Surviving seventeen surgeries and a sepsis infection seemed like a miracle for Alex Smith whose right leg was unrecognizable — but fortunately still attached to his body. After months of rehab, being able to walk and run without a limp was a miracle. Being able to play NFL football again was a miracle of biblical proportions. No other pro athlete has ever returned from an injury of this magnitude. There was a time when doctors were considering an amputation of his right leg after the sepsis infection. If they felt they could not treat the sepsis, which is often deadly, they would have had no choice on choosing between saving his life or saving his leg.
With the Washington Football team’s team physician, Dr. Robin West, as a central figure in consulting with Smith and his family, West sought advice from Johnny Owens who previously worked at the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center located on Fort Sam Houston, a rehabilitation facility for combat veterans in San Antonio, Texas. The reason he thought of Owens was because Smith’s injury was like what you would see from a military explosion like a landmine detonating.
The Center for the Intrepid accepted Smith into their program, and it was a perfect fit for Alex Smith as they could also study his situation for future treatment methods if it was successful, and it was a success after more surgeries and months of rehab. Fortunately, Smith had the time and the financial resources that other private citizens do not.
While Smith talked about playing football again, you had to think the only football that Smith would play is on video games like Madden 20. He proved the doubters wrong. After 693 days, he entered Sunday’s game to reach his goal of playing in the NFL again.
With Smith’s wife and three young children in attendance on Sunday at Washington’s FedEx Field, the family was just there to cheer on the Washington Football Team with no expectations that anyone but starting quarterback, Kyle Allen, would be playing on that day under center. As unpredictable as the game is, Allen suffered an injury that sprung Smith into action and into the game just before halftime. It was a moment to stand up and cheer, but the crowd was limited to family only per the COVID rules, and the moment did not get the stadium applause that it deserved. This was a goosebumps moment. Smith’s family did their best to cheer their hero on as cameras were focused on them at the same time that field cameras were focused on Alex Smith.
Fans who tuned into the game had mixed emotions. They were happy for Smith but nervous at the same time that he would stay healthy. This man was playing behind an offensive line that has not been good at protecting quarterbacks, and their quarterback was not as mobile as he was prior to his injury. The titanium rod in Smith’s leg was there for structural integrity, but of course he was not going to run for 5.9 yards per carry like he averaged just three years ago. In 2016, Smith had five rushing touchdowns. As expected, Smith was rusty, and his offensive line did little to protect him.
Smith sustained his devastating leg injury in a game against the Houston Texans almost two years ago in his first season with Washington on November 18, 2018. The injury was gruesome after Smith was sacked and suffered a spiral and compound fracture to his right tibia and fibula. At the time of the injury, he was old in terms of a normal football career at 34-years-old. Again, you thought his career was over and just hoped Smith would be able to walk again.
“It was great to be out there, the feeling, the range of emotions, the good and the bad,” Smith said. “It’s why I fought so hard to come back. Sometimes, you can take it for granted. Certainly to be away from it for a couple years, I’ve missed it.”
For those who do not remember, Smith was traded from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Washington Redskins for a 3rd round pick and DB Kendall Fuller in March 2018. The Chiefs had to clear room for some rookie named Patrick Mahomes, and Smith was expendable. There were mixed emotions about the trade from both sides with the normal level of skepticism. It was a fair trade that was good for both sides as nobody could foresee the injury would change the course of the Washington team. Smith delivered some big wins as the team was 6-3 and talking ‘playoffs’ until the injury. From that game forward, the team went just 1-6 to finish the season at 7-9.
On Sunday, Smith entered the game in-progress and took 29 snaps from center and was sacked six times. With every hit and sack, we held our collective breath. Smith’s lack of speed and mobility might have contributed to some of those sacks given that Allen was sacked twice on 25 snaps. Allen has been named the starter for Sunday, but head coach Ron Rivera has not named whether Smith or the youngster Dwayne Haskins will be the backup.
Smith’s story of his recovery from the leg injury was one of the most watched ESPN E:60 documentaries titled, “Project 11,” in an hour-long special that aired on ESPN earlier this year.
“No NFL player has ever been through what Alex Smith has,” said Andy Tennant, “E:60” executive producer. “He’s normally a very private person, but he wanted to document his road to recovery as well and as detailed as possible, with the hope that future players could use it as a road map.”
The Los Angeles Rams defense did not take it easy on Smith. Rams’ defensive lineman Michael Brockers admitted after the game that his defense was “kind of licking our chops” as they thought they would have increased opportunities to wreak havoc on Smith if he went back to pass. While that sounds like poor sportsmanship, this isn’t Pop Warner football. There was an assumption of risk once Smith decided to return to football, and while there were some scary moments through Washington’s porous offensive line, Smith was able to absorb the contact and get back up after the Rams went hard after him to tally those six sacks.
“When [Alex Smith] came into the game, we were saying like, ‘Man, this guy is not as mobile as he used to, so he’ll sit in the pocket to get the ball out,'” Brockers said.
“I took a step back when I got off the field and I was like, ‘Man, wow, this dude is really out there with us.’ He was so close to not even playing again. It’s impressive. Shout out for him stepping in there and taking a snap when everybody really counted against him.”
While the final stats were ugly in the loss, Smith completed over 50 percent of his passes going 9-of-17 on pass completions for only 37 yards with no touchdowns. Washington (1-4) had a total of minus-6 net yards in the second half with Smith in there for all of the snaps.
Rams linebacker Troy Reeder, who had two of those six sacks against Smith said, “What an unbelievable comeback … that just tells you a lot about the type of guy and player he is, and I think that was pretty cool to see.”
The road to Sunday could earn Smith the Comeback-Player-Of-The-Year award, and he is an inspiration to many. Where his football career goes from here is anyone’s guess. If Sunday’s performance by Smith is all he had left to give in his professional football career, then so be it.