Here’s how bad it got for Alex Smith.
During a torturous rehabilitation from a broken leg he suffered in 2018, the quarterback was so horrified by what he’d been through, so physically and emotionally racked by the pain, that it took months before he could summon the nerve to take this next step in his recovery.
“It took a long, long time before I could even look at my leg,” the 36-year-old Smith said Wednesday, just two days after being taken off the Washington Football Team’s physically unable to perform list and practicing for the first time since Nov. 18, 2018. Exactly 33 years to the day after former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann suffered a career-ending broken leg against the Giants, Smith suffered an even more gruesome injury.
That he has gotten this far, especially after nearly having to have his leg amputated due to complications from infection, borders on the miraculous.
“You build up a lot of walls in your head as far as what you’ll ever be able to do again,” Smith said. “And then, finally, you get over that crest, I guess and start trying to knock those walls down slowly as they come.”
Just seeing this moment in practice the other day was astonishing: In 7-on-7 drills, he took the snap from center, dropped back three steps and delivered a swing pass to his right for an easy completion to his running back. It’s a pass Smith has thrown hundreds, maybe thousands of times. But to see him deliver the ball after all he’d gone through in trying to come back … well, it’s just breathtaking.
While it remains to be seen whether Smith can make it all the way back from the injury, he already has achieved a major goal by resuming practice. Despite suffering nerve damage and coming dangerously close to losing his leg – and at one point, his very life – Smith is continuing his quest to play again. He knows there are many more steps to be taken, up to and including getting hit again.
Bottom line: “I’ve got to know that, obviously, my leg is strong enough to take it.”
Smith has a condition commonly referred to as “drop foot,” where it can be difficult to lift his leg and requires the use of a brace to stabilize the foot. Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith had a similar condition in 2017, but he has since removed the brace. Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. also has the condition.
“That’s something that 10, 15 years ago, that was a death sentence for your career,” Smith said.
Why play again, especially after he’s already had a terrific run and might risk so much by coming back?
“It started with my first step, as I relearned to walk and it’s progressed from there,” Smith said. “It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve played quarterback a long time. You get closer and closer to [coming back], it just feels it even more. It’s like running a marathon and getting close to the end of the race. The competitiveness kicks in, I want to see if I can do it.”
Coach Ron Rivera is taking a cautious approach for now, although he has said that if Smith is capable of playing again, he’s in the mix to be a starter, even though the team drafted Dwayne Haskins in the first round in 2019.
“You don’t ever want to put a player at risk, and that’s what I’m concerned with, that I’m not putting him at risk,” Rivera said. “I just want to make sure, based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, that we can sit there and make the right decision whether to play him or not.”
Smith said he has come to accept the limitations that go with his condition.
“This is what I’ve got moving forward for the rest of my life,” said the 2005 No. 1 overall pick with the 49ers, who was traded to Kansas City in 2013 and then to Washington in 2018. “That was part of being comfortable with what my life, my new normal is, and then from there moving forward.”
This may turn out to be a situation where Smith isn’t able to play again, that the risks are simply too great. But even if that’s the case, it is already a sensational comeback story.
If only for the fact that he proved to himself he could get this far.