Alex Smith: The NFL’s Comeback King

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA

After suffering a particularly gruesome leg break and overcoming the subsequent infection that threatened to take both his leg and his life, quarterback Alex Smith finally returned to the field of play for Washington this October. Cahal McAuley charts the incredible comeback story of the embattled veteran

On November 18th 2018, in a game versus the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith suffered a horrific spiral and compound fracture on his right leg after being sacked. In the following days, he developed necrotising fasciitis, flesh-eating bacteria, leaving him fighting for his life and in danger of losing his leg. Miraculously, Smith returned to the field on 11th October 2020, with the newly rebranded Washington Football Team in a game against the Los Angeles Rams in an inspiring comeback story quite unlike any other.

By 2018, veteran Alex Smith was one of the league’s most experienced quarterbacks, playing in his fourteenth season at 34 years old. After a stellar college career at the University of Utah, where he only lost one game in three years, Smith beat out the likes of Aaron Rodgers to become the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft as he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers. He endured a rocky start to life in the NFL, with the 49ers failing to make the play-offs until 2011. As Smith finally began to show his potential with the 49ers, he suffered a concussion in 2012 and was replaced as starter by Colin Kaepernick, despite Smith leading the league in pass completion percentage.  Smith had to watch from the side-lines as Kaepernick led San Francisco to Superbowl 47 (which they would lose to Baltimore Ravens). He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013 where he went on to play the best football of his career as he led the Chiefs to the play-offs in four out of his five seasons and was selected for the pro-bowl three times.

However, despite posting career-high passing yards and touchdowns in 2017, as was the case in San Francisco, Smith was eclipsed a younger quarterback, this time it was Patrick Mahomes II. Smith was traded to the then Washington Redskins ahead of the 2018 season. He started life in the capital well, leading the franchise to a 6-3 start before heading into the fateful November 18th game against the Houston Texans. Smith stayed on the ground after being sacked in the third quarter by Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt of the Texans and was immediately rushed to hospital. Scans showed that he had suffered a severe spiral and compound fracture to his right tibia and fibula. Smith’s situation was eerily similar to that of former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann who suffered the same injury on the 18th of November 1985, 33 years to the day while also playing for the Redskins. Theismann would never play again. 

Although a very serious injury, Smith’s surgery was deemed a success and he was told he would be able to go home after a couple of days of rehab. However, his condition began to deteriorate and he began to show a very high fever and plummeting blood pressure. Smith’s leg was eventually unwrapped revealing huge black blisters and confirming that he had developed necrotising fasciitis resulting in life-threatening sepsis. The NFL is no stranger to gruesome injuries, but this was different. Alex Smith was no longer just an injured athlete, but a man fighting for his life. He was rushed to emergency surgery for a procedure called debridement, which involves removing infected skin and muscle tissue to prevent the infection from spreading. This was the first of eight such surgeries that Smith would undergo. At this point, saving Smith’s life and then his leg were the priorities of the doctors. Eventually, the bacterial infection was brought under control but so much of his leg had been taken that his tibia had been left exposed. His injury now looked more like that suffered by military personnel than football players.

Smith was now faced with a choice between having his leg amputated or a risky skin graft operation which could significantly reduce his future quality of life if it failed. He chose to go ahead with the operation having tissue taken from his left quadricep and grafted onto his tibia. Fortunately, the graft took and after fearing for his life and leg, Smith was able to turn his attention towards football. Including the eight debridements, he underwent 17 surgeries over a nine-month period and wore an external fixation device for almost a year.

Smith missed the entire 2019 but stated his intention to return for 2020. He still faced a fight to be retained by the newly rebranded Washington Football Team but remarkably made the active roster for the new season. Alex Smith completed the comeback few had ever dreamed possible when he entered a game against the Los Angeles Rams on October 11th 2020, cementing his place as one of the league’s most inspirational figures. 

From fighting for his life to being confined to a wheelchair, to playing quarterback in the NFL is a sequence of events that borders on unbelievable but Smith’s incredible mental fortitude and unerring support from his family helped him achieve what many might have seen as the impossible.
Alex Smith doesn’t need to win a Superbowl, make the playoffs, or even start another game. Just by setting foot on a football field once again he has shown that with the right outlook and the right team behind you, even the most extreme odds can be overcome.