead of being scared straight by all that he’s put himself through, he apparently can’t help himself.
This is no debate about the good and bad in Smith, who of course has plenty of redeeming attributes.
This is about someone who by all indications has to be saved from himself.
“Aldon, he’s part of our family, so I’m going to get a hold of him this week,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Saturday. “We feel for him, and I want him to just get healthy again and get back going.
“Obviously, it breaks my heart when I hear something like that. I’m praying for him, and hopefully he can get some help to get better.”
Pinkel reiterated his stance from 2013, when he said that Smith had “zero” behavioral issues when he was at MU.
Indeed, little that’s known of Smith suggested the recklessness ahead.
Attempts to reach his father, Thurston, and his mother, Kembrya, were unsuccessful, but the portrait of him before he went to Missouri was less of a rogue than a typical adolescent prone to aimlessness.
By the time he was a teen in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the family moved when Smith was about 2, Thurston Smith had grown concerned about his son’s lack of discipline.
Aldon spent too much time “running around,” Thurston Smith told me in a 2010 interview, and vaguely added, “I think that captures it in a nutshell.”
Or as Aldon Smith put it then: “I think it’s any person growing up. Even though I don’t [really] know you, I’m pretty sure you went through a period like that.”
Thurston Smith, a former Army reservist, put in place what he called “strict discipline” when Aldon came to live with him in Raytown after the parents split up.
“Every kid likes structure,” the father said then, “even if they say they don’t.”
Still, it took work, and it didn’t always take.
Despite his father’s insistence that Aldon maintain a 3.0 grade-point average, Smith had to redshirt his freshman year at Missouri as the NCAA reviewed his high school transcripts.
For that matter, as late as his junior season at Raytown, he wanted to quit football.
“It was a transition for me moving to the state,” he said in 2010. “And I was kind of going through that period where I didn’t trust anybody, I didn’t want to be here, so it was kind of like, ‘Why should I play?’”
Initially, there was only one reason.
“I told him, ‘I don’t believe in raising quitters,’” Thurston Smith said. “That’s one thing I instilled in him. … I’m pretty sure in hindsight he’s glad.”
Surely, he was.
But now football’s quit him, with a lengthy suspension awaiting his possible comeback elsewhere.
And maybe the shock of being away from football is the best thing that could happen to him for now.
This no longer is about redemption, after all.
It’s about survival for someone who still can’t stop playing with fire.