If you’ve never seen the photos of Alex Smith’s leg injury, do yourself a favor and skip seeking them out. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the stuff of nightmares. Just know, it’s beyond improbable Smith is going to start his first football game since suffering a horrific, compound, spiral fracture two years ago.
Injuries are part of football, but what Smith went through to get back to this point is nothing short of amazing. On Nov. 18, 2018 his leg was essentially shattered while being sacked. From there, infection took hold and Smith went on the cusp of losing his football career to potentially losing his leg and even his life.
In all, Smith underwent 17 surgeries, many to remove dead or infected tissue. So, yeah, the fact he’s been able to resume his football career is remarkable.
“Just the utmost respect, and especially for all that he’s been through in his recovery in his road back,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s a tremendous, tremendous — just for him, it tells everything about his character and who he is as a person and as a player. It’s pretty amazing.”
The No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, Smith’s resume isn’t going to merit consideration for the Hall of Fame, but he’s had a solid career. Winning nearly 60 percent of his 161 starts with San Francisco, Kansas City and Washington, he was supposed to bridge the latter into the future after being acquired in a 2018 trade.
At the time of Smith’s injury, Washington was 6-4. In the 30 games since, the franchise has bumbled its way to a 6-24 record. Now in the heart of a rebuild, with a new coach, it’s worth wondering why Smith, at the age of 36, would even risk a comeback.
“Yeah, he’s a way better man than I am,” Lions running back Kerryon Johnson said. “There’s no absolute way, 100%, that I’m stepping back on a football field at the quarterback position where I can get blindsided, hit, rolled up on or anything like that with what he went through. That’s absolutely tremendous. It’s admirable. It’s a little crazy, but he really loves the game, clearly, and he’s doing what he can to keep playing it. I give all my props to him, for sure.”
For Washington coach Ron Rivera, this moment is simply a culmination of who Smith is.
“The more I’ve gotten to know Alex, the more competitiveness I’ve seen out of him,” Rivera said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things is that he is truly a competitor. I think his return to football really was about competing with himself to get himself back on the football field.”
Smith has already appeared in two games this season, coming off the bench after starter Kyle Allen suffered injuries. In the first outing, Smith got sacked six times in 29 snaps. That’s rough, but it helped him clear the important mental hurdle of knowing he can take a hit.
Then last week, when Allen suffered a dislocated ankle — an injury that will sideline him the rest of the year — Smith looked closer to his old self, completing 24 of his 32 passes for 325 yards. But he also showed playing quarterback isn’t quite like riding a bike, tossing three interceptions.
Still, even though Smith has taken snaps this season, an incredible fact in itself, there is something far more meaningful about getting a starting nod, regardless of the circumstances that created the opportunity.
“I guess I didn’t quite get that far,” Smith said when asked if he imagined the possibility. “For me, it was all about the challenge of obviously going and getting out on the field. Certainty, I think it has progressed into that here obviously as it’s become more realistic and closer. It’s obviously been a long time. Even just driving into work with that feeling, knowing that the ball is in your hands and preparing all week like that, it has been a while since I’ve had that feeling, obviously.
“Almost two years to the week. It’s different,” he continued. “It’s a different deal and that’s part of, and I’ve said this a bunch, it’s certainly why I chased this coming back. That feeling of being on the line, of toeing the line, putting yourself out there with this game and how important every week is, it’s an amazing feeling and I love the challenge.”
By all accounts, Smith is a respected and beloved teammate. In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Lions backup quarterback Chase Daniel, who backed up Smith in Kansas City for three years, called him a “top-five teammate.”
Similarly, Lions linebacker Reggie Ragland, who overlapped with Smith one season in Kansas City, couldn’t be more excited to reconnect this week in Detroit.
“Man, I’m so happy for him,” Ragland said. “I can’t wait to see him. I’m going to give him a hug, damn the COVID protocols and rules. I’m going to give my guy a hug. I’m ecstatic for him. Even though he’s a great football player, he’s an even better person.”
Washington (2-6) will take on Detroit (3-5) at Ford Field this Sunday at 1 p.m.