VAHE GREGORIAN

49ers should have shown more concern for Aldon Smith

Updated: 2013-09-25T05:31:38Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

Around 7 a.m. Friday morning, Aldon Smith allegedly slammed his SUV into a tree and kept his foot planted on the accelerator to the point where the tires were spinning and melting, a witness told the Sacramento Bee.

He was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana possession.

So, naturally, the Raytown High graduate and former Mizzou Tiger who had a franchise record 19 1/2 sacks last season for the San Francisco 49ers was on the practice field that afternoon and played Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, only after which it was announced he was “taking a leave of absence to address my health.”

Meaning he was going to enter a rehabilitation program for substance abuse — as soon as the 49ers wrung one more game out of him.

“Our opinion is if you’re sitting someone down and paying them to sit down when they’re going to seek treatment in the future, we didn’t feel like that was an appropriate punishment,” 49ers CEO Jed York told reporters in San Francisco.

Yes, the NFL collective-bargaining agreement and its due process stipulations to some degree hamstrung the 49ers.

But they were free to demonstrate both their concern and intolerance of the allegations by, say, benching him without suspending him, especially considering he was arrested for DUI in 2012 (the charge was reduced) and was stabbed at a house party where shots were fired.

Instead, the message in this insulated alternate reality is one of using him, really, as well as enabling and coddling him.

So it might be surmised that that’s all Smith has ever known.

But at least from the outside looking in, Smith hardly comes from an unstructured past but long has been one to try to stray despite efforts to reel him in.

So compound his apparent inherent inclinations with the too-much, too-soon dangers and millions that came with being the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and that’s a lot of combustible elements at play — elements that ultimately only he is responsible for and perhaps now will find ways with which to cope.

By the time he was a teen, Smith had earned extra concern from his father, Thurston, because of his lack of discipline.

This was a particularly vexing point to the father, a former Army reservist who could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The son spent his time “running around,” Thurston Smith told me in an interview in 2010. “I think that captures it in a nutshell.”

So he was put on what the father called a strict regimen.

“Every kid likes structure,” he said then, “even if they say they don’t.”

The two basic rules were “be responsible” and “get good grades.”

With that, the father insisted that the son have a 3.0 grade-point average if he wanted to play sports. But there were times when even that inducement didn’t help a child struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce.

The demands of football typically kept him from playing a full season at the youth levels, always fading “in and out” with teams, even Aldon Smith said then. And as late as his junior year at Raytown, he regularly tried to quit … but wasn’t allowed.

“I told him, ‘I don’t believe in raising quitters,’” the father said. “That’s one thing I instilled in him.”

So, too, did his coaches at Raytown, who wouldn’t accept his tendency to loaf or pout and found he could be motivated by being pushed and punished.

When Aldon Smith reflected on this in 2010, entering what would be his final season at Mizzou, he spoke as if those days were a point of amusement now, all behind him.

And it’s not like much of what his father described aren’t rites of passage for about any youngster.

“I think it’s any person growing up,” Aldon Smith said then. “Even though I don’t (really) know you, I’m pretty sure you went through a period like that.”

By the time he was preparing for the 2011 draft and being probed by the NFL, it seemed to most that the immaturity was behind him.

MU coach Gary Pinkel said Monday that Smith had had “zero” trouble at Mizzou. When he was there, coaches said during his MU career, he had been seen as a player who acquired an excellent work ethic.

Certainly, the 49ers thought he had no issues when they surprised about everyone by plucking him as fast as they did, and those who’d seen him grow up believed the same.

“Success has actually sobered and matured him,” his coach at Raytown, Ken Clemens, said just before the draft.

Those words of Clemens, who could not be reached Tuesday, were meant in a different context then but have an unfortunate new resonance today.

Now, we’re left to wonder if this tier of success has had the opposite impact on a youngster who was prone to wandering, as suggested by not only the previous DUI allegation but also his later being named in a lawsuit that accused him of firing gunshots at the party where he was stabbed.

But just because the 49ers made a fiasco of this and sent a poor message about what they value most doesn’t mean Smith didn’t grow up with the right lessons and messages.

The choice he’s made are his own, including his latest and perhaps best ever: to enter rehab.

As he turns 24 today, with a foundation behind him and a bright future still possible, that’s a lot better place for him to be right now than a football field.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/vgregorian.

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