MENLO PARK, Calif. -- Nearly 40 minutes into an interview that was beginning to feel like an inquisition, Aldon Smith lost his patience. For a few seconds, I feared the talented pass rusher with the tattered image might get up out of his chair and call it a day.
"I'm done talking about alcohol," Smith declared, glaring back at me. "We've been on this subject a long time. We're talking about alcohol, and me getting stabbed ... this interview's getting a little dark."
The San Francisco 49ers' star outside linebacker wasn't being paranoid -- he had, in fact, calmly and politely answered numerous questions about the slew of off-the-field incidents that conspired to put his promising NFL career in jeopardy just three years after it began.
The seventh overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Smith has been a phenomenal performer, notching 42 sacks in 43 career games. Yet, he has consistently found trouble off the field, with a conviction on assault-weapons charges and a pair of DUIs counting among his ignominious moments, along with an alleged airport bomb threat.
This was Smith's first expansive interview since the NFL suspended him for the first nine games of the 2014 season, and when I sat down with him late last month at a Boys and Girls Club in a low-income Bay Area neighborhood, he knew there would be some uncomfortable moments. For the most part, he handled them as deftly as he deals with a double-team while rushing off the edge. But when the queries kept coming ... and coming ... Smith finally reached his limit.
To his credit, Smith was forthcoming about his mistakes and seemed to understand that, as he prepares to return to the field, his football future is at stake.
"Being away from something you love so much, you definitely grow to appreciate that," Smith told me early in our conversation. "But then, you know, through the choices that you made ... you learn from those mistakes. Anytime you are faced with obstacles and things that become serious enough where you are going in and out of court and things like that, you realize how important the game is to you and just how easily (it can be) lost."
I can't tell you whether Smith has in fact made an abrupt and permanent turnaround that will result in no further embarrassing incidents, but I like what I've seen so far. His agents at Relativity Sports, Doug Hendrickson and C.J. LaBoy, helped map out a schedule during Smith's suspension that took him on regular visits to children's hospitals, schools and Boys and Girls Clubs -- and he seemed genuinely moved by the potential to impact so many young fans in a positive manner.
When, in an attempt to make the interview a bit less dark, I asked Smith about these visits, his face brightened and his body language changed. "I've had a lot of good days," he said. Eventually, he recalled a conversation at a YMCA with a kid who made a special request: "His nickname is Chicken. He told me to do a dance. He pulled me to the side and was like, 'Hey, man, I need you to do a dance for me, whenever you get your next sack,' ... He told me what the dance was, and once I do it, it'll be known as 'The Chicken.' "
His comfort level in that context was obvious, and for good reason: While growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Smith used to go to his local Boys and Girls Club after school. To him, it was "a place of safety" where he valued "having somebody help you out with whatever you are going through."
During that time, Smith honed not only his love for sports (he was a standout AAU basketball player) but also for music. He began playing instruments at an early age and is now accomplished on the drums, piano and guitar. He also, I'm told, has a serious set of pipes, though he wouldn't comply with my request to demonstrate this on camera.
"I'm not singing," Smith said, laughing.
He has not yet delved into songwriting, though his 25 years on this earth have provided a fair share of material.
"A song about my life?" Smith said. "It'd be a country song."
It might be a little dark, too -- but right now, Smith is working on a redemptive closing verse.