From Unsettled to Settled Down
When your job takes you to a new town, you face all kinds of uncertainties: Where to live? Where’s a good restaurant? A babysitter. Will you fit in with your new co-workers?
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith faced all those things and more, namely the approval of a couple million Chiefs fans who would cheer or boo his every move.
So what made his transition from the West Coast to the Midwest easier (besides a few wins on the football field)?
“The easiest thing about moving here has been the people,” says Smith, who will try to lead the Chiefs back to the playoffs for a second straight year when the season starts next month. “This city and the people are the first thing that jumped out at me, how welcoming they were. The people go out of their way to be nice and welcoming and polite.”
The caveat of that, of course, is winning football games.
But this California guy, who went to high school in San Diego, played college football at Utah and was the No. 1 pick in the draft for the San Francisco 49ers, found another big difference in the Chiefs fans.
“It’s tough to start comparing cities,” Smith says. “Here I feel like it’s a big city, and it has a lot going on. But it has a lot of the charm and the good things of a small town as well.
“The fans — way more intense here and way more passionate. Here sports are a big deal. They really love their teams. They are passionate about them. They follow them closely. “
Then he adds with a laugh: “That’s a good thing when you are winning; it’s great when you are winning. It makes it tough when you are losing.”
There has been plenty of winning the past three years for Smith. As a starter he has quarterbacked teams to a 28-9-1 record (11-4 with the Chiefs). He has thrown 53 touchdown passes and been intercepted 17 times. While he is regarded as a “game manager quarterback,” he holds the San Francisco 49ers record (remember Joe Montana?) for winning fourth-quarter drives in a season and 249 passes without an interception.
When he was traded to the Chiefs, at his request, he jumped into the move whole-heartedly. He immediately began working with new coach Andy Reid, diving into a new offense while his wife, Elizabeth, stayed in the Bay Area in the final weeks of pregnancy.
“I got traded, and I came out here,” Smith says. “She delivered our second child the next week. So I was kind of doing the back-and-forth thing for a little bit. But we moved fully out here last summer. This is our home.
“I am not doing the 'half-the-year-somewhere-else.' This is it. We are going to be here and take it all in. We do spend a little bit in the winter in California visiting family. But this is home.”
Alex, Elizabeth and their two sons are comfortable here. They now have their favorite restaurants, though he won’t fall into the trap that another San Francisco quarterback transplanted here did.
“Oh yeah, they still hold it against (Steve) Bono,” Smith says of Bono’s oft-repeated quip that the restaurants in San Francisco were better than Kansas City’s. “It’s tough to pick a barbecue spot. We end up eating a lot at Jack Stack because it’s right there near the house. But I could throw down a lot of Z-Mans at Oklahoma Joe’s.”
The change of scene is something that Smith embraced in coming to Kansas City. But he had his fears — something he shared recently when he was the commencement speaker at the University of Utah graduation ceremonies in May. He received an honorary Doctor of Human Letters degree.
His message to the graduates: identify your weaknesses, embrace the new, and let go of things out of your control. (His graduation address is at youtube.com/watch?v=4E-2AtyI_I8).
“That was such a humbling experience,” says Smith, who met the three others receiving honorary degrees that weekend. “The night before (commencement) I got to meet the others, who had lifetimes of achievements in their field … very impressive people. To be included amongst them was very humbling.
“Once I said 'yes' to giving the address, you can’t just wing it. I put a lot of thought into it trying to think: ‘What’s your message? What are they going to take away from it?’ I realized pretty quickly the angle most (commencement speakers) took was very different than what I could do because I was younger than most commencement speakers. I was not that far removed from the graduates. I was 29 when I gave the speech.
“But it was helpful for me too. If I hadn’t said 'yes,' I don’t think I would have put that much real reflection into my last 10 years and what I learned. So it was a great exercise for me, a great experience for me. Sometimes you go through things and feel like you learned. But to put it in words was good.”
One of those things was how he looked at embracing the new. He had gone from the No. 1 pick in the draft, to a disappointment, to playing his best football in the NFL, to the bench and to Kansas City last year.
“You don’t know what is going to happen,” Smith says of coming to a new community and team. “And when it is something you ask for, you have no one else to point the finger at. If you didn’t call for it, it’s easier if it goes bad. I knew nobody here. After the trade, anybody who had lived here raved about the place, raved about the people, the city, the culture, all good things.
“But obviously you step into a new locker room, you have all brand new teammates. To a certain extent you have to earn respect and leadership — start all over. Granted you’re not a rookie, so you have some pelts on the wall in the sense that they know you played. But you have to earn all that.”
As he embarks on his second season in Kansas City, he has worked on the new once again.
“It’s the Albert Einstein saying: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.’ You need some reflection: am I improving or do I have to change my game plan and go a different route? That’s the mentality I tell myself a lot. Push yourself into different places and try new things.”