It's been nine years now since Aldon Smith arrived in the NFL and crashed through it like a comet. He finished just a half-sack short of tying the league's rookie record and was runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He followed that up with a first-team All-Pro campaign while making a run at the single-season sack record. His peers voted him the seventh-best player in the NFL heading into the 2013 season.
Just two years later, Smith was out of the league -- his struggles off the field sadly engulfing his success on it. But his career isn't over.
The 30-year-old defensive end was reinstated this spring and signed by the Cowboys. After missing more than four years of football, he's determined to prove he's a different person but also a similar player to the one that wreaked havoc for the 49ers almost a decade ago.
"I still feel great. I still feel young. I can still move well," Smith told Cowboys beat reporters, per Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News. "I know how to be a leader. I know how to win. And also, with everything that I've just gone through in life, people can talk to me about whatever they need."
Smith asserted that his motivation for rehabilitating his life wasn't simply to play football. He pointed to a poignant conversation with his grandmother, who urged him to "do better" before she passed from ALS last year.
"I'm not trying to become a better person. I am becoming a better person," Smith said. "... I got to a point where I was fed up with how I was living my life, and I knew I needed to change."
The former pass-rushing star hasn't been seen in action since 2015, when he briefly suited up for the Raiders. Smith was suspended midway through that season because of a prior hit-and-run, an incident that also prompted his release from the 49ers. It's anyone's guess what kind of player the Cowboys are getting. His contract reflects the risk and reward involved -- a one-year deal worth up to $4 million, including $2 million in incentives but no money guaranteed.
"I know how I feel," Smith said, noting he's 285 pounds. "I know what I'm capable of doing, and I just plan on going out and executing what I believe I can do."
Of course, how he performs accounts for only half of his comeback story.
"It has been a journey indeed and a journey that I'm grateful for," Smith said. "I've had time to really work on myself and take advantage of all the support and things that have been offered to to me. ... In the past, I was a young 12-year-old or young teenage boy in a man's body. I was a man on the outside but a boy inside. The way that I handled those issues, life and everything, was in that immature manner. That was fear-based and just not handling things the way I should have.
"With the time I've had to work on myself, it's allowed me and given me the chance to grow into the man that I am now, so the man on the inside fits how the man on the outside looks. It's just given me a new perspective and outlook on life. It's allowed me to do things like be able to return to this sport and feel like I'm ready to give it all."