On November 18th, 2018 during a Week 11 game against the Houston Texans, Washington QB Alex Smith suffered a gruesome injury that would change his life forever, and almost take it too. Through a surprising draft night, a struggling start, and resurrecting a franchise, this is the career of Alex Smith.
Alex Smith was born in Bremerton, Washington on May 7, 1984 to Douglas and Pam Smith as one of four children. The family would move to La Mesa, California and Alex attended Helix High School. While starting for his high school team, he was able to grab several school records, conference awards, and a 25-1 record. Even more impressive, Smith balanced academics and athletics very well becoming class president, earning 64 college credits, and over a dozen AP tests.
Despite his impressive play and high intellect, Smith would only be a two star dual-threat recruit and would eventually sign with the University of Utah, his only offer. Smith went in to have a fruitful three years in college, starting his sophomore and junior campaigns, putting up 6,282 total yards, 63 touchdowns, and seven interceptions, posting a 21-1 record and finishing fourth in the 2004 Heisman race, 2004 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, and 2003 Liberty Bowl as well as 2005 Fiesta Bowl victories. At the same time, Smith again showed his academic prowess earning a bachelor’s degree in economics in just two years as well as a 3.74 GPA. He would go on to score an impressive 40 pts on the Wonderlic test (the NFL’s cognitive ability test), a 20 point increase from the average.
Although he was only a two star athlete out of high school and only had one offer, it was clear that Smith had shown his worth at Utah when he became the #1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft to the 49ers. This was a surprising move by most accounts, as Aaron Rodgers was projected to be the first pick, but slid all the way to #24. Niners head coach Mike Nolan spoke in a 2016 interview with NFL HQ: “Alex at the time was a good kid… always trying to please… Aaron was very cocky, very confident, arrogant.”
Smith’s rookie year would be rocked by turmoil, dealing with injuries all season. HE played in just nine games and finished with a 1-11 TD-INT ratio, 875 yards and a 2-5 record in starts.
Following the rough rookie campaign, the tides started to turn for the 49ers quarterback in his second year- at least momentarily.. He again had ups and downs, but neither reaching the ceiling or valley. The team would improve into a 7-9 record behind Smith’s 2890 pass yds, 16 TD, 16 INT performance before missing the following 2008 season with an injured shoulder.
Smith’s next three years were marred with injuries (most notably a broken right shoulder after a wire that was left from a previous surgery had sawed through the bone in 2008) and battles with head coach Mike Nolan (which resulted in Nolan’s firing), Alex Smith finally got the breakout he was hoping for in 2011. He went on to lead the team to a 13-3 record (the team’s best record since 1997), 3144 pass yards, 27 TD, and a markedly improved 5 TD under newly hired head coach Jim Harbaugh, completing 5 comebacks 4 of which would be road victories.
The comebacks would not stop in the regular season, when Smith became the first player in playoff history to score three go-ahead touchdowns in the final three minutes of the game against the New Orleans Saints, including the game-winning 14-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining in the game, ending 36-32. In the NFC Championship, the Niners would fall in overtime to the New York Giants 20-17 after two special teams turnovers. Following the season, Smith won the Ed Block Courage award for his courage, sportsmanship, and leadership.
During the off-season following the conclusion of the 2011 season, the 49ers front office were beginning to show signs of wanting a change at quarterback, despite Smith’s career-best season in 2011, when they reportedly added newly released Peyton Manning as a “top priority”. While Manning went to the Broncos, Smith re-upped his deal with San Francisco on a three-year $24 million contract. He would start the season as the starter with new weapons Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and A.J. Jenkins and seemed to be carrying over his successes of the previous season through eight games. The team was 6-2 and Smith had a 104.1 pass rating (3rd in the league), 70% completion percentage (1st in the league), 1737 pass yds, 13 TD, and 5 INT.
It was clear that Smith was on a campaign that would surpass his previous best, as he was on pace to set career highs in almost every statistical category. But, as is the theme of Alex’s career, things don’t go the way they should. In the ninth game, Smith suffered a concussion, finished the touchdown drive with blurred vision and dizziness and Colin Kaepernick would replace him.
A full blown quarterback controversy would ensue. Harbaugh on multiple occasions made it clear that Smith would have to compete for the starting job when he was healthy, and even replaced Smith with Kaepernick after a 31-21 win against New Orleans on a conditional “week to week” basis, but Smith would not start again. This led to Alex’s frustrated statement: “state your case with your play, I feel like I’ve done that. I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion.”
The 49ers believed they had their man in Kaepernick and traded Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs on February 27, 2013 to join newly hired all-time-great head coach Andy Reid. What makes Smith’s accomplishments to come in Kansas City even more impressive, is that the Chiefs were an extremely impoverished team.
