Aldon Smith's biggest fight probably won't be in a rehab meeting or when he's pondering how his life veered into such a dark place. Instead, that struggle likely will be most intense when the San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker steps back into the real world. It might involve giddy fans offering free drinks, late nights with teammates in crowded clubs, and a sports culture that never has taken drinking as seriously as it should. It's that environment that awaits Smith. And it will be a difficult one for him to handle.
The 49ers have not said how long Smith will be in rehab -- he agreed last week to go after his second arrest on suspicion of DUI -- but we do know this won't be an easy process. It can take years for some people to conquer such demons, and Smith may very well return his focus to playing football later this season. We also can predict the time he spends facing his problems won't be nearly enough to combat all of the partying that exists around the NFL. The worst-kept secret in the league is that alcohol isn't considered to be nearly as dangerous to a player's well-being as cocaine, meth or even performance-enhancing drugs.
The reason is obvious: Drinking is a perfectly acceptable, legal social endeavor, one that millions of people partake in at any given time. The problem for players such as Smith is there aren't enough people around them who can see how easily booze can destroy their lives. In fact, the most shocking aspect of Smith's recent arrest wasn't that police booked him shortly after his car hit a tree in San Jose, Calif. It's that his blood-alcohol level was reportedly almost twice the legal limit at 7 a.m.
The sad part in all of this is e've heard similar stories about NFL players far too often. Former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Josh Brent is awaiting trial on a charge of intoxication manslaughter stemming from the accident last year that killed his best friend and teammate, linebacker Jerry Brown. Former NFL wide receiver Donte' Stallworth killed a pedestrian while driving drunk in Miami in 2009, and former St. Louis Rams linebacker Leonard Little never got over the crash that ended the life of a woman in 1998. Little was driving drunk after celebrating his birthday with teammates and friends that night.
Most players in the NFL understand that booze is all around them in nearly every social environment they enter. The smart ones also realize the pressure to drink is just as prevalent.
When Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen had to enter rehab after being arrested twice on DUI charges while playing in Kansas City earlier in his career, he couldn't hang out in a bar without patrons offering to send over a shot or a cocktail. ESPN analyst Cris Carter, who also played in Minnesota, wrestled with that same reality when he began fighting alcoholism in the early 1990s. Every time Carter went to a bar with teammates, he made sure to keep his glass filled with club soda. His main fear: Having a friend see that his glass was empty and then supplying him with a fresh alcoholic drink.
Don't make the mistake of thinking this sounds silly. Yes, the NFL is filled with tough-minded men who've overcome major odds to enjoy their lives. That also means they have a hard time being vulnerable, accepting their own flaws and realizing that not every opponent can be dominated. One or two drinks on a Friday night may not sound all that scary to the average person. For somebody who's used to conquering everything that ever has stood in his way -- and is constantly being encouraged to join the fun -- it can literally be the beginning of the end.
It's not just the partying that can put players such as Smith in a precarious place. Veterans have talked about the days when they would drink in the team parking lot after games, merely to blow off steam. There have been stories about those who drink to self-medicate, to dull the pain that comes with playing 16 games a year with a body that is never at full strength. Let's not forget the pressure, either. No sport has a shorter average career span than the NFL, and that means players have to find some way to deal with the extreme stress of knowing their jobs are often on the line.
In fairness, there are plenty of NFL players who handle drinking responsibly and aren't at risk for the kinds of problems Smith faces. They don't get nearly enough credit for that, so it's important to mention that here. But those same players also have to know the Aldon Smiths of the world didn't land in their predicaments strictly by accident. There had to be a little bit of outside help to push the process along, as well.
Some of that comes down to young men who have plenty of money, success and fame. It also has to do with the circle of friends (or enablers) they keep around them. There's also the mindset of the player himself. When Smith was arrested for suspicion of DUI the first time -- in Miami in January 2012 -- his teammate, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, implored him to not drive after the party they were attending because Smith was clearly intoxicated. When Davis left the event later that evening, he saw Smith pulled over by the side of the road with police peppering him with questions.
So here's hoping that Smith will learn how to avoid those situations in the future. It will take tremendous discipline and introspection for him to fix the internal problems that have landed him in his place. But the major challenge for Smith won't just be what he does once the party is over. It will be how he handles the fun in the first place.