San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith announced his retirement on Monday, and following the team announcement, Smith chatted with the media. He discussed shoulder injury issues that are behind the decision. He also talked about some of the big plays in his career and what he enjoyed about football.
Unfortunately, he reached a point physically where he could no longer be the player he wanted to be. A few years back he said he would retire rather than become a part-time player. His playing time decreased each of the last three seasons, and it was clear he was approaching the end. His time likely would have decreased further given the numerous defensive line additions.
He might have had the comment of the year when asked about how the situation has been the last few years. He said it was disappointing to have to deal with injuries, but you have to deal with it. You can't just wish for things to be better. I may never forget this line:
I mean, obviously, you always want everything to work the way you want it. But, you know, crap in one hand, wish in the other one and see what comes up first, you know.
I think former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said late last season that even when you were nicked or injured in recent years, you were still better than most of the defensive linemen in the league. With that said, why walk away with a year remaining on your contract?
"I mean, for me it's just, you know, where I play on the right side, all my contact comes on my left shoulder and left side. And, I mean, it doesn't respond like I want it to respond anymore. You know? You don't have the tools, you can't do the job, so it's just time to go."
How has it been for you the last few years with that situation you just described?
"I mean, it's no fun. I mean, obviously, you always want everything to work the way you want it. But, you know, crap in one hand, wish in the other one and see what comes up first, you know. It aint always going to be how you want it, and that was definitely my case the last couple years. I've had conversations with [49ers general manager] Trent [Baalke], you know, with [49ers head coach Jim Tomsula] Jimmy-T, even [former 49ers head coach Jim] Harbaugh and Vic, you know. They always want you to keep playing this and that, and I wanted to keep playing it as well, but when you get on the bald tires, you're on the bald tires, you know."
Any thought of moving you to the right side?
"You know, you know it when you're actually out there playing, I talked to, actually, [49ers running backs coach Tom] Rathman a little bit about it. It's just like, you know when it's time, you know. There's a certain emotional, you know, you've got to go into things with the right mindset, this and that. It's a young man's game and you've got to be full of piss and vinegar when you step onto the field. You know, as you get older, it's harder to get that same intensity going week in, week out and it's just time to go. I mean, you know, guys out there mean business so it was just time for me to move on."
What are you thinking about for your future? Have you even got to that point yet?
"Not really. Not yet. I just figure, you know, I'm sure I'll be doing something football related somewhere down the road or, I mean, that's all we know. You know, don't think I'm going to get into whatever else other guys do all the time. You know, I figure, I'll just figure out, stick with what I know and stay around the game as much as I can. I don't know if that's coaching or maybe, [49ers CEO] Jed [York] wants to give me a good price on ownership with the Niners. I'm just kidding. Kid, I kid. You know, I don't know. I just imagine whatever it is, it'll be something football related. Strength or strength-room related, something like that."
Will you be staying out here, Justin? Or are you going to be moving back to Missouri?
"No, I'll be going back to Missouri."
When you look back on your career, obviously, the last few years you guys were in playoff contention. What did that mean to close a career and having a shot at a Super Bowl?
"What's that? I couldn't hear you at the end there."
What does that mean to close your career these last few years to have a shot at winning a Super Bowl?
"Oh, it was great. You know, there's a lot of guys going into training camp this year, everybody's going to show up to training camp talking about they want to win a Super Bowl. And I was no different. Every year, there's only a 10-percent chance you think you can really win it. But, deep down, you know if you've got a team to do it. For four years there, the feeling walking into camp thinking you can win a Super Bowl was pretty cool."
It sounds like physically, you realized your body just wasn't responding the way you wanted it to, you needed it to. But, the 49ers also gave you as long as you needed to make this decision. Was this a hard decision to come by or did you pretty much figure that this was going to be once the season ended?
