SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Justin Smith was durable, maybe to a fault, before retiring after 14 years in the NFL Monday. Because the pain and punishment he played through late in his career ultimately led to his decision to walk away with a year remaining on his last contract.
The defensive end missed just two games throughout his seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, and played in 217 of 221 games after coming into the league in 2001. His job description: eat up blocks, sometimes two at time, from some of the biggest and strongest men on earth. And keep doing it play after play.
"When you get on the bald tires, you’re on the bald tires," Smith said in a conference call Monday.
Smith, 35, played one of the most thankless positions in sports, the defensive end of a 3-4 defense. It's not like the more glamorous position of a defensive end in a 4-3, or even an outside linebacker that specializes in rushing the passer. Those guys get to flash speed rushes, swim and spin moves, then cap it off with a dance, for the cameras, over a fallen quarterback.
Not Smith. He never accrued double-digit sack totals in any of his 14 seasons. His career high was 8.5, reached twice in his rookie year with the Bengals and in 2010 with San Francisco. He would regularly joke about having one move to get to the quarterback. "The Cowboy" had, fittingly, a great bull rush.
Smith was tasked with occupying blockers in order to clear space and make things easier for his teammates. His role was invaluable, because he made his teammates much, much better by giving them space to work with.
It's no coincidence during the final four years of his career the linebackers playing behind Smith became some of the best in the league. Before Patrick Willis' retirement this spring, he was among the elite. That sentiment doubled when NaVorro Bowman emerged and was awarded with three straight first-team All-Pro nominations from 2011 to 2013, alongside Willis - and behind Smith's insatiable appetite for eating up blockers who couldn't reach his teammates in the second level.
San Francisco reached three straight conference title games and a Super Bowl on the back of top five defenses with Smith on the line of scrimmage.
But it wasn't just the inside linebackers Smith would clear room for. He played a pivotal role in Aldon Smith's gaudy sack numbers over his first two seasons. In Aldon's second year, the year the 49ers went to the Super Bowl, he had 19.5 sacks in his first 13 games. A number of those came when Justin would push his blockers outside on the snap, leaving a gaping hole for Aldon to hit stunting from the outside of the formation back to the inside. It was a two-man game that was possible because Justin was usually the strongest man on the field.
Aldon had his flashy pass rush moves, to be sure. But there isn't anything effective quite like a teammate opening a clear lane to the quarterback.
Ultimately, appearing in so many games paid it's price. Over his final three seasons, a torn triceps tendon, shoulder and back injuries prevented Justin from playing a 15th NFL season. He was forced to go under the knife following 2012 and 2013, despite only missing two starts in 2012 before returning for the Super Bowl run.
Smith's shoulder injury the next season might have been the worst of the bunch, he said Monday.
"For me, when I play on the right side, all my contact comes on the left shoulder and my left side," Smith said. "It doesn’t respond like I want it to respond any more. If you don’t have the tools, you can’t do the job. It’s time to go."
Willis said his retirement was spurred by similar circumstances. Instead of a shoulder that was never quite right, Willis cited his feet as the leading cause for his decision to step away from the 49ers. He sustained a toe injury midway through 2014 that required season-ending surgery before deciding to retire this offseason.
"I’m just lucky and fortunate (the shoulder injury) happened in year 13-14, not year two," Smith said.
Smith said the shoulder injury came against former 49ers guard Mike Iupati in during training camp in August of 2013.
"What ultimately ended up being the case was there was a piece of bone detached and lodged in the back of it. I didn’t know until they went in and did surgery. But I just knew it hurt like hell," Smith said, laughing.
He started all 19 games that year, including the playoffs.
By his standards, Smith didn't have a great season in 2013. He mentioned feeling healthy last October, noting he had the use of his left shoulder after that wasn't the case the year prior. But that came before a back issue popped up late in the season. Smith was on the team's injury report leading into San Francisco's last five games, but started all five, giving him 12 of 14 years where he didn't missed a start.
Smith said he plans on staying close to football and continuing his strength training regimen that continued this offseason despite his looming retirement. In what capacity remains to be seen.
"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," Smith said. "I’m just kidding."
Smith will be returning to his home state of Missouri to figure out the next step, which won't be an overly-sentimental one. It was completely in Smith's character to avoid having a retirement press conference that would typically jerk a few tears. A 12-minute conference call with the media was enough.
"It was a good ride. You guys aren’t going to get me in a room and make me cry," Smith said. "It was a pretty cut and dry decision the whole time, and just went from there."