Hugh Carey, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Alex Smith was a unanimous choice to be this year’s commencement speaker at the University of Utah.
Barbara Snyder, vice president for student affairs, said so in introducing the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback at a press conference Thursday morning at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center.
“He is not only one of our more visible of our recent alumni, he’s also one of the most inspiring, and we knew that his message would speak to the nearly 8,000 graduates this evening,” Snyder explained.
Smith, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft after leading the Utes to a BCS-busting season and a win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, acknowledged he didn’t know the invitation to speak at his alma mater was coming.
“I was definitely surprised when I got the phone call and humbled for sure to say the least,” said Smith, who earned an economics degree in three years from Utah and began work on a master’s program before leaving for the NFL.
Smith made it clear he had no expectations of ever being a commencement speaker, certainly not before the age of 30, anyhow. Smith’s athletic endeavors and philanthropic efforts, though, led to his selection.
“It’s great for the athletic department especially because it represents the entire university,” said Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill, who noted that his department had nothing to do with it. “That’s an even bigger compliment. It wasn’t an athletic thing. It was a university thing.” Hill added that the selection committee made a great decision.
Although Smith joked to reporters that there would be no “sneak previews” on his speech, he did field questions on a variety of topics for approximately 20 minutes.
Smith noted that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the opportunities given him by the school.
“It’s been great to give back in a little way,” Smith said. “It’s weird to walk around here and you see your name on the weight room, you know, but it’s great nonetheless.”
Even though Smith has been back over the years, he said one of the weirdest things is seeing just how much things have changed — starting with the Utes’ new football facility.
Looking back to the 2004 season, he acknowledged, is surreal and a bit of a blur. It also remains vivid in some ways.
Smith said the thing that jumps out the most is the singularity of that team’s focus and selflessness.
“Every guy in that locker room played for each other,” Smith said. “We wanted to be the school to break down the BCS. We wanted to be the school that proved that we could play with anybody.”
The setup with the BCS, he continued, was not fair and wrong.
“I think we all felt that way,” said Smith, who explained that was the Utes’ focus and they felt they could run the table to be the first outside team to break into the BCS.
Other memories that Smith shared from 2004 include having ESPN’s “GameDay” in town for the season finale against BYU. Then there was the scene when fans rushed the field after the Utes defeated the Cougars.
“That was a moment I’ll never forget,” he said.
As far as the impending break in the Utah-BYU rivalry, Smith mentioned that it was disappointing because such games make college football special.
“Obviously things got more complicated once we joined the Pac-12 and they didn’t,” he said. “It’s tough.”
Smith noted that Chiefs coach Andy Reid went to BYU and constantly likes to make jabs. However, Smith added that Reid “hasn’t had a lot of opportunity lately.”
Among the other topics Smith addressed were the new college football playoffs, the Northwestern situation involving possible unionization of players, turning 30 next week, and advice for the Utes moving forward.
Smith said the Utes would have loved the opportunity to participate in a playoff after the 2004 season. Because no such format existed, they’re left with never knowing just how good they were that year.
The Northwestern deal, he noted, is something where he would like to see money pumped back to the institutions and players.
Smith, who made the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Chiefs, said that his success since moving over from the San Francisco 49ers is a reaffirmation that he’s doing things the right way. As he approaches his 10th season in the NFL and 30th birthday, Smith said he’s “now the old man in the locker room.”
Even so, Smith focused most of his remarks on age to his family life. The married father of two young boys said he’s learning that actions are the most important thing in parenting, explaining that his kids see everything and watch him.
In closing, Smith was asked if he had any advice for the Utes. He noted that so much goes into winning and that the challenges are different in the Pac-12. Smith, though, challenged them to take the next step — just as the program did with victories in the Fiesta and Sugar bowls.
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