How is it that the toughest guy in the locker room is also the funniest character? It’s because Justin Smith, 33, has seen it all in his 13 seasons in the National Football League. The four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle and defensive co-captain of the San Francisco 49ers knows the commitment level it takes to succeed in a rugged business, but he also understands the proper levity needed to enjoy such a fierce occupation.
Smith, a first-team All-Pro, is loved by his teammates and coaches. Outside of the locker room, Smith is known as a beast on the football field. He knocks down offensive linemen like a wrecking ball taking down a 20-story building. He’s relentless when it comes to tackling ball carriers, too. Smith is all about the game of football and playing it the way it’s intended to be played – tough and smart.
Smith’s legacy with the 49ers is one of importance. He signed with San Francisco as a free agent in 2008 and helped turn the tide from losing seasons to a Super Bowl run in 2012. Smith’s physicality and leadership are some of the key reasons why the 49ers have returned to their standing as one of the preeminent football franchises in the NFL.
In San Francisco, Smith has been at the forefront of a hard-working culture where players train all offseason to see results in the regular season. Smith is at the team’s Santa Clara facility so often, he might be paying rent. Because of the dedication, the hard-working defensive lineman is arguably the most respected player in the locker room. Teammates gravitate towards Smith to hear his wise words and his jokes. They all enjoy his company. Smith keeps it real and the locker room appreciates it.
The star defensive lineman is one of a kind. He negotiated his own two-year extension prior to the 2013 season. Smith is all about doing things on his own terms and being is own man. So in that spirit, Gameday Magazine caught up with the feared defensive tackle over breakfast in a St. Louis hotel. Smith’s focus is half on eating his omelet, but mostly on dinner, an NFC West matchup with the Rams.
Smith’s not looking to dive deep into his legacy or even his long list of accomplishments in San Francisco. It’s understandable. When you’ve reached the level Smith has, the commitment to the game takes precedence. Smith has declined an offer to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, a pinnacle moment for many professional athletes. That’s just not who he is. The blue-collar lineman from Holts Summit, Mo., is comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t need outside recognition. In his mind, all that matters is winning.
At the moment, Smith is determined to get the 49ers back in the playoffs and finish the mission of winning a Super Bowl. For a player who played one playoff game in his first nine seasons, Smith’s passion for success is at an all-time high. But for a brief window of time at a late-September breakfast, Smith is able to reflect on his own development, share insight on his teammates, coaches and his biggest fans, his three sons.
Here’s the conversation.
Jimmy T helps me with understanding formations, how the offense is trying to attack you, those types of things. It can help you anticipate things a little bit better and it makes playing a little bit easier.
All the 49ers defensive linemen have progressed over the years from working with Tomsula, a guy like
Ray has turned into an all-around d-tackle. One year, they’re using him on base (defense). One year, they’re using him on sub (defense). Now, he’s the total package in there. So, he just continues to get better and is now one of the top d-tackles.
Glenn really got his first action against the Colts. He played a lot in that game and did a really good job in there. He can continue to get better and all of us can improve.
There’s only six more regular season games left at home – what’s the best part about playing in Candlestick Park?
Just the atmosphere and all the history that’s happened in there.
With the Houston Texans coming to town for a primetime game, do you like night games more than day games?
I do. I like night games a little bit better.
As a defensive lineman going on his 13th season, tell me about the challenge of chasing down and sacking these mobile quarterbacks who are becoming so prevalent in today’s NFL. Matt Schaub is a pocket-passer, but there are so many new-wave quarterbacks on the schedule this year. Overall, is that challenge something you look forward to?
Yeah, I do. The younger wave of guys coming in are not the traditional statues you find in the pocket. So, it presents a bigger challenge, getting them down.
Which workout is a staple of your training – something that could be shared with a young football player who wants to end up in your shoes some day?
Squats and sprints.
Yeah, old-school baby.
Who gave you the nickname “Cowboy?”
I think it was from when I first got here, in cowboy boots and stuff. I can’t remember who said it first, it just kind of stuck around.
Do you like that nickname?
It works, I guess.
What’s your take on playing for Coach Harbaugh?
You know, he’s energetic. He keeps you on your toes. He’s passionate.
Are your three boys able to follow what you do for the 49ers and have an understanding of what their dad does for a living?
My oldest does a little bit. He played some flag football this past offseason, so he thinks I’m going to play flag football. He understands it a little bit, it’s getting pretty cool.