Just a week away from his thirtieth birthday, NFL quarterback Alex Smith is kicking off the University of Utah's graduation festivities in a rather big way. Tonight at 6:30 p.m., he will be the commencement speaker at the 2014 ceremony.
"I had no concept ever of being a commencement speaker," Smith said. "Definitely not before the age of 30."
It’s a quite an honor for a man who was a student at the university just a few years ago. In a morning press conference, he reflected on his memories as a student at the university – taking classes, interacting with professors and classmates, and, of course, leading the Utes football team to an undefeated season and BCS-busting win over Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. Ten years later, Smith is the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, a husband and father of two, and active in many community endeavors.
Although he wouldn’t offer any sneak previews of his speech, Smith said it has allowed him to reflect on his time at the University of Utah. He did say he hoped to share about what has helped him along the way and what is important for him.
"Education is the foundation for anything we want to do beyond that," he said. "Utah gave me that opportunity. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t come to the U."
Smith made the most of his time at Utah, earning a bachelor’s degree in two years with a 3.74 grade point average. He still remembers the good old days on the hill when the 2004 Utes football team sought to do something no team before had ever done.
"We wanted to be that team that beat down the BCS," he said.
And beat it down they did, running the tables with an undefeated season, a top-five ranking, and winning a BCS bowl game. It was a special year for him, the university, and Utah fans everywhere. He especially remembers that final home game when College Game Day showed up at Rice-Eccles Stadium and the emotion on the field after the Utes got the win over the "Team Down South."
"To see the joy on everyone’s faces is truly special," Smith said. "Something I’ll never forget."
He recalls it being a whirlwind; never really expecting to find the kind of success he did, leaving the school early for the NFL, and being the first overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft.
"When it did happen, it all happened pretty fast," said Smith. "I am very fortunate to play football for a living. I never expected it."
But his college days are now behind him. He chuckled as he noted how much the campus has changed, and shared his amazement at how nice the new Spence & Cleone Eccles Football Center is, especially the new weight room named after him that his contributions helped build.
"It’s weird to see my name on the weight room," he said.
After tonight’s graduation and his birthday fun is over, he’ll be setting his sights back on the upcoming Chiefs season. After being traded to Kansas City from the San Francisco 49ers last year, Smith immediately thrived in his new situation. He led the Chiefs to an unexpectedly successful season with a 9-0 start and their first playoff berth in three years. Smith says he feels really good about where he is at in his career.
"It’s a reaffirmation of doing things the right way… continuing to grow and get better," he said.
He’s already setting his sights on the challenges that next season will bring, especially beating a certain future Hall-of Fame quarterback that happens to play for the Chiefs biggest rival, the Denver Broncos. Even with all the success Kansas City experienced last year, they still fell twice to Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
"I’m just trying to get the W," he said. "I’d just love to get one over him."
Beating Manning is a big deal to Smith not just because of the rivalry, but because he had his first career start against Manning. That was a special way to start his career, but Smith feels grabbing a win against him would be even more special.
"I’m over that now," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I look forward to taking him down now."
But right now, Smith has a big night ahead of him as the keynote speaker for Utah’s many accomplished graduates. Then, he has a major milestone to celebrate with his thirtieth birthday looming.
"A lot of things have changed," Smith said.
His milestones are a bit like his former Utes football team. Both have grown and changed, and the responsibilities and expectations have become much higher. And just like Smith has responded to a new conference and new challenges, so must the Utes take a step forward, he said.
"Our team took a step, the  Sugar Bowl team took a step, the Pac-12 was a step," he said. "I challenge them to be that team. To be the Utah team that did that."
Maybe it’s that sentiment that he will share with tonight’s graduates, that despite ever changing environments and expectations, to rise to the challenge and be that University of Utah person who did that.