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History Sometimes Rewards Those Who Are Sidelined

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith looks on from the sidelines during the overtime period against the New York Giants on Jan. 22, 2012, in San Francisco. i i

hide captionSan Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith looks on from the sidelines during the overtime period against the New York Giants on Jan. 22, 2012, in San Francisco.

G. Newman Lowrance/AP
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith looks on from the sidelines during the overtime period against the New York Giants on Jan. 22, 2012, in San Francisco.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith looks on from the sidelines during the overtime period against the New York Giants on Jan. 22, 2012, in San Francisco.

G. Newman Lowrance/AP

You might look for a player along the sidelines in the Super Bowl on Sunday named Alex Smith and wonder, as he might, if he'll be the next Wally Pipp or Ken Mattingly.

Pipp was the Yankee first baseman in 1925 who had a headache and was told to take two aspirin and sit out the game. A young player named Lou Gehrig took his place — and stayed at first base for 14 years, becoming one of baseball's most storied players.

Pipp wound up working in a screw factory. He was a good sport who told fans in later years, "I took the two most expensive aspirin in history."

For the first half of this season, Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers was the highest-rated quarterback in football. But he suffered a concussion in the 10th week of the season and was benched when he said he had blurred vision. A fine quarterback named Colin Kaepernick stepped in, and although Smith was cleared to play, he's been on the sidelines ever since, counseling the quarterback who replaced him.

That sounds a little like expecting the Harbaugh brothers to give each other helpful advice on how to win the Super Bowl.

Some fans called the benching of Smith unfair. All he did was play superbly and get injured. But Smith accepted his demotion with grace, telling reporters this week, "I want to be the same teammate that I've always expected my teammates to be."

Of course, if football is to battle the brain damage so many players have suffered from repeated blows to their heads, they need great players like Alex Smith to have the nerve to tell coaches the truth about their health.

"We're all going to finish this game at some point," he says. "You have a lot of life ahead of you, and we only have one brain."

Smith will almost certainly get a chance to play elsewhere next year. Of course he may never get to another Super Bowl. "You don't pout or mope," he says. "You stay ready. The good ones stay ready."

Which is why Smith might look to the sky this weekend and the story of Ken Mattingly. Mattingly was an astronaut on the crew slated to fly Apollo 13 to the moon, but had to be replaced just days before launch because he got exposed to the measles. So Mattingly was on the ground when Apollo 13 radioed, "Houston, we have a problem," but used his intense training in the spacecraft to help devise a way to get the crew back safely. His help was invaluable, but invisible.

Two years later, Mattingly commanded the Apollo 16 lunar command module. As Alex Smith says, "The good ones stay ready."

Correction Feb. 4, 2013

Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Ken Mattingly had walked on the moon.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small
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