The Side of
Many Don't Know
Smith and his foundation are changing lives
“Imagine if people knew who he really was.”
Sade Burrell knows the real Alex Smith. It was his foundation that changed her life.
Their relationship has nothing to do with touchdowns, wins or even football for that matter—it has to do with a side of Smith that many don’t know about due in large part to the fact that he’s the last person who will ever promote anything about himself, even when he has every reason to as he does with the work he’s done with the Alex Smith Foundation—a name he laughs about when asked.
Even that much self-promotion makes him a little uncomfortable.
It’s a foundation that helps out foster kids like Burrell, who grew up in an environment entirely different than Smith in the San Diego area.
Between the ages of 12 and 18, Burrell was in and out of different group homes and even juvenile hall. There were times that she’d be living with her aunt and five siblings, but Burrell’s anger would get the best of her and she’d be taken away—once on her birthday, then on Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
There was no steady influence. There was no support.
“I felt like lot of people had let me down – so because of that, I didn’t know how to express myself and I would violently express myself,” Burrell explained of her childhood.
Burrell dealt with more before the age of 16 than most do in a lifetime.
Her own mother, whom she hasn’t spoken with in a year but is trying to mend a relationship with, wasn’t a positive influence in her life.
She has come to terms with how her mother treated her—citing “mental health issues,” but refuses to let it affect her ability to be a mother to her own two children, a boy and girl—ages 5 and 6—whom her life is now centered around as a single mother.
“People always say to me, ‘How can you be a mother if you’ve never had a mother?’” Burrell explained. “I say to them, ‘Number one: I know what I wish I would have had, and I wish I would have had somebody to hug me.’ My mother never hugged me. With my kids, if I don’t hug them or kiss them, they’ll think something is wrong.
“I just can’t believe certain things were done to me because I could never do that to a child.”
It was never easy for Burrell.
A social worker considered her a “bad apple” and removed her from her aunt’s home—where she was living with her brother and four sisters—at the age of 12.
Burrell was sent to the Polinsky Children’s Center in San Diego, and she was so angry about being removed from her family, she acted out and was arrested.
Burrell was sent to juvenile hall before later returning once again to Polinsky.
I can remember them locking me in a room with blue carpet and all it had was one window."
- Burrell on her group home experience
Eventually, Burrell was sent to a group home, which is where she had a wakeup call.
“I can remember them locking me in a room with blue carpet and all it had was one window,” Burrell explained of one of the group homes. “They only had the window to check me to make sure I was alive. There was feces and stuff all over this carpet.”
The group home experience wasn’t a positive one for Burrell, who would go to court and make a show of things by bringing Ziploc bags full of cockroaches to show the judge—explaining how they were being treated.
It didn’t have the impact she thought it would.
“They didn’t believe me,” Burrell explained of what she was telling the judge. “I just seemed crazy to them.”
But one staff member of the group home eventually challenged her to be better, offering Burrell an opportunity on Ash Wednesday to be good for 30 days, and that she’d reward her with a Tupac CD and a visit to Red Lobster.
Burrell responded to that challenge.
To this day, Burrell has a special connection with Red Lobster because of what it signified—the beginning of a change.
Her other outlet at the time was sports, which started with basketball, but at 5 feet 1 inch tall, Burrell’s basketball career didn’t last long, and so she turned to track—particularly the 400-meter sprint—often considered the most difficult race for an athlete.
“It took a lot of mental toughness to get through a lot of things that I’ve been through, so running the 400 was nothing,” she said.
Burrell had already been through so much, and while things were getting better, there was still something missing.
He kept asking, 'Why wouldn't we at least help them? If you go as a student athlete to college, you get help and support, but foster kids get none?"
- Smith's mother, Pam Smith
Alex Smith’s father is an educator and his mother works in social services, and they gave Smith and his three siblings—a brother and two sisters—the kind of upbringing that everyone wants for their children.
Smith’s mother and father weren’t used to the limelight, but there they were in New York, supporting their son, who was just selected as the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
Smith stands with friends and family after being selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers at the 2005 NFL Draft
After the family returned home from their trip, which included a few days in San Francisco after they left New York, Smith was being pulled in a lot of directions. He had some money and a lot of people had ideas on where he could spend it.
