Rock bottom can be hard to identify when your life becomes a persistent stumble. It wasn't like Smith had individual moments of personal realization when he was too drunk to function. Or when he was being arrested for driving under the influence. Or when the league was suspending him under their personal conduct policies. Or the continued lows that followed. "Sleeping under a car was pretty bad," Smith said, matter-of-factly. "There [were] a lot of low times."
But drinking helps you keep pushing off self-reflection. It was in 2019, when he was years removed from his NFL career, working at a car dealership, that the trajectory of his life came into devastating focus. Back when he was an NFL superstar, he could afford any car in that dealership. Now he was detailing cars, preparing them to go out on the lot for others to buy. "I was washing cars," Smith said. "I didn't even have an ID so I couldn't cash my checks. I [was] trying to figure out how to cash checks to get money."
It wasn't that he was ashamed of the job or that he missed being able to buy expensive things. It was that he was still young, and his physical gifts hadn't faded away. It was that while he detailed those cars, others were preparing for NFL games. "This is what I'm doing?" he thought. "I know I'm one of the best players in this league."
The contrast was stark and clear to him. Smith's life wasn't his own. He found some support and willingly went to an alcohol rehabilitation center. He didn't do it because it was the quickest route back to the NFL. He did it because the other option would only continue to get grimmer. "I was actually happy [in a sober living center] because I don't think I had a home to go back to," he said. "I was kind of homeless. At least I had a roof over my head."
Once he'd strung together a promising stretch of sobriety he found FOX NFL Insider Jay Glazer and his "Merging Vets and Players" (MVP) foundation in Los Angeles, which helps veterans through various hardships. Glazer also trains NFL players in the offseason. He welcomed Smith into his community.
A few things stuck out to Glazer: Smith's easy ability to bond with the veterans and players who had gone through difficult times and his willingness to talk openly about his addiction and the way it had humbled him. There was vulnerability all around him, among men who had been products of environments where vulnerability had never been rewarded. Smith was beginning to find himself in recovery.
Less importantly, but perhaps as surprising to Glazer, were the physical traits Smith possessed, even after his time away from football. Glazer had trained hundreds of NFL-caliber players. None of them had abilities like these. It was the kind of thing people said about Smith back in 2011.
Smith channeled positive energy and the momentum of his sobriety into months of training with Glazer, and he was shaping into something new. If Smith isn't precisely as quick as he was at 21-years-old, he is most certainly stronger than he has ever been. Glazer, being as connected in NFL circles as he is, was starting to speak up.
"I started to call teams like, "He's not the Aldon Smith of the past. He's that plus something else,'" Glazer said. One of the people who was invited to see Smith's progress firsthand was Mike McCarthy, a then unemployed coach. He left impressed.
But it was in those meetings in alcohol rehabilitation centers, in events with veterans trying to adjust to civilian life, in training with former players who were trying to recover from their own obstacles, that he realized none of them were asking him to be anything. He started to validate himself, something he hadn't done in literal years. He was proud of the path he was on, and he even allowed himself to be proud of things he'd achieved in his past.
The following January Mike McCarthy was hired to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. A few weeks later he announced his coaching staff. It included defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who coached Smith at San Francisco during his prime. After nine months of vocal sobriety and four seasons since he'd played in the NFL, the Cowboys extended a contract offer to Smith.
He wanted to sign it at Glazer's house and asked that Glazer's son be present. "I want him to see what his dad helped do," Smith said.
The feeling the moment he signed the contract wasn't necessarily euphoria or disbelief. "How I really felt was, 'Yeah I'm happy I'm signing this contract, but I want to show everybody who I am.'" He found his identity in sobriety, and he was going to get to take it with him while doing the thing he'd always been great at.
But ultimately, Jerry Jones wasn't the one who needed to be convinced Smith would be allowed to play in the NFL again. After the contract offer, Smith still had to meet with Roger Goodell and ask to be reinstated into the league.
"I was looking forward to the meeting," Smith said emphatically. "I wanted to just talk to him and whoever else was on the call. I wanted them to understand what I had gone through and where I'm at now."
Smith was reinstated into the NFL after 54 months away.
"Something that was important for me to get across: I struggled with something that a lot of people struggle with. It's not only substance abuse. It's just life. Life stresses. I want to be able to help out people and let them know if I can address those things and you can get at the root of what is biting at you, you can change your life or even make your life better."