So hauntingly, so tragically, he answered my question. “Who Are You, Aldon Smith?” came the headline above my column earlier Thursday, asking if the gifted but troubled pass-rusher would learn from his deep talks with Charles Haley, who battled his own personal issues during a Hall of Fame career, or scrape bottom like Lawrence Taylor, whose demons often swallowed his boundless talents.
Hours later, a lost soul was arrested again in Santa Clara.
Hours later, amid the usual police lights and handcuffs, Smith was busted in his fifth legal incident since joining the 49ers four years ago, this time on charges of hit-and-run, driving under the influence and vandalism. It was his third DUI-related arrest since January 2012 and his first since voluntarily entering rehab two years ago, which tells us he isn’t rehabilitated and still is capable of drinking and driving and killing someone on the road, among other dangerous possibilities in a life gone uncontrollably awry.
And hours after that, Smith was yet another former 49er, the latest waste of skill departing what continues to be the most dysfunctional and chaotic NFL franchise in recent memory, incapable of even growing grass in a $1.3 billion stadium while supplying an endless trail of law-breakers to Bay Area cop shops and commissioner Roger Goodell’s desk. The man behind this worsening debacle, CEO Jed York, had no choice but to release Smith, given the numerous chances the team has accorded him and York’s community-wide vow to keep players off the blotter after 12 arrests in 3 1/2 years.
“This organization has tried very hard to help Aldon fight his issues,” the 49ers said in a release. “Although he is no longer a member of this team, our support and concern for him will continue.”
Never mind, for now, how his arrest impacts a gutted defense that now has lost Pro Bowl-type talent in Smith, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Chris Borland. The onus should be on how to save Aldon Smith’s life. So shaken were Smith’s former teammates, head coach Jim Tomsula chose to cancel a morning practice. As a position coach who helped Smith become one of football’s feared sackmasters, with an NFL-record 33 1/2 in his first two years, Tomsula was his biggest cheerleader in training camp, hoping for a redemptive tale. The bad news turned him into Dr. Phil.
“It’s a sad day,” Tomsula said. “This is a day that doesn’t have anything to do with football. Although he won’t be playing for the San Francisco 49ers, he will be supported and helped, and he will not have to walk this path alone. That comes from our ownership down. We’re not worried about football. It has nothing to do with football.
“If one person out there reads this and you’re struggling, get help. Go get it. You’re worth it. There’s value in every human being. Get the help. Find it. It’s there. We saw a man fighting, working and trying. Once again, real life, everybody has struggles. They’re just in different ways. … From our perspective, from him, we need the things that need to be addressed with 100 percent of everything he has.”
Now you know why the players love Tomsula. He treats them with care, not like meat. Yet Smith’s case also is a crisis that demands transparency and ownership, not denial. And denial is what Smith offered up outside Santa Clara County Jail, where he was released Friday after posting $26,000 bail. Knowing how police can operate, I am open in most cases to all explanations before a case is adjudicated. But Smith isn’t one who merits the benefit of any doubt, not after the multiple DUI busts, the assault weapons, the weed, the rehab and, of course, his arrest at a Los Angeles airport security checkpoint for allegedly saying he was carrying a bomb.
“Justice will be served,” Smith said. “The truth will come out. There’s no DUI and I’m sorry for anybody I let down.
“It’s time I need to speak. I want everybody to understand this wasn’t a DUI. The situation that happened could have been handled differently. And I apologize for everybody I did let down, and I apologize for how it all played out. But as far as everything is concerned, it will work out how it’s supposed to work out. That’s all.”
He refused to answer a followup question and sternly said, “Leave me alone,” before pulling away from reporters and heading down a long set of stairs.
To where, only Aldon Smith knows.
Though he’s a free agent who can sign anywhere, no NFL team will want him, not when Goodell almost certainly would ban him for an entire season after suspending Smith nine games last year. This time, Smith cannot return to rehab knowing that the light of a football tunnel awaits him upon release. The 49ers tried too much soft love with Smith, apparently not wanting to acknowledge that his issues still existed and foolishly stating their wish to re-sign Smith for the long term.
In doing so the other night, general manager Trent Baalke was wishfully thinking as a football boss instead of peering inward at whether Smith has addressed his issues. Using such tunnel vision is a disturbing flaw for this organization in general. “He’s in his contract year. He’s poised to have a very good year. We expect him to have a very good year,” Baalke said Tuesday. “We’re going to work hard to make sure that he remains here.”
Think Smith didn’t read that? Think he doesn’t know that elite pass-rushers are making obscene amounts these days, with Kansas City’s Justin Houston setting the bar for with a recent six-year, $101 million deal? Why pave a lucrative future for him instead of following the one-day-at-a-time requisite for the disease? Baalke seemed in la-la land when he said, “Aldon’s like any young player. He’s growing up, maturing. You see that with a lot of these guys. Some of them get themselves in a few more situations that you wish they didn’t. If you asked them, I think they’d say the same thing. [I’m] really pleased with the way he’s handled things, the way he’s working both personally and professionally. He’s always been a great teammate. He’s always had an excellent work ethic.”
But above all, he’s always had a nose for the most alarming kind of trouble.
If only Haley could have known or said more Thursday night, when Smith called him. They’ve talked often, with the ex-49er imploring the 25-year-old project to not repeat his own mistakes. Haley’s were more disruptive in the locker room — choking coach George Seifert, urinating on boss Carmen Policy’s office floor, confronting Steve Young — but not until he retired did he receive a diagnosis of bipolar disease. As he awaited his Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio, Haley got the call from Smith, per ESPN.
A day later, he was as devastated as anyone. “[He] needs help, and I’m not going to give up on him,” Haley said. “I don’t know how it affects his career, but it’s more important about the man.
“He called me [Thursday night], but he didn’t tell me anything. All I know is that the kid has a big heart. He’s got some things to work through, and I’m just mad I couldn’t help him get through it.”