That was when his mother took him to San Pasqual Academy in northern San Diego County.
Smith was originally drawn to the school, which is a residential school comprised of about 135 kids who are bouncing around the foster care system and are too old to be adopted, because of their eight-man football team.
They had just beat La Jolla Country Day, which is one of the most prominent private schools in San Diego, for the division championship. That’s what initially interested Smith when his mother told him about the school.
He wanted to meet these kids, who couldn’t have grown up much differently.
One of the things that caught Smith off guard was talking with the kids about what they were going to do after they graduated. A lot of these kids were only two or three years younger than him.
At the time, once these kids graduated and hit 18 years old, they were on their own. The system cut them off.
“It just started to really hit home for me because I really appreciated all the support I had always been given from my family and friends, and it didn’t end on my 18th birthday or graduation,” Smith explained.
“Alex, here he is at 20 years old, and he’s had a lot of family support,” Smith’s mother, Pam, explained. “He always talks about how he was not a foster kid and had a big, strong, loving family. He looked at these kids that didn’t have anything and they’re facing this daunting task of life.
It just started to really hit home for me because I really appreciated all the support I had always been given from my family and friends, and it didn’t end on my 18th birthday or graduation."
- Smith after visiting San Pasqual
“He was facing this daunting task of entering the NFL at 20. I think he felt that accord and was just amazed that there was nothing for them, so he was really taken from the first time we went.”
Smith wanted to know more, so Pam, who works in social services, pulled together a bunch of people to give Smith a half-day workshop to educate him about the child welfare and foster care system in California.
“He kept asking, ‘Why wouldn’t we at least help them? If you go as a student athlete to college, you get help and support, but foster kids get none?
“It just kept resonating,” Pam recalled.
Smith continued his search for more information, which included going to hear Antwone Fisher, a foster kid who inspired a Hollywood movie about how joining the Navy changed his life, speak at a conference.
Smith was able to meet Fisher and learn more about his story.
It was around the same time that Smith began learning about what other players were doing, and he knew he wanted to do something different.
“When I turned pro, I started going to all my peer’s events—like the parties, the golf tournaments, fundraisers and things like this—I remember going to a lot of them and leaving and thinking that I didn’t even know what it was about,” Smith explained. “Where did the money go? People would say that it’s for the kids, but what does that mean?”
Smith wanted to do more and find a more specific niche, so when he came upon a program at Cal State Fullerton called the “Guardian Scholars” program—that’s when it clicked. He knew what he wanted to do.
Smith took the shell of that program at Fullerton, which helped the foster students in college with housing and a few other things, and he tweaked it just a bit.
Smith met with the President of San Diego State University and explained his vision and what he wanted to do, and their goals and missions were in line.
That’s when Smith established the “Guardian Scholars” program at San Diego State through the Alex Smith Foundation.
Smith's first "Guardians Scholars" class at San Diego State
He was going to provide scholarships and support to foster care students looking to further their education. It wasn’t just about money, as some of the students did qualify for some aide, but in addition to closing that gap on what they needed monetarily, Smith was going to provide support.
“I compared it to my experience on a college scholarship,” Smith explained. “I wanted to give these students extra help and support. They dealt with so many different things because they had to overcome so much. We were there for them like a family member would be.”
The foundation had a full-time employee on campus, whose entire salary was covered by Smith.
Smith’s representative was there to be a resource for these students for anything they’d need, whether it was finding a counselor or a tutor, or helping them deal with how to manage their money.
Many of these students never had this kind of support before.
The foundation also helped high school students take college classes, providing transportation for them and everything.
“It’s definitely something that we believed all along, right from the start,” Smith said. “I wanted to do it right.”
Through Smith’s program at San Diego State, 23 former foster kids graduated college.
“I thought it was incredible,” Alex’s wife, Elizabeth, said of seeing him get involved in this way. “He was so passionate about this group of kids that really have an unheard voice. People don’t know about them—they don’t understand and know the statistics and it’s really sad. They just get pushed aside.”
Within two years of leaving the system, one-third of foster kids become homeless, half are unemployed and one-fourth become incarcerated.