The Chiefs were reeling from a 2-14 season, after which their previous head coach and general manager were promptly fired, and had only finished with a winning record one time in the previous five seasons. During that span, the team had acquired just 29 wins, a percentage of just 0.432%. Despite the troubles, Reid and Smith would lead the Chiefs to a 9-0 start and a playoff berth in just their first season.
After a disappointing 2014 season in which they were eliminated from contention in Week 17, things looked even more disappointing. The team started off 1-5 and to add insult to injury star running back Jamaal Charles would tear his ACL early in the season, but what followed was truly remarkable.
The Chiefs won their next ten (!!) straight games to finish the season 11-5 and clinched a playoff berth, becoming only the second team in NFL history to do so. After making the playoffs, the Chiefs beat the Houston Texans in the AFC Wildcard and delivered the team’s first playoff win in 23 years.
To start the 2016 season, Smith orchestrated a massive comeback, the largest in franchise history, against the San Diego Chargers. Down 24-3 with six minutes remaining, Smith led two touchdown drives and one field goal to send a game, that was once a 99.3% chance Chargers win to start the fourth, to overtime where he would go 70 yards in 10 plays and rush for the game winning touchdown. He finished the game with 378 total yards on 71% completion and 2 TD. This would foreshadow the rest of the season, as he would amass a career high 3,502 passing yards, as well as 15 TD and the chiefs would make they playoffs and lose in the first round to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In a season where Alex Smith would once again shatter career highs, be the MVP front-runner through November, and lead the Chiefs to the playoffs again, it was clear he was on the outs in KC. Even after smith threw 4,042 yds, 26 TD, 5 INT and a league-leading 104.7 pass rate, the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes, widely regarded now as the best quarterback in the league, in the first round. Smith would be replaced as starter again following the season. But this felt different than the Kaepernick quarterback controversy. Probably because there was no controversy. The Chiefs were open and honest that Mahomes would be the face of the future, and with a year sitting under two of the best teachers in the game (Smith and Reid), they believed he was ready.
On January 30, 2018, the Chiefs traded Alex Smith to the Washington Football Team for CB Kendall Fuller and a third round pick, and Smith immediately signed a four-year $94 million extension. Things appeared to be going well for Smith, as he was leading Washington to a 6-3 record, the team’s best start since 2008, with some average-to-decent stats.
This is where things go from good to unimaginably horrible.
Smith was sacked by Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt which shattered his tibia and fibula in his right leg, the same injury as former Washington QB Joe Theismann — 33 years to the day. Unlike Theismann, who retired shortly after the injury, Alex Smith would embark on one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history.
After the first surgery to try and realign the shattered bones in his leg was thought to be a success, Smith was becoming sick, his blood pressure was quickly dropping, and the wound from the injury started turning black. Alex’s wife said about the sickness: “Alex is not Alex anymore”.
Flesh-eating bacteria started to invade his leg and caused necrotizing fasciitis, or “flesh-eating disease”. At this point, doctors feared for not only his leg — but his life. The process to stop the spread of infection included eight debridements, but left his leg with much of the muscle in his leg absolutely gone. A quarterback once lauded as having a great mobilized game, was now not even sure if he would have both of his legs to walk on.
The doctors then posed Alex with a question: Do you save the leg or amputate it? Smith chose to undergo a limb salvage operation which took muscles and skin from his left leg to replace some of that lost in his right. The operation was a resounding success, but left with some major issues, like not being able to move his foot or ankle.
One of the things most preached about Alex from those around him is his toughness and determination. In the hospital, fighting for his life, Smith turned to his wife and said: “Do you know how many people would love to trade positions with me?”, Smith said. “Do you know the things and the blessings we have? And we can’t take it for granted, not even for a minute”.
59 days after the injury, Smith was cleared to leave the hospital. Smith was learning how to walk again, but wanted to play football again. While in a military hospital in San Antonio, Smith asked his doctor, Dr. Robin West, “Hey, Dr. West, when are you going to clear me to play football?”. Smith couldn’t walk without help and had an external fixation device on his leg, but knew he wanted to play again. His wife saw the change in Alex after he threw a ball again for the first time saying: “To watch him light up, to watch him get that inner drive again, [after the injury] he kept his gratitude, kept a good perspective, but not so much the drive. I saw it again.”
239 days after the surgery, his external brace would come off, leaving Smith flooded with emotions. “I don’t feel like I’m a mushy person,” he said fighting back tears, “It’s just a lot that so many people have put into this. I never thought this day would actually come.”
After rehab, practicing, struggle and strife, Alex Smith was finally activated off of the physically unable to perform list and cleared to play football again, nearly two years after his injury. Washington coach Ron Riviera said that Smith “looked great” and he would be in the running for the starting job.
Something that almost nobody, even Smith at times, thought was possible.
The Washington Football team begins their season on September 13th, and the world is anxiously waiting to see if we get the return that Alex Smith so greatly deserves.
Photo: Joe Robbins / Getty Images