Justin Smith the man could be an entirely different guy than Justin Smith, the menacing defensive tackle. Honestly, it's hard to tell.
Smith is not the most approachable player in the San Francisco 49ers locker room, but we have seen him lift his sons up into the air with one arm during training camp; smile around his teammates as he's walked off of the practice field; and be treated like a colleague by his coaches around the facility.
Next thing you know, he's tossing Tony Romo and Jay Cutler to the ground.
"He's a small-town guy," one of Smith's best friends, Blair Thompson, says over the phone from Jefferson City, Mo. "All the talking never really interested him. He's more about the nuts and bolts of things and if you make plays, he thinks that speaks loudly enough."
Smith, who grew up in nearby Holts Summit (population of 3,420), let the outside world in at least once. After three seasons at the University of Missouri, he penned an NFL Draft diary-style story for Sports Illustrated in which he alluded to his newfound fame.
"The media stuff at Madison Square Garden was just crazy," he wrote after the Cincinnati Bengals spent the fourth overall selection on him in 2001. "All the photo shoots and stuff that we did in New York really doesn't fit me – all the glamour crap – but it was a good experience."
Fourteen years, more than 85 sacks and one conference title in the league haven't changed Smith. The 49er we call "Cowboy" is the same man who left his family's ranch for greener pastures.
"Teammate – best teammate I think I've ever seen," Ted LePage said when asked what first comes to mind about Smith, whom he coached at "Jeff City" High School until 1997. "To be honest, I don't know if Justin liked football as much as he liked being around the guys all the time and just being a teammate.
"I don't think the dude's changed since he's been about 14 years old."
"Dude" is just one nickname you'll hear friends and teammates call Smith. Three others help tell the story that's worth sharing.
Check out some of the best photos from Justin Smith's career with the San Francisco 49ers.
Smith earned this one for missing an assignment during an early-years football practice. It hasn't endured as long as the others.
Smith, his parents, Dave and Ginger, and his older sister Sarah moved to "Jeff City" when he was a sixth-grader. At about 10, he met Thompson, his new best friend. Every summer growing up in Missouri, the pair would "put up" hay to make a little extra money.
"One time in particular, the hay elevator broke that ran from the ground to the loft in the barn where the hay would be stored, which is about a 12-foot elevation," Thompson remembered. "Once the elevator broke, we had no way of getting the hay up there, so Justin actually decided he could throw the hay bales up there by himself. He proceeded to throw, oh, about 40 to 50 hay bales up into the air, which most people probably couldn't lift over their head.
"That was an indication of just how strong the guy was, and he liked to push his limits to see what he was capable of. He was blessed with some good genetics, but he never took it for granted."
This was also the case in the weight room. As the boys grew older and started working out for their high school football and basketball seasons, Smith used to bring a bucket with him to the weight room so that he had somewhere convenient to throw up.
"He lifts that hard," Thompson said. "With him, it's not like you put your headphones in, bust out a set and then go get a drink for five minutes. It's one thing to the next, and there's a lot of weight on the bar."
Many of Smith's friends back in central Missouri still use this moniker. The man who is listed at 6 feet, 4 inches and 285 pounds in his prime also towered over his family, friends, teammates and opponents back home.
"We won the state title when he was here, and usually the issue is that your biggest, fastest, strongest players are going to garner most of the attention, and Justin was never ever concerned about any of that," said LePage, an assistant under then-head coach Ron Cole and now the school's leading man. "He just wanted to be one of the guys in the locker room doing his job every day."
All his teammates had to do was watch. On offense, Smith played tight end and – in games against fierce rivals, Columbia's Hickman High School and Kansas City's Rockhurst High School – would motion along the line of scrimmage to take hand-offs. In most other games, he'd use the majority of his aggression on the defensive side of the ball.
"Justin hardly ever lost his temper," LePage said. "In a game, if he did, it was always fun to watch. He would pick the opponent up, turn 'em around and pile-drive 'em into the ground."
"Over the course of the year," Thompson recalled, "some of those quarterbacks' parents were calling the high school to complain about how hard their son was being tackled."
But Smith, whose mother was a physical education teacher in the same school district, never got into trouble on the field or the basketball court.
Thompson, who went on to play Division II hoops and now coaches Jeff City's squad, offered a scouting report on Smith, the basketball player, that should come as no surprise.
"He could defend anybody, push anybody off of the post," Thompson said. "He was one of the fastest guys on the team and was pretty explosive off of the floor. He could catch, drop-step and put it down pretty easy.
"Really light on his feet and a natural at it, to tell you the truth, but I think he made the right decision with football."
'John Wayne in Cleats'
This last one comes from LePage and has yet to catch on. But Smith does bear a resemblance to Wayne, an Iowa-born actor who starred in flicks like "True Grit" and "The Quiet Man." A big, strapping man with a strong jaw, a rasp to his voice, middle-America roots and a certain aura.
Plus, "he's not afraid to tell you where he stands," Thompson said of Smith, "and that's on the right side of the fence."
Smith was called "Cowboy" since his early days with the Bengals, when he wore his boots, buttoned-up shirts and blue jeans on road trips. (The Anheuser-Busch tattoo on his left arm doesn't hurt either.) He, his wife Kerri and their three boys returns to Missouri every summer, checking in with family and friends, or on their property – Smith owns the local Railwood Golf Club.
Often, however, Smith can be spotted working out (sometimes with a bucket nearby) at San Jose State University or the 49ers Santa Clara-based practice facility back in California. His sessions, which no longer include reps of hay bales, are still tailored to getting the most out of himself on the field.
"Not too much has changed," LePage said. "If he's trying to get somewhere, there's not too many people who can slow him down."
"If I had to sum him up in one play," Thompson added, referencing the 2012 NFC Divisional playoffs, "it would be that play against the Saints when he put that Pro Bowl tackle from New Orleans, Jermon Bushrod, on skates and just drove him right back into (Drew) Brees.
"The dude is all about blood and grass stains, man, and that captured it."