Less than one in 10 attend college and only one in 100 graduate.
Those are the numbers that caught Smith’s attention and drove him to this cause.
I wouldn’t know the concept of family if it weren’t for them. The true definition of family. Alex just changed my view on people in general. He was very humble, understanding and caring. For me, I wouldn’t be who I am right now [without him].”
- Burrell on Smith
Sade Burrell will never forget the moment.
She was walking across the campus at Cuyamaca College in San Diego, where she been going to school for the past three years, when her phone rang.
Burrell had applied for a scholarship through the Alex Smith Foundation.
It initially took some convincing for her to even apply for this because, as she said, “I’m not taking a scholarship from anybody that went to Helix High school.”
Smith attended Helix. Burrell went to Mount Miguel. They were rivals.
Helix High (left), Mount Miguel High (right)
“Helix and Mount Miguel don’t get along at all,” she laughed.
Burrell needed the money to pay for school. She didn’t have family. She still didn’t have support, but she was running track and was excelling, which she said kept her out of trouble.
But that phone call was a moment that changed her life.
“They never once said, ‘You got the scholarship,’” Burrell recalled. “They said, ‘You’re part of the family.’
“This was one of the first times in my life that someone was offering me a family.”
With everything she had been through up until that point, which began with an abusive home and then being in and out of group homes and juvenile hall as an adolescent, plus a high school that had told her she was more likely to get pregnant than graduate, Burrell had picked herself up and began her own transformation.
She began that process on her own, but this phone call provided her a foundation to stand on.
From the time I had my two children, they’ve been there. They threw the baby shower for my daughter. When I went to the University of Southern California to get my Master’s degree, they were there to support me."
- Burrell on Smith
“From that day forward, they’ve been part of my life,” Burrell explained of the Smith family. “From the time I had my two children, they’ve been there. They threw the baby shower for my daughter. When I went to the University of Southern California to get my Master’s degree, they were there to support me.
“Alex is like a big brother to me.”
As they had said from the beginning when she first interviewed for the scholarship, they were family.
“I wouldn’t know the concept of family if it weren’t for them,” Burrell explained. “The true definition of family. Alex just changed my view on people in general. He was very humble, understanding and caring. For me, I wouldn’t be who I am right now [without him].”
Later in her life, the Smiths helped Burrell get out of a relationship that many in her situation find themselves falling back into.
“They never judged me or looked at me funny or anything like that,” Burrell explained of her divorce that was finalized in 2014.
They were there to support her through everything.
It’s a cycle the Smith’s not only helped Burrell and her two kids break; they completely reversed it.
Burrell is now an advocate for foster youth. She’s written a book and given lectures and spoke at legislative hearings as well. She’s currently working as a counselor and a coordinator for foster youth at San Diego Mesa College.
“The way he treated me is the way I treat my students,” Burrell explained. “When they have award ceremonies, I show up. They always say, ‘We know you’re busy, Sade.’
“No. [Alex] was busy, too, and he made himself available for me. I will do the same for you.
“Alex has helped and taught me that no matter how high you make it in life, you always go back and help others.”
It meant the world because people can say that they care all day, but if you don’t see them, who cares what they say? He put in effort.”
- Burrell on Smith
Unlike some other athletes and their foundations, Smith was actively engaged with this program and the daily interactions with these students.
While he was with the 49ers, Smith would fly down to San Diego to meet with the students in the program to talk about their classes and how they were doing.
23 former foster youths have graduated from San Diego State University through the Alex Smith Foundation Guardian Scholars Program
“It meant the world because people can say that they care all day, but if you don’t see them, who cares what they say?” Burrell explained. “He put in effort.”
This level of commitment was always the plan, going back to when they started this foundation and focusing on this niche of kids.
“These aren’t kids that you turn around and have one event, raise some money and it’s done,” Pam explained. “This is a long haul thing. If you change the trajectory of one of these kids’ lives, all of their kids from then on are changed.”
Smith was invested.
“I would meet with these kids in the middle of the semester and I would do the run-through with their grades,” Smith explained. “Some were a breeze and it was going great, and others, I had to push them hard and tell them it’s not acceptable.
