Dallas Cowboys defensive end Aldon Smith had already been suspended from the NFL several years when his ailing grandmother implored him to change his life before she died of complications from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
That conversation, and her death last year, were catalysts for Smith trying to get a handle on issues with alcohol, working his way into shape and earning reinstatement nearly five years after he was banished for substance-abuse violations.
“The way I look at where I am now to who I was in the past, I was a young 12-year-old or young teenage boy in a man’s body,” said Smith, who signed a one-year contract with the Cowboys in April and was reinstated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last week.
“The way I handled those issues, life, was in that immature manner. With the time I’ve had to work on myself, it’s allowed and given me the chance to grow into the man I am now. So the man on the inside fits how the man on the outside looks.”
Smith’s grandmother couldn’t speak the last time he saw her because of the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. But before ALS had taken her ability to speak, she told the grandson who had always looked up to her “just to do better,” as Smith recalled it.
“That stuck with me,” he said. “That, her passing, with me being totally defeated and surrendering to the problem that I had with my drinking, I was ready to turn my life around.”
The 30-year-old Smith last played in the NFL with Oakland in November 2015, when he was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Before that, Smith was a rising star in San Francisco when his legal troubles began in 2013.
The Raiders still had his contractual rights two years ago before releasing Smith after San Francisco police issued an arrest warrant over allegations of domestic violence. A plea agreement was reached in that case.
In all, Smith has been arrested at least six times, with multiple drunken-driving charges. He avoided jail time in the domestic case by serving a 90-day sentence as part of his alcohol and drug rehab.
The Cowboys took a chance on a pass rusher with a history of domestic issues by signing Greg Hardy five years ago. That tumultuous 2015 season — Hardy’s last in the NFL — was difficult for Dallas. Smith sees a difference.
“If anybody is going to look deep, I never was physical with that woman,” Smith said. “And I just want everybody to know that I don’t stand for being physical with women. I’d like to make that clear.
“As far as what I can do is I can just continue to keep being the person who I’ve become, and that’s somebody who I’m proud of, somebody that the Cowboys thought it was good taking a chance on and somebody that the NFL thought was good taking a chance on.”
Before the Cowboys hired him, first-year coach Mike McCarthy happened to meet Smith in a Los Angeles gym in December when Smith was getting back in shape.
The momentum for Smith’s NFL return with Dallas grew when McCarthy hired Jim Tomsula as defensive line coach. Tomsula was Smith’s position coach with the 49ers.
“His path to Dallas is special and unique,” said McCarthy, who faced Smith and San Francisco four times in a span of two seasons as Green Bay’s coach. “I obviously have great respect for him and what he’s done on the field. And then obviously had a chance to witness what he’s done recently to put himself in this position. Very impressive young man.”
After going to the 49ers with the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, Smith set an NFL record with 33 1/2 sacks in his first two seasons. San Francisco reached the Super Bowl in his second season, losing to Baltimore, and played in the NFC championship game each of his first three years.
Smith has just 5 1/2 sacks since that three-year run, and now faces the rare test of trying to become the player he was after four dormant seasons. He’s not thinking at all about how long those odds might be.
“I still feel great. I still feel young. I still move well,” Smith said. “I still have a great knowledge of the game, if not a better knowledge of the game.
“I know how to be a leader. I know how to win. And also just everything I’ve gone through and been through in life, I feel I can be a source, people can talk to me about whatever they need.”
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