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But Smith took the snap from the shotgun, set his feet and whistled a pass to Davis, who would score the game's first and last touchdowns. As teammates mobbed him in the end zone, Davis—who like Smith was playing in his first postseason game—wept as if witnessing the birth of his child. In truth a sellout crowd and a national TV audience had witnessed the rebirth of a franchise that won five Super Bowls in the 1980s and '90s and went a record 16 straight years with at least 10 wins. That it was Smith making the delivery was fitting to his teammates and coaches.
"He deserved to win," said Roman, who was Jim Harbaugh's coordinator at Stanford and came to the Niners last January when Harbaugh was hired as coach. "When I met with [Smith] after being hired, you could see how badly he wanted it. He had been through so much here but didn't want to turn and run. He wanted to stay and fight. It said so much about him that I told myself, I want to help make him successful."
If it had been up to Smith's family and friends, Saturday never would have happened. Pam and Doug Smith, who live in the San Diego area, have attended each of their son's games since he entered the league. They have seen the pain his body has endured and the mental anguish of his being roundly booed. They listened as one coach, Mike Nolan, questioned Smith's physical toughness, and another, Mike Singletary, doubted his leadership.
After concluding 2010 with a 38--7 win over the Cardinals, Alex and his wife, Elizabeth, joined Pam, Doug and two friends for dinner. Smith was set to become a free agent, and the talk was about what he should do next. All agreed on one thing: He should leave San Francisco. The group even raised glasses and made a toast: "To moving on."
"Everybody who knew him was trying to get him to move on," Pam says. "When we talked to him, it was, 'Alex, you've given it your all here. You can move on with your head held high.'"
Smith, though, wanted to subtract emotion from his decision. Singletary had been fired a week before the finale, and when Harbaugh was lured from Stanford 12 days later, Smith was intrigued. After meeting with the new coach, a 1987 first-round pick of the Bears who spent 15 years in the NFL, Smith was sold—he signed a one-year, $5 million deal—even if his family still had reservations.
At one point in late January, Smith left his cellphone at the team's facility. Harbaugh wanted to tell him but didn't know how to reach the quarterback. So he called Smith's parents to see if they had a cell number for Smith's wife. The conversation did not go as Harbaugh envisioned. "I told his dad, 'I really want Alex here. This could be his fresh start,' " Harbaugh says. "That was met with crickets. You could hear the chirping on the other end of the phone."
Harbaugh laughed before adding: "I felt for them, I really did. I totally understood that this would maybe be the last place they would want their son. It's spectacular how things have transpired."
The 49ers, who had not won more than eight games in a season since 2002, are 14--3 and hosting the Giants in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick on Sunday. Along the way Smith has outdueled Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and, yes, Brees. After a road game midway through the season, Harbaugh met Smith's mother for the first time. With unblinking eyes he told her that Alex is the toughest player he has ever coached. As a coach's son and a quarterback who wasn't afraid to mix it up during his playing career, Harbaugh doesn't toss around such accolades loosely.
"He's had shoulder injuries, taken some big hits, and he just keeps on playing," says Harbaugh. "He went through some hideous treatment, not only thrown under the bus by the fan base but also by the team and the so-called experts who said some vile things about him. He's stoic about it, and he doesn't respond, doesn't flinch. But he thinks about it because it hurt. Still, he forges on."