SANTA CLARA -- No one is sure where 49ers defensive end Justin Smith got the drive that enabled him to become one of the most indestructible players in the NFL, but his father thinks it might have something to do with a force of nature named Virginia Mae Smith.

"He reminds me of my mother -- his grandmother," David Smith said in a recent phone interview from Holts Summit, Mo. "Whether she was picking pecans, corn in the field or hoeing weeds in the bean fields, she could work until everybody dropped.

"Her name was Virginia, so we call Justin, 'Virge' every now and then."

Around the NFL, they simply call him Cowboy. And, even with better-known stars like Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis, the 49ers know him as perhaps their most indispensable player. That's why Smith's recovery from a partially torn left triceps muscle is a crucial subplot to Saturday's playoff opener against the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park.

Smith, 33, missed the last two games of the season but has returned to practice this week, and all signs are he will play. Just how effective he can be from his defensive line position could decide whether Aaron Rodgers' Packers reach the NFC Championship game rather than Smith's 49ers.


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"That's why Justin Smith is so important in my mind," former 49ers quarterback and ESPN analyst Steve Young said. "If he's playing full speed, they can bring havoc with four pass rushers."

Considering Smith never missed a practice from high school in Jefferson City, Mo., at college at Missouri or in his 12-year NFL career -- seven with the Cincinnati Bengals and five with the 49ers -- it's new territory.

Back home, where Smith's tales of strength, will and hard work border on mythology, some of his friends don't know what to make of it.

Kirk Farmer, a quarterback and teammate of Smith's at Jefferson City High and at Missouri, said, "What surprises me is he actually got hurt. I played with him and I was hurt all the time. He's never been hurt -- ever."

What seems clear is that if it is possible for someone to succeed as a defensive lineman with a torn triceps, Smith would be the person most likely to beat the odds.

In a sport known for grueling training sessions, Smith takes it to another level with year-round programs designed to keep his 6-foot-4, 285-pound frame fit for the rigors of hand-to-hand combat in a space the size of a phone booth.

San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula described it in terms only a football coach could love.

"This is a guy that's puking in March," Tomsula said. "Things are very simple to him. There's not a lot of gray area. You either work as hard as you can, or you don't work. You're either on or you're off."

Dave Smith noticed that Justin, at an early age, had some of the same qualities as his mother, Virginia, who died three years ago at age 84.

"She could just go on forever and ever on anything she was doing,'' Dave Smith said. "I don't know if that's where it comes from or not, but we like to say it does."

From the time Justin could walk, he tagged along with his father on a 1,400-acre Hereford truebred cattle farm, feeding livestock and doing chores. If Dave happened to leave without Justin, Ginger Smith would be summoning her husband home to come get him.

"He would always want to go outside and help. He wanted to be active, trying to lift whatever he could," Dave Smith said. "If he fell he might cry a little bit, but he'd sort of bite his lip and try that much harder to do whatever he was doing at the time."

The farm and the hard work it entailed carried over into organized sports in about the sixth grade.

At Jefferson City High, when Smith wasn't setting records in the weight room, he spent brutally hot summer days bailing hay.

Farmer said he accompanied Smith a time or two, but conceded, "Let's just say I managed to find an excuse, one way or the other, to avoid it."

Smith dominated in football with strength and explosive athletic ability. Farmer remembers a play when Smith in a split-second leaped over the center and tackled the quarterback, knocking him out of the game.

Dave Smith got an idea how good Justin was after his junior year in high school when Missouri coach Larry Smith spoke at the Jefferson City postseason banquet and promised a scholarship.

"He said he was the best player he'd seen since Junior Seau, who he coached at USC," Dave Smith said.

When Justin Smith came out for the NFL draft after his junior season in college, incoming Missouri line coach Craig Kuligowski watched as a Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach arrived with an endurance test administered to all prospects.

"After about 20 or 25 minutes, Justin got exhausted and said he needed a break," Kuligowski said. "We were like, 'Wow, you really broke him down.' And the coach said, 'Most guys don't last five minutes.' "

The Bengals made Smith the No. 4 pick in the draft.

Jefferson City coach Ted LePage said the thing that sets Smith apart is not only his willingness to work but the joy he takes in putting in the time.

"That's what's different with Justin. He enjoys it," LePage said. "You never saw him say, 'I don't want to do this.' And if anything ever made him uncomfortable, that made him want to do it even more."

Two days after the 49ers lost to the New York Giants in last season's NFC championship game, general manager Trent Baalke came to the facility and found Smith pumping iron.

"He's a different breed -- a warrior and an everyday guy," Baalke told reporters later. "We were two days off our last game and he was back at it, getting a full lather going. I looked at him and said, 'What are you doing here?' He said, it's either being here or baby-sitting at home, so I'm here."

As much as Smith loves the weight room, he avoids the press room. He was unavailable for this story, just as he declined requests for a Sports Illustrated feature in September.

LePage said Smith is "the ultimate teammate," completely in his element in the locker room, both with starters and those at the end of the bench.

Smith, Tomsula said, "is very comfortable with who he is but he's not comfortable with the attention that comes with it. ... He's not looking for stats he can rack up. If we need him to smash his head in there against three guys so someone else can come clean, he doesn't blink."

Dave Smith said he is most proud of the fact that Justin gives maximum effort on every play, even in one-sided college defeats. Although unsure of what to make of his son attempting to play with a torn triceps, he knows it is out of his control.

"The parent in you worries about it," Dave Smith said. "You don't want him to do anything that will cause lasting damage. When he comes home to his wife and kids, he's just Dad."