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"He was a great teammate, a phenomenal teammate," says Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, who was with him from 2003 to '07 in Cincinnati. "Wherever his place was in the locker room, whatever chair he was sitting in, guys would gravitate toward him. He was so funny and got along with guys from every background. Just a great dude. He was respected because he treated everyone the same and worked so hard."
Smith's work ethic traces back to his early youth. His father, Dave, owned a 1,200-acre cattle ranch outside Jefferson City. Dave would rise early each morning to put feed in five-gallon buckets and load them on a flatbed before heading out to the herd. Three-year-old Justin wanted to be in the middle of things and would grab a bucket and raise it toward the back of the truck.
"Sometimes it would fall back and his head and face would covered by feed," says Dave. "He'd get upset because, even then, he wanted to be the strongest."
Justin bordered on obsessive when it came to pushing himself physically. Instead of cutting the grass with a self-propelled mower, he'd use a push mower because it provided a workout. In high school he and his buddies would make money by loading, unloading and stacking 70-pound bales of hay in Missouri's summer steam bath.
"That's about as hard a work as you will do," says LePage. "Many times it's dusty and dirty and hot, just good old manual labor at its best. When you're done, you know you've done a day's work."
SMITH APPROACHES football with the same zest, which is why he struggled in his first Pro Bowl, after the 2009 season. At first an alternate, he was notified just a few days before the game that a spot had opened for him. When he reached Miami the players told him full speed was not allowed. The idea was to take it easy so no one would get hurt.
On his first snap Smith, who'd waited nine years for an All-Star invite, bull-rushed the guard and put him on his backside. He was 4G on a field of players moving at dial-up speed. The lineman looked up at him in surprise, as if to say, What the heck are you doing? Smith dropped his head. He apologized and offered the player a hand up.
The next season he returned to the Pro Bowl, and again he had to be reminded that the game was more exhibition than competition. Again he struggled with it. "The Pro Bowl is the biggest joke the way it's played," says one coach from that year. "It's like a pillow fight or an NBA All-Star Game. You don't even have to shower afterward. I was seated near [Smith], and you could just tell it was killing him, the way the deals are made out there. He's old school. He only knows how to play hard."
One opposing guard that Pro Bowl was Kris Dielman of the Chargers, who ran into Smith's parents at practice. Earlier in the season Smith had been ejected from a 34--7 loss to San Diego after obliviously pushing away the hand of an official during a second-quarter scrum. Says Smith's mother, Ginger, "Kris told me the most excited he's ever been was when Justin got thrown out because he knew he wouldn't have to go against him."
In 2009, Alex Gibbs, then the Texans' offensive line coach, had his team stop running to Smith's side. "We couldn't do anything over there," recalls right tackle Eric Winston, now with the Chiefs. "He's so good it's tough to do anything with him. He's the most underrated player in the game, which is crazy to say."