49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

July 2, 2012
Brees on Smith: He's come up the hard way, and he's handled it very well


Yes, I'm aware that Drew Brees doesn't play for the San Francisco 49ers. But I thought the following Q&A was well worth posting on this 49ers blog, not only for what Brees says about counterpart Alex Smith but also for what he says about overcoming the greatest obstacle of his professional career. That is, there are bigger, life lessons that transcend team allegiance.

And, yes, I realize I'm coming off like a smitten schoolgirl. But when a reporter finds someone who actually pauses after a question and thinks about his answers in the say-nothing-at-all-costs NFL, well ... sigh ... I heart DB.

The following interview was done for a story about throwing guru Tom House, a long-time confidant of Brees' who recently began working with Smith. The story ran in Saturday's Bee.

Q: When did you first meet Tom House?

DB: January if 2004. And I was coming off a really tough 2003 season - high expectations for our team, we had more talent than we ever had in San Diego, it was my third year, second year as the starter. And I was really looking for myself to make that jump. And it was just an all-around disappointing season. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. We went 4-12. Going into that offseason, I'd been told the team was going to go out and either draft a guy with a high draft pick or go out and find a free agent to basically come in and take my job. And that was the year they got Phillip Rivers. So I knew that was going to happen. ... I needed an edge. I needed to find whatever edge possible. So I wanted to take a look at everything I was doing from a training standpoint to a dietary standpoint, my sleep habits, just my mental preparation. Every part of my game, every part of what would prepare me to be the best quarterback I could be, I wanted to take a really hard look at.

smith pumped.jpg

Q: So why Tom House?

DB: Tom had a great reputation in biomechanics, the mechanics of throwing, but also as a mental coach. And so I went and saw Tom in January of '04, and we've been working together ever since. We were working pretty intensely together for about three years - '04, '05, '06 - when I was coming off my shoulder surgery in '06. Since then I talk to him, or I hear from him, at least once a week during the season and whenever I feel like something's missing or I just need a little advice. He's one of my great mentors. I reach out to Tom quite often just to get a little a little - whatever it is - a little encouragement, a little piece of advice, bounce something of him. He's really meant so much to my career."

Q: Was there one thing that you worked on that stood out, that really benefitted you?

DB: You know, it was two-fold: there was the physical aspect and the mental aspect. The most important was the mental aspect. I think he saw what I could be, who I could be. I was a young player who obviously had had a lot of success in college. And you come to the NFL with high expectations. And I thought I had worked hard to earn a starting spot. You know, I had to compete with Doug Flutie going into my second year, 2002. And I won the job as the starting quarterback. Nothing was given to me; earned it. Then all of a sudden I was in a position where all of this was about to be taken away from me. And I'd say I was in a vulnerable spot. I had always been an extremely confident person. And yet things just weren't happening for me. So I don't know if I was losing confidence, but I was certainly getting frustrated. And I think what Tom really helped me do was understand certain leadership elements and how to assert yourself and how to manage and how to prioritize. But in the end, to make sure that when it was time for that (2004) season to start - or really that offseason - that when I walked into the door of that Chargers facility that everybody on that team knew that I was the guy, that I was the starting quarterback, that I was going to be the guy to lead them.

Q: What do you do to convey that? How did you change from '03 to '04?

DB: I did things with Tom I'd never done before. I learned about things I had never ... I'd always been a pretty natural athlete. I'd pick up a ball and I'd throw it. I feel like I had great coaching in college in regard to the fundementals of throwing and that kind of thing but I never truly understood throwing motion and how it all works and the kinetic chain and the transfer of energy and the hip-and-shoulder disassociation and all these terms I now know from working with Tom (laughs). I knew throwing motion just from the standpoint of, 'Hey, I can pick up a ball and I'd throw it.' And that came very natural to me. But this was the first time I'd ever gotten to really hone in on the mechanics and understand them, especially after my shoulder surgery. But I would just say, the more you begin to learn those things ... and I worked extremely hard that '04 offseason. I just wanted to know that I had exhausted all the options. That if for some reason this NFL thing didn't work out for me, I could never look back and say, 'Well, I wish I would have done this, I wish I would have done that.' I was doing everything possible to put myself in the best position to succeed. And that gives you a lot of confidence. And it also helps you relax. That was part of what I needed to do was just to be able to learn to relax and not be so stressed and put so much pressure on myself. Because that's something I had been doing during the '03 season. We lost our first five games in a row. I was 1-7 as a starter before I got benched. Then I finished the season 2-9 as the starter. It was a rough deal. I had never experienced anything like that. I had always been on winning teams, had always had success, and it never happened. So when it did happen, I had a hard time with that. So I was pressing, and I was probably doing things that were out of character and out of the ordinary for me.

