SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The legend of Justin Smith began long before he shoved a Pro Bowl left tackle backward into his own quarterback, as if steering a child’s push toy, on national television. It began even before he chased down a wide receiver in the open field to cause a fumble earlier this season.
It only seems as if Smith has just arrived, along with the rest of the San Francisco 49ers, after years in the NFL wilderness.
The 49ers will take one of the best defenses this season into the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants on Sunday, and Smith is such an important part of it that he earned All-Pro honors this season at defensive tackle (first team) and defensive end (second team) – the first time a player accomplished that – and is a leading contender to be the league’s defensive player of the year.
But if this season has finally been Smith’s coming-out party, one 11 seasons in the making – and if the game against the Saints was his star turn – then Smith first made an impression when he was still a high school senior, having just signed a letter of intent with Missouri.
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It was a fall day and the Tigers were practicing when Smith, already with a massive frame, began a long, slow walk to watch his new team.
“Here comes this hulking young man walking across the field,” said Mike Kelly, who does radio play-by-play for Missouri football games. “You could just see heads start to turn as he walked – ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
Kelly and Missouri found out soon enough. Smith, the child of a former cattle rancher who then went to work in breeding not far from the Missouri campus, was 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds in college, massive from his obsessive workouts.
Smith was the one doing pull-ups when he was not playing in his youth baseball league, and Kelly said that if football was Smith’s favorite activity, then weight lifting was second.
Kelly took one look at Smith’s technique and christened him “Godzilla.” Some of the 49ers call him “Cowboy” – Smith is built like a bull and about as down to earth, too – but “Godzilla” still seems more apt. There is little artistry about Smith’s game, none of the swim moves and spins that might free smaller players. That is not necessary for Smith.
“Just brute force,” Kelly said. “Like all of these skyscrapers, just knocking them down.”
As he did to the Saints’ Jermon Bushrod. Smith, who now is listed at 285 pounds, was not interested this week in breaking down the play that has come to encapsulate the 49ers’ stunning playoff victory over New Orleans on Jan. 14.
“That’s last week,” he said, reinforcing his famed aversion to the media. “I’m focused on this week. I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest with you.”
Every offensive lineman left in the playoffs has, though. On a third-and-17 in the fourth quarter, Smith locked on Bushrod and began to push.
Back, back, back, all the way until Drew Brees was within reach. Smith then reached around Bushrod with one claw and all three of them went to the ground.
“Unbelievable,” safety Carlos Rogers called the play.
It was a ridiculous show of strength, made all the more remarkable because Smith played all 80 defensive snaps against the Saints, and also lined up on offense a few times as an extra blocker.
He looked a little befuddled when asked how he managed to stay on the field for every play, noting that linebackers and defensive backs do it all the time. Reminded that he was a defensive lineman – read: gigantic and quicker to wear out – Smith shrugged.
“That’s how I’ve always played,” Smith said. “Probably wouldn’t know how to do it another way.”
Probably not. In the first month of this season, before few believed the revival of the 49ers would stick, they roared back from a 20-3 halftime deficit to lead the Eagles.
That was when Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin caught a screen pass and began to run down the left sideline. Smith had spent most of the day rushing the passer, but when Maclin took off, Smith pursued him.
Maclin runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds. Smith’s neck might be as wide as Maclin’s leg. But Smith caught Maclin from behind and stripped him, saving the victory.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called it the “defensive equivalent of ‘The Catch,’ ” putting it in hallowed company with Joe Montana’s iconic touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in 1982, the greatest offensive play in franchise history.
That a player such as Smith, who was taken by Cincinnati with the fourth overall pick in 2001, could be practically anonymous until this season was part of the point of an exercise Fangio engaged in during training camp. Smith, who finished with 71/2 sacks during the regular season, has had more sacks and more tackles in other seasons and the 49ers wanted him so badly as a free agent in 2008 that former 49ers coach Mike Nolan took him on a helicopter tour of the Bay Area.
But Smith has almost always been on losing teams, first in Cincinnati, then the previous four seasons in San Francisco. The greatest players have always burnished their reputations in the postseason, but Smith had been in just one playoff game - in 2005, when the Bengals were blown out by the Steelers.
Every year, Smith’s play would be forgotten by the time the champions were crowned.
So Fangio put Smith’s face on the cover of the defensive playbook.
“We just wanted to make a point here that he’s been in league 10 or 11 years, and he’s only been in one playoff game,” Fangio said. “There was a lot of talk about the great history and tradition of the 49ers, but my message to them was there was great history, but the tradition was lost. You can’t go nine years without a winning season and think you have tradition. We’ve restored that. And along the way we’ve gotten him his first playoff victory and we want to get him another one.”
And just like on that long walk in Missouri, Smith is turning heads.