‘A special, special person’: Alex Smith hangs up his cleats, leaving a legacy of grit and determination

Former Ute standout overcame great adversity during his NFL career, now looking forward to the future

Alex Smith announced Monday that he is retiring from football. This had to be an agonizing decision for a man who loves the game so much that he dared to return to it against all common sense last season following a life-threatening injury. He loved football so much that he forced his way onto a team that made him feel unwanted.

Only a couple of months ago, when Smith was asked about retirement by Yahoo, he said, “That’s something I’m not thinking of anytime soon.”

Then he did.

In announcing his retirement on Instagram, he spoke romantically about the game:

“Two years ago I was stuck in a wheelchair, staring down at my mangled leg, wondering if I would ever be able to go on a walk again or play with my kids in the yard,” Smith said. “On a routine play, I almost lost everything. But football wouldn’t let me give up. Because, no, this isn’t just a game. It’s not just what happens between those white lines on a Sunday afternoon. It’s about the challenges and the commitment they require. It’s about how hard and how far you can push yourself. It’s about the bond between those 53 guys in the locker room and everybody else in the organization. It’s about fully committing yourself to something bigger.”

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Smith was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year and then four weeks later he was released by Washington to create salary cap space. He was a free agent when he retired, but he would have landed a roster spot somewhere as a backup — reportedly, one option was the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are expected to take Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the overall first pick of this month’s draft. 

Ultimately, Smith was firm enough in his decision that he even passed up a reunion with Jacksonville’s new head coach, Urban Meyer, his head coach at the University of Utah. “I wanted him here,” Meyer told USA Today. “You know, we talked to him about joining here … We had conversations with him. There are some medical people in our organization that were very concerned. And remember, our GM actually drafted Alex at San Francisco. So you have two people in Jacksonville that love Alex.”

Quarterback Alex Smith throws while Lance Rice and Utes coach Urban Meyer look on during a practice in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Dec. 4, 2003. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

Smith, who will turn 37 next month, will be remembered mostly for his brave — if not risky — return from a horrific injury that led to an infection that nearly cost him his leg and his life. Both of the lower bones were broken during a 2018 game and ripped through the skin. The injury required 17 surgeries and skin grafts to repair. He was out of the game for nearly two years. All of this was chronicled in an ESPN documentary.

For better or worse, the injury will overshadow the rest of his career — the 16 seasons (actually 14 because he missed two of them with injuries), the 35,650 passing yards, the 199 touchdown passes (against 109 interceptions), the three Pro Bowl selections, the 99-67-1 won-lost record.

Smith had a very good career and he came this close to having a spectacular career. He just missed taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl and then later was cast off in Kansas City for the newest quarterback sensation.

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He came to the NFL from the University of Utah, where he and Meyer began building a reputation and a wildly successful future for themselves. Meyer arrived at Utah from Bowling Green in time for Smith’s second season. Meyer brought the spread offense with him and he and Smith helped to popularize the scheme, which eventually reached the NFL. Smith had been a backup the previous season as a freshman, and Meyer was not impressed with him. He noted that he was skinny, unathletic and “not a great player.” But the kid caught the coach’s eye in spring practice. He started to see, he said, “there was something special there.”

Smith became the starter and the Utes went 10-2. A year later they were 12-0 and manhandled Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl 35-7, finishing fourth in the final national rankings. In two seasons Smith passed for 5,200 yards, 47 touchdowns and just eight interceptions and ran for 15 touchdowns.

Then they were gone. Meyer went to Florida to win national titles; Smith became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.

“I texted (Smith) a while back that if he gets into coaching, I get first dibs on him. … I doubt he will but if he decides to go that route he’d be a guy that you’d love to have on your staff. He’s a special, special person. He’ll go down as one of my all-time favorites.” — Kansas City coach Andy Reid on Alex Smith

Smith spent eight years with the 49ers, who seemed to go out of their way to mishandle the young developing quarterback. He had six offensive coordinators in six years and was moved in and out of the lineup. They questioned his toughness and threatened to cut him. They publicly questioned whether a shoulder injury was real (it would require surgery to repair).

Then the Niners hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach in 2011. He transformed Smith and the team. Only a pair of fumbled punt returns kept Smith and Harbaugh from taking the 13-3 Niners to the Super Bowl that season. A year later, the 49ers were 6-2 and leading their division and Smith was among the league leaders in passing. Then he was sidelined by a concussion, and when he was healthy enough to play a couple of weeks later, Colin Kaepernick, his backup, was retained as the starter and the Niners went to the Super Bowl.

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Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs and took the Chiefs to the playoffs four times in five seasons. In the offseason, following the 2017 season, the Chiefs traded Smith to Washington and made Patrick Mahomes, whom they had drafted the previous year, the starter. For the second time, Smith’s former backup took his old team to the Super Bowl, this time Mahomes leading the Chiefs to the championship. 

Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith (11) holds his head after an injury during game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Landover, Md. | Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Smith won six of his first 10 games with the lowly Washington team, but then came that horrific injury that caused him to miss the rest of the season and the entire 2019 season. He returned for the 2020 season, even though he says the team made it clear they didn’t want him.

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“… They didn’t want me there, didn’t want me to be a part of it, didn’t want me to be on the team, the roster, didn’t want to give me a chance,” Smith told GQ Magazine. “Mind you, it was a whole (new coaching staff). They came in, I’m like the leftovers and I’m hurt and I’m this liability ... At that point, as you can imagine, everything I’d been through, I couldn’t have cared less about all that. Whether you like it or not, I’m giving this a go at this point.”

Midway through the 2020 season, he became the starting quarterback. He won five of the six games he started before an injury sidelined him. The Redskins were 2-8 in games he didn’t start.

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Mahomes summed up Smith’s career well when he spoke to reporters after learning of Smith’s retirement: “He dealt with adversity throughout his career and always seemed to come out on top. He’s dealt with different coaches, he’s dealt with different systems and he’s always had success. With the injury he had, for him to come back and lead his team to the playoffs shows the type of man that he is. … I’m just grateful for the time that I had with him, that really helped me become the kind of quarterback that I am today.”

Andy Reid, Smith’s coach in Kansas City, also praised Smith on the occasion of his retirement. “I texted (Smith) a while back that if he gets into coaching, I get first dibs on him,” Reid said Monday. “ … I doubt he will but if he decides to go that route he’d be a guy that you’d love to have on your staff,” Reid said. “He’s a special, special person. He’ll go down as one of my all-time favorites.”

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