"For me, there has always been pretty open talk between me, Jimmy, Trent and whoever every season. And, you know, when I signed that extension I did myself with Trent and [49ers president] Paraag [Marathe], we went into that extension knowing full well that more than likely I wasn't going to play it out. And it was more of just rolling cap money over in my 13th year so we could get a piece or two here or there to make the Super Bowl runs. They did that with a lot of guys. [LB NaVorro Bowman] Bow, Pat [former 49ers LB Patrick Willis]. We were gearing up for a Super Win. So, that was the thought going into it the whole time. I gave it probably a 20-percent chance I'd play 15 years anyway after that point, tearing my triceps and my shoulder up."
How long have you been dealing with the shoulder injury? It's been a couple years now?
"Yeah. I want to say at least two. I think I did it in training camp against [former 49ers G] Mike [Iupati] and it just never bounced back, you know? Just one of those things. I'm just lucky and fortunate it happened year 13, 14 and not year two, you know? When you look at it that way, I'm not going to complain about it."
Did the triceps-elbow issue crop up even beyond the first time it became problematic in 2012? Were there subsequent surgeries after that?
"Well, I mean, guys either have problems with their legs or their upper body and I was an upper body guy. And, all of a sudden, my elbows through my shoulders. You know, some guys get ankles. Some guys get knees, you know. It's just where you get hurt. You're going to get hurt, so, you know, I don't think anybody's going to bitch and moan about them getting hurt playing football, it's just how long you keep going after that injury and everybody's different, I guess."
Everybody always cites that play against Philadelphia in 2011 where you forced that fumble chasing down the wide receiver. Do you have a favorite play? I mean, when you look back on your career, what plays, what moments stick out?
"You know, there's like three or four years there, man. The thing that really sticks out to me was, on the football field everything kind of runs together, you know, everything happens so fast when you're just doing it. But, what sticks out in my mind are the plane rides back after the big wins. And I mean, we just had fun. It didn't feel, I played a lot of football here and other places where it felt like a job because you're losing or this and that, or something wasn't right. Everything was just rolling together and we were just having fun. That's what sticks out in my mind."
Would you ever consider a career in media? Would you ever consider getting into broadcasting or some of the stuff former NFL WR Randy Moss or other ex-players have gone into?
"Well, you know how much I love this. You know what, I'll tell you what, it would be fun if you saw me on talk shows and radio all the time after this, wouldn't it? But, no, I don't see that happening, no."
To go back to that 2011 play when you forced the fumble on former Philadelphia Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin, does that play hold a special place in your heart and what you accomplished in your career, just know that showed your motor?
"You know, the thing about that was we just got a big win on the road and we just got on a roll after there. We kind of went on a three year roll. We had a hell-of-a team and we had a hell-of-a lot of fun playing together. That's what it's all about. I mean, this is professional football, as you guys know and it's cutthroat, it's a dirty business, as it should be. I mean, guy's out there fighting for jobs and whenever a team can come together and have fun, winning, and you know, hell, you start feeling like you own part of the team, you know, when you're having so much fun and winning like that. That's unique, and that doesn't happen very often. I was around a long time, seeing that not happening or being the case, so that's what was cool to me."
Can you say specifically what happened to your shoulder in 2013 in training camp?
"Well, what ended up ultimately being the case was there was a piece of bone that detached and lodged in the back of it. You know, I didn't know until they went in and did surgery, but I just knew it hurt like hell. It's just one of those things, you know, arthritis build up, wear and tear, yada, yada, yada. It's just, you know, it's time."
Did you give any thought to getting in a suit and tie and having a formal retirement press conference?
"What's that now? Am I going to have a formal one?"
Yeah, did you give any thought of getting in a suit and tie and having a formal retirement press conference?
"No, not at all. I mean it's, you know, you come in, you go out, everything moves on. So, this is no different. You know what I mean? It was good. It was a good ride. You guys aint going to get me in a room and make me cry and all that stuff. It was a pretty cut and dry decision the whole time and just went from there."
When you say you're going back to Missouri, do you plan to settle in Holts Summit or in and around there?
"I don't know exactly where yet."