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American Badass
September 03, 2012
He spits teeth, yanks down quarterbacks one-handed and, at 32, has emerged as a dominant football force through intense workouts, painstaking study and sheer will. San Francisco's Justin Smith is everything a defender should be
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September 03, 2012

American Badass

He spits teeth, yanks down quarterbacks one-handed and, at 32, has emerged as a dominant football force through intense workouts, painstaking study and sheer will. San Francisco's Justin Smith is everything a defender should be

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JUSTIN SMITH doesn't have time for insignificant things. Like, teeth. During one of his first workouts with the 49ers after signing as a free agent in 2008, the 6'4", 285-pound defensive end chipped at least two of them after crashing into a teammate. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula saw him spitting out fragments and asked if he wanted treatment. "Nah," Smith grunted, and then he chuckled. "Hell, I got a bunch of 'em."

Smith also doesn't have time for high-maintenance teammates. While playing for the Bengals, who took him with the No. 4 pick out of Missouri in 2001, he spotted another highly drafted rookie sitting on a stationary bike as practice was about to begin. Smith walked over and asked what was going on. The rookie mentioned a physical ailment. Smith turned to Cincinnati D-line coach Jay Hayes and, after his standard grunt and chuckle, said loud enough for the rookie to hear, "This job ain't for everybody." Then he walked off to practice.

Then there is self-promotion. On the list of things Smith has absolutely no time for, this ranks at the top. When 49ers p.r. boss Bob Lange approached him in June with a reporter's request for a sit-down that would pull back the curtains on the man whom second-year San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith calls "the last true American badass"—a boots-wearing, beer-drinking country boy who's tried hillbilly handfishin' (snaring catfish bare-handed); a player who only emerged as a star a decade into his career; a defender so talented he was voted All-Pro at both end and tackle last season—the veteran Smith looked at Lange from the corner of his eyes and gave him the grunt and chuckle. No dice. Lange got the same response seven weeks later when he asked Smith to do a national magazine cover shoot.

"Hey, I don't need that stuff," Smith said. "Let the other guys have the attention."

"For him to get publicity means he's above the team, and that's not him," says Ted LePage, who was an assistant coach at Jefferson City (Mo.) High when Smith was a standout defensive end and tight end there in the 1990s. "The team has always come before anything else with him."

For a guy who hates the spotlight, Smith, 32, sure dominates it on Sundays. Last year, in his 11th NFL season, he played 91% of the Niners' defensive snaps, a remarkable figure at such a demanding position. He can do so because he's as strong at the end of games as he is at the beginning. Smith isn't athletic in the sense of being limber or agile, but he's fast and relentless, qualities that repeatedly show up on last season's game tapes. Like when he forced a fumble 17 yards downfield against fleet Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin on a screen in a 24--23 Week 4 win. Or batted away an Eli Manning pass on fourth down to preserve a 27--20 defeat of the Giants in Week 10. Or steamrolled an offensive lineman to pull down Saints QB Drew Brees with one arm and force an incompletion in a 36--32 NFC divisional-round victory.

It's not a reach to say that the 49ers wouldn't have made the postseason for the first time in nine years and advanced to the conference championship game without Justin Smith. Tomsula calls him a multiplier—meaning he sets the example that everyone else tries to follow.

HE BEGINS training for the next season no later than a week after his final game, and he works the phones as hard as he does his body to ensure that teammates join him. Smith's regimen is the stuff of legend, not so much because of the type of exercises he does or amount of weight he uses—it's because he never lets up, sometimes slipping silently behind his training partners to vomit from overexertion. Last year during the lockout, when players were prohibited from having contact with teams or using their facilities, Niners offensive lineman Adam Snyder accepted Smith's offer to work out together. The 6'6" Snyder, who had played his first six seasons at around 325 pounds, wanted to shed a little weight while adding strength.

"Next thing you know I'm 290 pounds and stronger than I've ever been," says the 30-year-old Snyder, now with the Cardinals. "The way he works, I can't even put it into words. We're only a few years apart, but you see him do what he does and you think, Man, I can do that. It just pushes you."

Smith is a throwback who loves boots and blue jeans as much as he loathes ties and sport coats. Fittingly, the gym rat met his wife, Kerri, who was a varsity long-distance runner, in the weight room at Missouri. (They have two boys.) While he prefers Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, he won't hit the mute button if Waka Flocka or Lil Wayne is filling the locker room.

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