“We wanted to grow with that and I think we wanted it to be personal, sincere and real. This was a real thing. Those San Diego State kids—I have a very close relationship with, I know all of them very well.”
Smith was a starting NFL quarterback—his name was everywhere, and he spent much of his free time investing into these kids.
They didn’t want to disappoint him. If you’re a foster kid and you don’t have anybody, it’s easy to give up. If you’ve got somebody that you don’t want to disappoint, that makes a difference.”
- Pam Smith on the kids
These students having someone there to genuinely care about their success—many times for the first time in their lives—provided a dynamic in which they hadn’t ever experienced before.
“Having that connection and that stability is everything to a former foster youth because that’s all you have to hold on to – those connections you have,” Burrell explained. “Talk about a great man. For me to actually know him as a person, not just as a great football player—it’s special.
“I cherish the connection we share.
“They didn’t want to disappoint him,” Pam explained of the dynamic. “If you’re a foster kid and you don’t have anybody, it’s easy to give up. If you’ve got somebody that you don’t want to disappoint, that makes a difference.”
Burrell didn’t want to disappoint Smith or anyone in the family, and she remembers her trepidation in telling Smith she was pregnant.
“I was scared to tell him,” she recalled. “I remember him saying, ‘We’re always going to be proud of you, just make sure that you finish that degree.’
“It was like a coach talking to a player and I understood that language—just get the job done.”
The students who went through this program together naturally gravitated towards one another.
Smith had created a family inside of a family.
“It almost kind of became their team,” he explained. “All these kids were in it together. They could rely on each other and push each other. That was probably something we didn’t totally plan on at first.”
Smith’s passion for this faction of kids didn’t just stop with these students. He also advocated on the behalf of the next generation of kids who’d be entering similar situations.
While with the 49ers, Smith, on two separate occasions, testified at legislative hearings in Sacramento on behalf of Assembly Bill 12, which extended support for kids in foster care from age 18 to 21.
After failing the first time around, the bill was eventually passed in 2010.
“To see him testify and listen to him speak at things – it’s just amazing,” Pam explained. “Then I see him sit down with these kids over and over. He’ll take them bowling and do things with them. It’s hard to say how much it means to me to see that he’s used his platform and a bunch of his own money.
“He and Elizabeth make decisions together and they’re extremely generous. He just keeps fighting for these kids. It’s the thing I’m most proud of.”
Back in 2013, the Boston Globe did a report the Smiths were all proud of, and it ultimately gave them validation in letting them know that what they were doing was special.
The report looked at different professional athletes’ foundations across multiple sports, and through a review of more than 150 IRS filings of 50 different non-profits between 2008 and 2010, they wanted to know how much of the money being raised for these foundations was actually going towards the causes they promoted.
The lavish parties and golf tournaments that many guys throw cost a lot of money.
This report singled out the Alex Smith Foundation and used it as an example of doing it well—saying that “91 percent of the funds on scholarships and grants went to help foster teens attend college and transition to adulthood.”
According to non-profit specialists reviewed in that report, 65 to 75 percent is an acceptable minimum, and more than half of the foundations they reviewed failed to reach that threshold.
The Alex Smith Foundation is an example of how it’s done right.
I was just so struck by his passion, his inspiration and his true understanding of the challenges that these youth face. You could really just feel the commitment that he had to making a change, shining a light on the issue and creating opportunities for youth to really realize their full potential.
- Denise Cross, CEO of Cornerstones of Care
The next step for the foundation is part of what makes it so special—it’s replicable.
After Smith was traded to the Chiefs before the 2013 season, the last student through their “Guardian Scholars” program at San Diego State had just graduated.
With the move to the middle of the country, it would have been hard for Smith to be as hands-on, flying across the country to meet with students all the way from Kansas City, so they stopped the program.
But San Diego State didn’t want to stop, so they continued on, finding their own ways to generate the money for the scholarships.
They found a way to make it work by using the same structure that Smith and his family had created with their foundation. The legacy of what they began, not long after he was drafted all the way back in 2005, has continued.
“He wanted to be a voice for a voice that’s unheard,” Elizabeth explained.
In some small way, because of Smith’s efforts, more voices are now being heard.
