When Aldon Smith was arrested for the fifth time in 2015, tallying yet another DUI, the San Francisco 49ers were forced to release Smith, and interim head coach Jim Tomsula had to address the media. What could have been a press conference of non-answers, the straight-talking coach used the moment to say something real about what was going on with Smith.
"It's a sad day," said Tomsula, who was previously Smith's defensive line coach. "This is a day that doesn't have anything to do with football. Although [Smith] won't be playing football for the San Francisco 49ers, he will be supported and helped, and he won't walk this path alone. We're not worried about football. It has nothing to do with football."
He then went on to shift the conversation from Smith specifically and addressed the alcoholism that his former player struggled with.
"I understand the platform that we are on. I understand where this goes on the news. And what I would like to say is, if one person reads this, and you're struggling, get help. Go get it. You're worth it. You're worth it. There's value in every human being. Get the help. You don't have to walk alone. Find it, it's there."
Smith was amid the darkest times of his life. But over the course of the next four years, he dug himself out of that darkness, improving himself and confronting his addiction with the tools and support system that gave him hope.
Meanwhile, the first big question after Mike McCarthy was hired as the Dallas Cowboys head coach was who would be filling out his coaching staff? When that question was answered shortly afterwards, it was clear the staff would be filled with veteran coaches, including Jim Tomsula as the defensive line coach.
Only a few months later, the Cowboys shocked the football world by signing Smith, who had been away from the NFL for four years, meaning he'll be reunited with the last coach he played for.
"Getting back and being with Jim is definitely exciting," Smith said Friday. "We had a great time together with the group of guys that we had and the success that we had there. I just love how Jim allows us to go out and be free on the field and not feel like we're in a box."
McCarthy, too, had interactions with Smith before the Cowboys approached him in free agency. Smith had been working with the Merging Veterans and Players Program in California, which works with players and military veterans and addresses issues like alcohol and substance addiction. McCarthy was an early financial donor to the program and met Smith there in January.
Four years away from the league with a grim track record is a lot for an NFL team to gamble on, even for the Cowboys, who have a reputation for offering second chances. While we'll probably never know, it seems unlikely that Smith would have been extended a contract offer without someone like Tomsula vouching for him.
Either way, Smith said that the combination of Tomsula's presence and his time spent with McCarthy in January were large contributing factors in his joining the Dallas Cowboys.
"It had a big impact," Smith admitted. "It just seemed like the best fit. Being with Jim in San Francisco and him being here. And the meeting that me and Mike had. The way that went. We clicked the first time we talked."
It took a long journey, and a ton of emotional and physical labor on Smith's part, but ultimately Tomsula's parting message rang true. He didn't walk his path alone.