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ESPN documentary gives inside look leading up to Alex Smith’s first game back in the NFL after remarkable comeback

The documentary — “E:60 Project 11 — Alex Smith’s Final Drive” — picks up in May 2020, showing Smith’s recovery and mindset from his horrific leg injury all the way through his first game back.

Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith scrambles out of the pocket.
Washington Football Team’s Alex Smith scrambles out of the pocket during the second half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. A new chapter of the documentary “E:60 Project 11 – Alex Smith’s Final Drive” aired on Tuesday, June 1, 2021.
Roger Steinman, Associated Press

An addition to ESPN’s Alex Smith documentary chronicled the recovery, process and drive that led to Alex Smith’s remarkable comeback to the NFL.

The original ESPN documentary premiered in May 2020 and showed the recovery from Smith’s horrific leg injury, suffered in 2019, and subsequent infection that nearly led to amputation and threatened Smith’s life.

The original documentary leaves off in May 2020, with the question of Smith playing football up in the air, and a new chapter of the documentary — “E:60 Project 11 — Alex Smith’s Final Drive” picks up from where it left off, showing Smith’s recovery and mindset all the way through Smith’s first game back and his thoughts on the entire 2020 season.

Smith first started thinking about returning to football not long after he starting walking without assistance again.

“Every time I’ve been told that I can’t do it, every time that I’ve been pushed down, I come back stronger than ever,” Smith told his wife, Elizabeth.

“For me, I think that this goes back to the challenge, the opportunity,” Smith said. “When I was in the wheelchair, out of the hospital, getting skin grafts done, the last thing I wanted to think about was football or playing it again. But then you’re around it a little bit, watching the guys practice. Who knows, maybe I can (do it).”

Adrian Peterson, Smith’s Washington teammate, could tell that Smith would eventually play in the NFL again.

“People asked me all the time, ‘Do you think he’ll play again?’” the running back said. “Yeah. Without question. When I look in his eyes, I see that he’s not defeated.”

As Smith continued progressing in his recovery, he turned his attention toward being able to be a quarterback again.

“I feel like I conquered some of the everyday stuff, everyday life. For me, it’s really taking that next step into real athletic performance and getting back to playing quarterback again,” Smith said.

He started doing football drills, throwing the ball and dropping back as he prepared for a return.

“The challenge for me now is getting more of the football specific stuff. Can I play quarterback? Can I drop back in the pocket? can I move around? Can I be quick? Can I defend myself out there?” Smith said. “The big thing is that I’m slowly breaking down some of these mental barriers that I’ve built up.”

Smith returned to the Center of the Intrepid, the military hospital where he rehabbed from his injury, in January 2020. The doctors put him through an intensive evaluation to see his strength and how he had recovered from the injury.

Lt. Col. Joe Alderete, the chief surgeon at the Center of the Intrepid, was impressed with Alex’s recovery.

“I am utterly amazed with, one, his lack of pain from an injury as catastrophic as that was, and, two, his resiliency,” Alderete said.

The results of the examination were good, which gave Smith more confidence that he could return to the field.

“I’d been putting in that work for a year, so to get put through a good examination, I was doing well. It was great feedback for me. It certainly was exciting to hear that,” Smith said.

A family trip to Hawaii in March 2020, where Smith was able to run and play with his kids, meant everything.

“To be able to do those things that I’d wonder if I’d ever be able to do again with my kids — run around with them, wrestle with them,” Smith said.

“It looked like a weight had been lifted off of him,” Elizabeth Smith said.

In July 2020, he was cleared to return to football activity by Washington’s medical staff. He made Washington’s roster.

“It was really amazing. I never thought I’d be back in that team environment. I never thought I’d be back in a locker room, lacing up my cleats, putting a helmet on, going out to the practice field,” Smith said.

Smith was back on the team, and though his wife was understandably wary of him playing football again, she supported him.

“We’ve come so far, why even risk putting yourself back in that situation? I’ve come to realize, Alex is wired differently,” Elizabeth Smith said. “This is a test in life that he wants to overcome, and I’m here to support him.”

“I really just wanted to see if I could play. People that patronized my attempts into some feel-good story that I was trying to do and wasn’t that special, me trying to come back from this, I think that only fueled me,” Smith said.

The rest of the story is almost too unbelievable to be true.

Rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins was benched after four games and a 1-3 record, dropped to third string as Smith was promoted to second string. Kyle Allen, now the starter, suffered an injury in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Rams, and Smith was put into the game and finished it.

“My heart went straight to my throat. I was shaking,” Elizabeth Smith said.

“Terrifying and exciting and amazing, all at the same time,” Alex Smith said.

Smith was sacked by Aaron Donald in the game, the 284-pound defensive end jumping on his back. Smith’s leg held up.

“It was the first time that I’d been hit since I broke my leg. I distinctly remember that a human being had jumped on my back,” Smith said.

“He comes off the field and he says, ‘I did it.’ He was ecstatic that he got to that point where he wanted to get to. Get on the field, take a big hit and get up,” Washington head physician Robin West said.

Allen suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 9 and Smith took over as full-time starter. Smith finished the season 5-1 in games that he started, winning the NFC East and earning a playoff berth.

A calf injury caused Smith to miss the wild card game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Backup Taylor Heinicke had a valiant performance against the eventual Super Bowl champions, but Washington came up just short, losing 31-23.

“It was hard. It was really frustrating,” Smith said of missing the playoff game. “But to get on that run and to win five and to end up winning the division, I couldn’t have predicted that in a million years.”

He was voted the the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year for the 2020 season.

Smith announced his retirement in April and will now focus on spending time with his kids.

“My kids are at such a special age and have certainly got a front-row view of this recovery. I think when you talk about what’s important in life, that’s certainly what we hold dear as a family. Certainly the experiences with the people you love mean the most,” Smith said.