The Alex Smith Comeback Story


(Photo by: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Connor Easterday

Editor’s Note: Alex Smith has already been named Comeback Player of the Year by a number of publishing outlets such as ‘Sporting News’.

Week 11 of the 2018 NFL season was where it all began. Alex Smith, a 34-year old veteran on his third team, was doing what he had always done: winning. He had led Washington to a 6-3 record atop the NFC East for the first time in three years. Down two scores, deep into the third quarter versus the Houston Texans, Smith was preparing his team for a comeback. Marching into Houston territory, on a 3rd-and-9, he stepped back, faced pressure, scrambled out of the pocket, and was taken down. Texans’ safety Kareem Jackson flexed his muscles, and fans went wild. It wasn’t until a writhing Alex Smith hesitated to put any pressure on his leg that notice was taken.

At this moment, on the thirty-third anniversary of Joe Theismann’s famed, gruesome, career-ending leg injury, Alex Smith suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula of his right leg.

Soon after the first surgery to repair Smith’s damaged appendage, a flesh-eating bacteria was found. Later on, in an interview with “Outside the Lines”, Smith revealed that the infection put his life at risk, and almost caused doctors to amputate his leg. He said, “I’m very much lucky to be alive, very lucky to still have my leg.” Even the idea that an innocent hit in the most popular sport in the country came close to causing a man his own life is a harrowing story.

The thought of playing in the NFL again was, at this point, beyond comprehension. All anyone cared about was Smith having a clean recovery — and rightly so. What people failed to take into account, however, was Smith’s own determination.

In February of 2019, Smith threw his first football since the injury. It was then that he pulled aside Dr. Robin West and asked her when he could play again. In ESPN’s special, E60 Presents: Project 11 – The Alex Smith Story, West said, “He spent the day there, and as we were walking out, he grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, Dr. West, when are you going to clear me to play football?’” This marked the start of a momentous recovery process for Smith, not just to re-learn how to walk, but re-learn how to get into an NFL uniform and play the game.

An entire season on the sidelines, a muscle transfer, and 11 surgeries later, on July 24th, 2020, Smith was cleared to return. With new management, a new head coach, and even a new team identity, he was named to the “physically unable to perform” list. Just a couple of weeks later, he was activated onto the roster. Listed third on the depth chart, behind second year quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, and former Carolina Panther, Kyle Allen. In week five, coach Ron Rivera benched Haskins and elevated Allen to start against the Los Angeles Rams. This move indicated, for the first time, that Smith may actually see the football field, should an opportunity arise.

And on October 11, it did.

Kyle Allen left the game early with an injury, and in came Smith. The results were uneven – he went 9-for-17 and threw for 37 yards – but something previously unthinkable had been achieved: after nearly 2 years, grueling surgeries, and life-threatening infections, Alex Smith had returned to play another down in the NFL.

Allen returned to start each of the next three games, but on November 8th, playing the division rival New York Giants, head coach Ron Rivera called Smith’s number once again when, early in the first quarter, Allen went down with a season-ending injury. Despite the fact that they went on to lose that game, Smith looked better. He threw a handful of interceptions, but the arm talent was on display. We saw an aggressive, assertive quarterback that was able to drive an offense downfield and score touchdowns. It was progress from the week 4 game against the Los Angeles Rams. Smith went on to start and win consecutive games against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the San Francisco 49ers. He vaulted the team to the top of the division, just as he did in 2018 before his injury. It was miraculous to watch. The difference between now and then, is that this time around, Smith was able to see his successful season through to the end. In the final game of the regular season, the Washington Football Team had to beat a struggling Philadelphia Eagles team to secure the division title. Wearing a titanium leg brace due to a calf strain, Smith led his team to victory. He finished the job.

We very well may have seen the last game that Alex Smith has ever played. He’s already 36 years old, has played a full career, has a long list of accomplishments, and a family who would love to have him home full-time. However, it’s important to note that there aren’t many “firsts” in the world of football. It’s a game that has been played for over 100 years. Alex Smith’s return to the game – what he had to overcome, how he persevered, and what he will mean to football players as long as the sport is being played – is a first. And it’ll never be forgotten.