SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
You might look for a player along the sidelines, in the Super Bowl tomorrow, named Alex Smith and wonder, as he might, if he'll be the next Wally Pipp or Ken Mattingly. Wally Pipp was the Yankee first baseman in 1925 who had a headache; and was told to take two aspirin, 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. Wally 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 Alex Smith was cleared to play, he's been on the sidelines ever since, counseling the quarterback who replaced him. Sounds a little like expecting the Harbaugh brothers to give each other helpful advice on how win tomorrow's Super Bowl.
Some fans have called the benching of Alex Smith unfair. All he did was play superbly, and get injured. But Alex 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.
Alex 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 Alex Smith might look to the sky this weekend, and the story of Ken Mattingly. He 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 measles. So Ken Mattingly was on the ground when Apollo 13 radioed: Houston, we have a problem. But he 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, Ken Mattingly commanded the Apollo 16 lunar command module. As Alex Smith says, the good ones stay ready.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR," FROM FILM "PINOCCHIO")
SIMON: Jiminy Cricket. You're listening to NPR News.
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