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Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Podium or not, 49ers' Alex Smith handles media day

By Kate Fagan

NEW ORLEANS -- On the podium is a director's chair with a Gatorade towel draped over the arm.

Three small bottles of Gatorade, sweating as they rise to room temperature, have been carefully arranged in a small orange cooler and placed at the foot of the chair. Another Gatorade bottle, this one flavored Glacier Freeze, a bionic light blue, rests on the podium tabletop next to a crisp San Francisco 49ers hat. A carefully tilted microphone wrapped in the NFL logo is the centerpiece, with a handheld camera mounted at an angle, aiming at the empty space where the future occupant of this particular podium will sit.

The clock inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome flashes 9:59 a.m., and the 49ers begin filing out of the far tunnel, ambling toward the throng of reporters awaiting them for Super Bowl media day. San Francisco starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and backup Alex Smith are near the middle of the pack, at first heading in the same direction. Then Kaepernick peels off from the group, turns right, and walks toward one of the 14 podiums. He climbs into the director's chair and looks out at the crowd of reporters -- there are silver bleachers arranged to accommodate them all -- and the dozens of bulky cameras ready to capture his every utterance.

Bittersweet. This is the first use of the word during Smith's session, but it won't be the last. Over the next hour and 15 minutes, it will be repeated approximately 25 times, either by Smith or someone addressing him.

Smith keeps walking, slipping through the entrance designated for everyone else, the players not assigned a podium by the NFL, the ones who are forced to carve out a spot on the field, amid the fray, and hold court as best they can. But Smith doesn't get far. He is like a magnet, collecting reporters with each step he takes. As his orbit expands, he gradually slows, and eventually he is forced to stop.

Super Bowl podium assignments are rare for backup quarterbacks, even if the QB in question was a high-performing starter for half the season, as Smith was before suffering a concussion against the St. Louis Rams in Week 9. So he will stand on this spot of turf for the next 75 minutes -- close to, and yet still so far from, Kaepernick's podium.

Smith is handed a headset belonging to NFL radio, but the hosts don't pitch to him for nearly four minutes, leaving him to wait in silence. The pause might feel awkward for some people, and yet watching Smith, one might wonder if this will be his favorite part of the session.

Finally, Smith begins to nod ever so slightly, listening to the voice coming through the headset. "No question," he says. "I'm not going to lie about any of that. It's tough to watch at times. It's definitely bittersweet."

Bittersweet. This is the first use of the word during Smith's session, but it won't be the last. Over the next hour and 15 minutes, it will be repeated approximately 25 times, either by Smith or by someone addressing him. Because that's exactly what this week is for him: bittersweet. The eight-year veteran is making his first trip to the Super Bowl, but he is now the backup QB for a team he took to the NFC championship game last season. In fact, in Smith's final full game this season, against the Arizona Cardinals, he finished 18-of-19 for 232 passing yards. He did not lose his starting spot so much as Kaepernick ripped it from him.

And yet Smith does not have a podium, a fact that former NFL star Deion Sanders will address later, when he arrives with only 13 minutes left during media availability. Sanders will put a hand on Smith's shoulder, lean in, and say that it's messed up he doesn't have a podium. "There's only so many podiums," Smith will respond, unwilling to give even the great Deion Sanders a morsel of controversy. Sanders will finish the interview by saying, "Respect for you," and then the two will hug.

But right now, Smith has just removed that NFL radio headset, and he still has 70 minutes of questions to answer -- although really there is only one question, disguised in dozens of different ways. It basically goes like this: You were The Man, but now you're not. How does that feel?

Of course, it doesn't matter how the question is phrased, or what order the words are put in, because Smith isn't budging off his line. Sure, he admits that he's disappointed. But he still has a job to do, and he plans on being a good teammate. He says this, or some version of it, more than a dozen times, gradually pivoting around the axis so that by the end of the session, he has issued this response while facing in every different direction.

About midway through, a member of the 49ers support staff hands Smith a small bottle of water. The QB never opens it; he just twists the label in his hands.

Then comes the next question, "Is it bittersweet being here?"

The hint of a smile appears on Smith's face, but he swallows it away. "Yeah," he says. "Did I envision myself as a starter? Yeah. But it's still a great thing being here." A minute later, a man approaches who, judging by the logo on his hat, is a fan of the 49ers. He extends his hand to Smith and says, "We appreciate what you did for us, and continue to do." Smith thanks him. For the quarterback, it's a momentary reprieve.

Then back to the gaggle. About that recent report, the one that says you'll be asking for your release from the 49ers? Smith shakes his head. He has no clue where that came from. Truth is, he says, he hasn't thought about the future -- at least not the one that exists past the Super Bowl. And don't attempt to trick him into thinking about the future he says he's not thinking about. "Are you mentally tough enough for any market?" one reporter asks. Smith answers that he believes he is.

"So New York doesn't scare you?"

Smith squints for a second, perhaps while a New York Post headline  "Alex Ready For Broadway Debut!" -- flashes across his mind. "I'm not thinking about markets," he says.

Someone asks if Smith is convinced he would still be the starter if not for the concussion. The QB pauses, then says, "I haven't even thought about it."

At one point toward the end of the session, before a fresh batch of reporters arrives to ask the same questions all over again, there is a long pause -- a silence no one fills.

"So ... uh," says one reporter, clearly searching for his next question.

Smith smiles and shrugs.

"It's a little weird," says the reporter. "Right?"

"Yeah," Smith says. "It is."