Over the past few years, they’ve had as many as 250 former foster kids in the program at San Diego State with a graduation rate of 86 percent.
We’re just trying to help, trying to make our community better and trying to make the world better a little bit. There’s always somebody out there that doesn’t have it as good, but the best part of all of this has been getting to know these kids, giving them a chance and seeing them go run with it.”
- Smith on his foundation
What’s most impressive is that the program has been replicated at Cal. State San Marcos and Cal. State San Bernardino.
It’s continuing to be paid forward and it’s only growing.
“We’re just trying to help, trying to make our community better and trying to make the world better a little bit,” Smith explained. “There’s always somebody out there that doesn’t have it as good, but the best part of all of this has been getting to know these kids, giving them a chance and seeing them go run with it.”
Even though Smith doesn’t run the program at San Diego State anymore, his program is still very much active with this faction of kids.
Back in 2010, when Smith was advocating for his program to be replicated around the country and speaking with those with similar passions, one of the few cities they targeted was Kansas City.
Denise Cross, the CEO of Cornerstones of Care that’s based here in Kansas City, remembers Smith coming and speaking with their organization years before he’d be a member of the Chiefs.
“I was just so struck by his passion, his inspiration and his true understanding of the challenges that these youth face,” Cross recalled. “You could really just feel the commitment that he had to making a change, shining a light on the issue and creating opportunities for youth to really realize their full potential.
“It struck me how genuine he was that it’s personal for him, and he’s willing to invest both his time and his voice into making change.”
Cross, who’s a Chiefs fan, was elated when she heard the news that Smith had been traded to the Chiefs, and it wasn’t long before they were connected again.
The Alex Smith Foundation has partnered with Cornerstones of Care and their YES program in Kansas City, both financially as well as providing their time and resources.
It was important to Smith to find a way to stay involved with something that’s been a passion of his for the past 12 years.
One of the first things Smith did after they partnered was provide a proper graduation ceremony for the kids who make it through the program.
Before, they would meet at a park and hand out certificates.
Smith hosting the kids at Arrowhead Stadium
“Alex decided that it would be a good idea to host everybody at Arrowhead Stadium,” Elizabeth explained.
From the time his mother first took him to San Pasqual Academy to meet that eight-man football team, Smith has had a passion for helping this particular group of kids.
“I can’t tell you how many people that work in the system or are kids in the system that have said to me how much it means to them that he’s taken this on,” Pam explained. “The need is so much greater than what we can even support, so knowing that we’re doing the part and helping to spread the word, I think it’s something our entire family will always be proud of because we see the impact it’s making.”
When it’s all said and done, Smith’s legacy will go beyond wins and losses and touchdowns and interceptions. It will include the work he’s done with foster kids.
“Football obviously means a ton to me and I put a lot into it,” Smith explained. “My family and I have sacrificed a lot for me to be able to play, but at the same time, it can’t be your sole identifier. It can’t be everything about you because this is going to end one day.
“Certainly, we are put on a pedestal as athletes and I can remember being a kid, loving ball and looking up to so many guys, and I do think it’s our responsibility to set an example when you can. It’s hard always to be right or perfect, but just to do right when you can.”
The work he’s done away from the field isn’t lost upon those who are around him the most while he’s on it.
“He and his wife are very kindhearted people,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid explained. “He’s put his heart and soul into it – helping out foster kids. You just know it’s going to be good if he’s putting his effort into it. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
One of his teammates, receiver Albert Wilson, who just began his own foundation this offseason to help foster kids as well, has a personal connection to this cause as a former foster kid himself.
Wilson and Smith walk to the field before the Chiefs 2015 Wild Card win over the Houston Texans
Wilson said he plans on speaking with Smith over the offseason for help with his own foundation.
“It touches deep to know that somebody who doesn’t have to and is so high at his profession—points out the foster care system,” Wilson explained. “It just means a lot to me, personally.”
Most people don’t know about the work he’s done and will continue to do because he’s the last person you’ll ever see focused on self-promotion. That’s never been his deal.
But for Sade Burrell and the hundreds of other kids whose lives have been affected and improved by his foundation, Smith’s efforts have given their lives a focus they hadn’t had before.
It’s sincere. It’s real.