If Alex Smith, the quarterback of the Washington Football Team, needed any reassurance that his right leg would hold up after two years and 17 surgeries out of the game, he got it fairly quickly. Some 700 days after a sack by J.J. Watt left him with a compound spiral fracture in his right leg, and one of the most gruesome injuries in NFL history, he returned to play—and was promptly sacked by Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Though the leg had been repaired successfully—with 28 screws and three plates—the journey had been long, complex, and pretty terrifying. At one point, his leg was infected with flesh-eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis. Smith then developed sepsis, a complication of an infection that occurs when a body’s immune response damages its own tissues, which left him with two options: amputate his leg, or have a series of surgeries to try to save it. Neither option was good, and neither left Smith, a former number one overall pick, much chance of playing football again.
But with the help of rehab specialists at the Center for the Intrepid, where veterans who have suffered blast wounds are treated for similar injuries, Smith improbably made his way all the way back onto Washington’s roster, as the third-string QB. (He says the team didn’t expect or want him back.) By the end of the season, he’d become the starter, won five of six starts, and led the team to the playoffs.
For all that, Smith brought home the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award a few weeks ago. (Duh.) He spoke with GQ to talk about the decision to keep his leg, the reasons he decided to play football again, and the chances we’ll see him on the field again in 2021.
Why play football again this year?
That’s the big question. Why? Why would I do that? Just go be happy with the rest of your life kind of thing. I think two things. Like I said, it was so long that I had these huge doubts about ever playing with my kids again, ever being a normal person. You really think about everyday life things, like getting up to the bathroom in the middle of the night, showering, being able to golf again, go on walks, hiking, you name it, skiing, mountain biking. Can I do anything?
It did have to do with the military. Their involvement in my rehab, being the foremost experts on lower limb injuries in the world and the rehab that I was doing, and trying to get back to an elite level. But, really, also the mindset. King of just daring me. And they were the first ones in a rehab session, really early on, to put a football in my hands. Johnny Owens was the PT, and was really involved in my plan coming back. He put a football in my hand.
I hadn’t touched a football and I had kind of been bitter towards football because I’m like, I was playing this stupid game and [the injury] happened. I remember how good it felt to play catch, how good it felt to have a football in my hand. I’d been playing catch my whole life, and how natural it felt. My rehab was better. I just enjoyed doing rehab with a football in my hand: Give me the football to see if I can do this. I started thinking about playing quarterback more.
It really did energize me. It started to become this thing, to put this crazy thing out there. I knew if I never achieved it, my life would be better. I would be able to do more. I was going to take my rehab further than I would if I had just settled on being able to stand or golf. I know I’m ancient and old in football terms, being 36, but I was like, “Man, I got the rest of my life. I got young kids. There’s all these things I want to go do that I’ve dreamed about doing outside of football.” I knew football as a vehicle to go try to do this crazy, ambitious thing. I knew, even if I don’t get there, I’ll be better for it and I won’t have any regret that I just settled, that I was happy with just golfing. And I love to golf, so I don’t mean that in any bad way.