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Cowboy Up

Posted Jan 11, 2012

Justin Smith is a big man, but it’s the little things that make him great.

Amidst the constant barking on gamedays in the trenches – quarterbacks shouting audibles, linemen making protection calls, the defense making alignment changes – Smith just listens. By the second half, he might pick up a protection call by the other team and relay it to his teammates.

Then there’s the practice field, where Smith serves as a player, coach and role model all in one. On Tuesday, rookie scout team guard Daniel Kilgore had the unenviable task of going one-on-one against Smith in practice.

A day later, Kilgore was still sore from the encounter.

“Going against somebody at his level is an honor,” said Kilgore, a fifth-round draft pick. “Then again, it’s a pain, too.”

One could argue that Smith has already won a pair of games with his right hand this season.

In Week 4 at Philadelphia, Smith hustled nearly 20 yards downfield before knocking a fumble loose from Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, sealing the 24-23 49ers win. Then in Week 10, Smith batted down a last-minute, fourth-down pass attempt from New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, capping a 27-20 49ers victory.

Because of these plays – along with his blue-collar attitude and work ethic – 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has repeatedly praised Smith as the team’s Most Valuable Player and the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Safe to say, Smith would much rather get his hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

“The locker room talk is, ‘We’ve had a good season,’ this and that,” Smith said. “But we’ve  got to go out and win some games.”

Trying to get Smith to elaborate on his season’s success is a lost cause. The last thing he wants to talk about is himself. He’d rather attribute it to “blind luck” or “rubbing his rabbit foot,” as he’s told reporters this season after his game-changing plays.

But don’t let him fool you. Without Smith’s late-game heroics and ever-present hustle, the 49ers likely wouldn’t be hosting the New Orleans Saints on Saturday in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.

“We’re antsy,” Smith said. “It feels like you’ve almost been off for a month.”

Now in his 11th season as a pro, the one they call “Cowboy” is arguably having the finest year of his career. Not only was he named to his third straight Pro Bowl, but he was named an All-Pro. Twice.  

When you’re voted to the Associated Press All-Pro first team as a defensive tackle and second team as a defensive end, you’ve got to be doing more than rubbing rabbit’s feet.

Not that Smith cares.

“He doesn’t care about those awards and everything,” said teammate and close friend Parys Haralson. “He just wants to win.”

It starts on the practice field and in the locker room, where Smith has earned something of a big brother presence among his teammates.

Whether he knows it or not, Smith impacts his teammates every day at 49ers headquarters. Throughout the season, his fellow players have consistently singled him out as an example to follow, citing his non-stop effort and drive.
Kilgore has especially learned about the game since going against Smith in practice. Often after a blown whistle, Smith will take Kilgore aside and give him pointers. Small cues such as feet position and hand placement can make a world of difference in the trenches, and Smith can read offensive linemen better than most.

When it comes to game time, Smith has become regular recipient of double teams. Holding the blocks of two supersized linemen isn’t a glamorous job, but Smith is one of the best in the business. It also helps out his teammates, as players like Aldon Smith have more room to roam and wreak havoc on the quarterback.

It’s those small things that never show up in a box score or highlight reel that make Justin Smith one of the game’s greats, even if he isn’t a household name.

“Most people will never know,” Haralson said. “But for the people are out there with him – the people that matter – the players, the guys around him, we understand how big a part that he is for this team.”

About the only thing tougher than Justin Smith is trying to get him off the field. Dating back to his rookie season in 2001, Justin Smith has started in 171 consecutive games. This season, Justin Smith has only been off the field for a handful of plays, a rarity in today’s game from a defensive lineman.

“He’s a monster,” Kilgore said. “You look at the guy and you’re like, ‘Golly, this guy’s in his 11th year in the NFL?’ It’s unbelievable.”

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