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Wednesday, April 27, 2005 | San Diego football produces Super Bowl MVPs, perennial NFL Pro Bowlers, Heisman Trophy winners and high school All-Americans. But until last week San Diego had never turned out a player like Alex Smith.
Smith, the Helix High alumnus, was the No. 1 pick of Saturday’s NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. That’s a first among San Diego high school football alumni.
Consider the famous San Diego names who weren’t the first pick of the draft: Heisman Trophy winners Marcus Allen (Lincoln/10th pick overall), Ricky Williams (Patrick Henry/fifth) and Rashaan Salaam (La Jolla Country Day/21st).
Not future Hall-of-Famer Junior Seau (Oceanside/fifth), a 12-time Pro Bowler. And not two other first-round quarterbacks – Akili Smith (Lincoln/third) and Mark Malone (El Cajon Valley/28th).
The kid with the common name, Alex Smith, the quarterback from Utah who was drafted in the first round by the 49ers (not to be confused with tight end Alex Smith from Stanford who was drafted by Tampa Bay) has an uncommon football story. His father, a former high school football coach, once feared Alex was too thin for the sport.
“When Alex was in seventh and eighth grade, you wouldn’t have looked at him and thought he’d be a guy who would play football,” said Doug Smith, Alex’s father and the principal at Helix. “I told the (Helix) coaches Alex might have to go out for cross country. It was kind of in jest, but he wasn’t that big. He hadn’t started to develop at that point.”
Alex said he stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 125 pounds as a freshman. But he started to grow by the end of his sophomore year, sprouting to 6-foot-4, 180 pounds as a senior. Even then he was lightly recruited, choosing Utah over Louisville and Ivy League schools.
What happened? His football body caught up to his football mind.
The classroom mind and the football mind aren’t always on the same level, but Smith was a graduate student both in the classroom and on the football field. His grade point average was 3.74 while earning a degree in economics after only two years of college (he played his junior season in 2004 as a graduate student) and his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8-to-1 (32 touchdowns, four interceptions) is a genius IQ.
Alex grew up in a football family. His father and uncle played at Weber State. Doug went on to coach high school football and win league championships as a head coach in Idaho and Washington. John L. Smith, Doug’s older brother, is the head coach at Michigan State after climbing the ladder as a head coach in previous stops at Louisville, Utah State and Idaho.
Alex’s father, knowing the dark side of youth sports, preferred to have his son wait until eighth grade before he allowed him to play Pop Warner football. But Alex was always absorbing knowledge.
“Watching my dad and my uncle coach motivated me to play and to keep getting to the next level,” Alex said. “It was something I always pursued and strived for.”
Alex wasn’t even the best player on his high school teams that won back-to-back CIF San Diego Section Division II championships in 2000 and 2001. Those Highlander teams were led by running back Reggie Bush, now an All-American running back at USC.
But Smith caught up to Bush in college when both were among the five Heisman Trophy finalists in 2004.
In the NFL, a quarterback who has been drafted first by a last-place team such as the 49ers often takes a beating his rookie year because a weak offensive line is unable to protect him. Last year San Francisco allowed 52 sacks, tied for second to last in the league.
But Smith has a couple of factors working to his advantage. One is his advanced football mind that can read defenses. The other is he has the running ability of an athlete his father once projected as best suited for cross country.