Brock Purdy

Purdy, notable 49ers QBs offer Notre Dame's Leonard sage advice

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For a rising senior college quarterback with professional aspirations, there’s no better panel to attend than one with four past and present NFL quarterbacks carrying decorated résumés with an abundance of Super Bowl experiences, stories of perseverance and tall accolades.

That was the reality for Notre Dame quarterback Riley Leonard on Thursday night, as he was fortunate enough to snag a seat – or opportunity to pick brains -- at the annual Dwight Clark Legacy Series event at the California Theater in San Jose. There, notorious 49ers signal-callers Brock Purdy, Steve Young, Jeff Garcia and Alex Smith dished out wisdom. 

Leonard, 21, enters his first and presumably last season with the Fighting Irish after transferring from Duke after three seasons. There, he recorded 382 completions, 4,450 passing yards, 24 passing touchdowns and healthy 2025 NFL Draft aspirations.

Each San Francisco icon had different offerings for the eager-to-learn Leonard, collectively being great teachers. In order, here’s how Smith, Garcia, Young and Purdy empowered their fellow quarterback.

Alex Smith

Smith, a retired 16-year NFL veteran, spent eight seasons with San Francisco after being selected No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft.

He offered Leonard sound advice about enjoying the highs and lows of being an athlete.

“I think be confident in yourself, right? You're good enough,” stated Smith, backed by a loud applause. “I think your best is good enough. I also think, and this is just gonna be so many cliches coming out right now, but like, enjoy the process, right? I think we get so caught up in a destination and certainly, it's important to set goals, but just your habits make the most difference … And again, all of us -- whether you're the first pick or the last pick -- the road's not easy.”

Smith knows all about pushing through adversity and embracing various paths and processes. 

In his third 49ers season, Smith broke his throwing shoulder and missed the end of that campaign and what would’ve been his fourth. Then, after suffering a concussion in the latter half of his eighth season with San Francisco, Smith lost his job to an up-and-coming Colin Kaepernick, ending his 49ers tenure.

Smith went on to have more success record-wise over four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he never got the ring he desired. Instead, he ended up with Washington in 2018 and experienced one of the most gruesome injuries in sports history via a life-threatening compound fracture to his right tibia and fibula.

Yet, Smith returned to the gridiron, capping off one of the greatest comeback stories in NFL history, before hanging up his jersey for good during the 2021 offseason.

“There's going to be struggles,” Smith reiterated. “Embrace the struggle. You were meant to go through it and you'd be better for having gone through it, right? I think so. Oftentimes, adversity strikes and I've been there -- it's too heavy, you don't want it, it's uncomfortable. But you know, you get on the other side of it and that's where growth happens. That's where improvement happens.”

Not many athletes have experienced a career-changing injury like Smith, nor have returned to their sport at the highest level as he did. 

Jeff Garcia

Garcia was a 49ers rookie at 29 years old -- that’s all one needs to know about his drive and dedication to football. 

The San Jose State product was overlooked as a draft prospect and played five seasons in the CFL -- with his first being behind Doug Flutie -- before backing up San Francisco legend Steve Young in the NFL.

Like Smith, Garcia advised Leonard to “embrace,” not only the journey but also what he’s doing this second. 

“First of all, embrace the moment,” Garcia said. “You still have one more year of college football. You have an opportunity to be the best that you can be for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish … It's a precious, special opportunity that you have in front of you.

"I mean, my kids -- as a 12-year-old, ‘So, Dad, what professional football team do you think I'm gonna play for?’ And I go, ‘None. You don't even play Pop Warner yet. Like, first be good here, be good right now.’ Be the best that you can be right now. Everything else will take care of itself if you maximize your opportunity.

“There are only a few opportunities in life. Hell, I was a 29-year-old rookie, not a 21-year-old rookie. I mean, I had hair everywhere -- not anymore. But that being said, you have opportunities in life, as all of us know [they’re] very precious and few.”

Garcia finished his career as a four-time NFL Pro Bowl selection. However, he was a no-name backup at first.

He made sure to highlight preparation in speaking to Leonard, describing a meticulous readiness that can take years or seconds to showcase.  

“Are you prepared to take advantage of the opportunity? Have you done the necessary work mentally, physically [and] all across the board to be prepared when that moment strikes to capitalize on it?" Garcia asked. "Do that right now. Think about that right now. Then you can ask those questions about, ‘Hey, what's it like to be a rookie quarterback?’ 

“Hey, it's a precious few that get to be in that position and you still have one more year to show that you're worthy of it.”

Garcia played his age 29 through 33 seasons with the 49ers after signing a free-agent contract with the team. He, like Smith, never won the big one, but left a fan-favorite in San Francisco.

Steve Young

Young needs no introduction.

The Pro Football Hall of Famer and retired 15-year NFL veteran, who virtually has every 49ers quarterback record and many at the position league-wide, was straightforward in his advice to Leonard: consult Purdy.

“Brock, I want to ask you, because … you have a superpower [in] is processing and the idea that as a young player, you jumped on the field [against the] Miami Dolphins and just start processing," Young asked Purdy. "How would you tell him to get ready to do that? 

Processing the game is everything for a quarterback and is something Purdy quickly had to do after moving from third to first on 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s depth chart as a rookie.

Young, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, three-time Super Bowl champion and three-time AP All-Pro, did much on-field reading in his day. But he suggests Purdy can help Leonard more than most, as San Francisco’s quarterback only is three years older and was the four-year college player Notre Dame’s quarterback intends to be. 

“To me, that's the thing,” Young added. “If you could take that quality in you [Purdy] and spread it around every quarterback, we would be like so blessed. And how would you describe how you were ready to process right out of the gate?”

Brock Purdy

Leonard and the crowd sure were blessed.

Purdy has done so much for the 49ers in such little time. However, he, like Garcia, suggested a relatively slower approach to Leonard, where the prospect should focus on the present.

“Yeah, I mean, it sort of hits to Jeff's point just in terms of being where you are right now, playing right now [and] not trying to jump to a conclusion of getting to the NFL so fast,” Purdy described. “Like, there's a process to life, and I feel like a lot of people nowadays want to just skip the process. They want to get to places because they see guys where they're at and they don't want to, you know, go through the good and the bad and all that kinda stuff.”

Purdy was an MVP finalist for his stellar 2023 NFL season. He implies most players want to reach top status -- or at least near it -- without putting in the time required to get there.

Instead, the wise 24-year-old advises Leonard to stick to what has worked for him and to take advantage of his soon-to-be four-year collegiate career.

After all, it was in college that Purdy believes he was prepared for what the NFL threw at him.

“But what I would say is I played four years at Iowa State, so all those reps of defenses and schemes, like all that stuff added up,” Purdy nonchalantly concluded. “Just the game prep, all of it, man. Seeing different safety structures, blitzes, you name it, all those things added up to when I did get in against Miami, dude, it was, I was like, I feel like I'm back at Iowa State playing 11 on 11. 

“So, yeah. Hopefully that helps.”

The decorated 49ers quarterbacks did not disappoint when delivering top-of-the-line insight and advice to Leonard.

A theme of embracing one’s journey reigned supreme in the quartet’s answers, but the true takeaway was everyone’s willingness to pass their knowledge onward.

Leonard, assuringly, has a lot to consider heading into his senior year at Notre Dame.

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