Q: He talks about how important it is for an athlete's self perception to match with how others see them. Was there a disconnect with you?

DB: Yeah. Yeah, we would take tests. We'd take personality tests and that kind of thing. That was his big thing: You want to make sure the way you perceive yourself matches up with the way others perceive you. Because perception is reality. So I remember taking this test and the results came back that I was not who I thought I was. You learn a lot about yourself that way. You learn the positives and the negatives. This is what I really need to work on or 'This is not how I perceive myself. And yet because of the way I answer these questions, it's probably the way others perceive me.' So that was a learning experience. The whole process, I'd say, you learn a lot about yourself. You take who you want to be and take who you are, and then you try to take yourself to who you want to be.

Q: Do you try to change how people perceive you?

DB: The last thing you want to do is try to be somebody you're not or try to do something outside your personality because I think people see through that. So in the end, you want to be who you are. But I think there's a way to channel that. You know? Take the things that I am and what I'm good at and try to use that to be the best leader I can be, the best quarterback I can be, the best whatever it is. Just try to channel those things you're good at but also understand that you need to work on and improve upon."

Q: Did you try to please too many people?

DB: Absolutely, absolutely. Worry about the things you can control. I think that all the time. As a quarterback, you think you can control everything. You feel like you should. And it's ok for you to have that mentality; that's why you're in that position. Because you do have a strong ability to influence a lot of people. But in the end, there's only so much you can do. And you put yourself in the best position to succeed and try to put others in the best positions to succeed and worry about only the things you can control. For me, in that '04 offseason, I was so angry and disappointed in the way the season had gone, that they were going to draft a guy in '04 ... that was causing me stress. 'Hey, they're going to draft a guy, they're going to bring a guy in to take my job. They don't believe in me,' and all this stuff. I don't control those things. I don't control who they bring in. I don't control who they draft. So that was part of that maturation process, that '04 philosophy: learning what I can and can't control, and then just focusing on the things I can control. I can control my diet and the way that I train and the way I mentally prepare myself, the way that I sleep and all those things. And that's what I chose to focus on. And that led to results, and that gave me confidence. And it also helped me to relax because I knew I had done everything to be the best I could be.

Q: Do you see similarities between you and Alex Smith?

DB: I met Alex ... Alex actually came and trained with us a little bit down here (in San Diego) with another guy, Todd Durkin, who I still train with. We worked down here in what would have been - '06 maybe? It was when Reggie Bush was a rookie because they went to high school together in Helix (high school) here in San Diego. That's when I first met Alex. And you could immediately see, 'Hey this guy's a great athlete, he's got a great head on his shoulders, he works extremely hard and all those things. What made me like him and follow him and follow his career - obviously he's had a lot of different offensive systems. A lot different coaches, a lot of turnover around him, and he's had to suffer through some injuries. It's been one tough break after another for him. And yet, you feel like he's always handled himself very well despite the circumstances and despite the tough situations. And so whenever you see a guy like that succeed like he was able to last year - at our expense (laughs) - you still have to be very proud of the guy and happy for him. Any time you see a guy overcome adversity and handle to the right way, I'm happy for those guys. And they deserve it. Because it's not easy to do. Not everybody can do it. But he definitely seems like he's had to come up the hard way in that regard, and he's handled it very well."

Q: When did you talk to Smith about Tom House?

DB It was at the Super Bowl. He asked me about working with Tom. He said he had some things mechanically he had to work on - the shoulder and that kind of thing. And I said, 'There's no better guy to do that than Tom House. And I'll reach out to Tom and let him know you'll be contacting him. But I think it's a great fit, and let me know what you think. I'm happy to set you guys up.' Like I said, I have a lot of respect for Alex. I can appreciate the road he's travelled to get to where he's at. Certainly, I love Tom House I know what he's meant for my career and I know just how much he can help, both mentally and physically, especially at the quarterback position."

Q: Did he also help you after the '06 shoulder surgery?

DB: I had to learn how to throw again, honestly. I couldn't throw for four months. And when I came back and started throwing, it was just throwing five yards. So I had to start from scratch and I had to re-learn the throwing mechanics again. I mean, it was there. It was just a matter of getting it all wired correctly again.

Q: So there's really no overstating just how big those shoulder injuries are for a quarterback?

DB: Yeah, it can be significant. And like Tom says, there's so many little elements to it. If you hurt one thing, you can start over compensating, your mechanics change, you start putting more stress on a different part of your shoulder, your elbow - there's a lot of things that go into a throwing motion.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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