For Alex Smith, playing football again gave him back the rest of his life
Former Utah and NFL quarterback will speak at Murray High on March 22 about his gruesome injury and why returning to the game was so import to him
Alex Smith, America’s star-crossed quarterback now retired, is coming to Salt Lake City next week to tell his story. This is something he has done with increasing frequency since he retired after the 2020 season, in which he made a stunning comeback from his famous injury. The public speaking engagements are not something he had anticipated, but when he gave a TED Talk last summer he found it cathartic.
“It was one of my first big exercises in trying to get my head around what I had been through,” he said recently in a phone interview. “I enjoy talking about it; I really do. The ups and downs, the good and bad, being transparent and honest. …”
Smith’s story has been thoroughly covered by all forms of media, including a powerful documentary, but there is something to be said for hearing deep reflections from the man himself, on stage. It’s the same reason we go to concerts even though we’ve heard recordings of the same music. And now that he’s 31⁄2 years down the road since The Injury, he’s had more time to reflect and mine the experience for all its worth.
“I tell my truth,” he says. “It’s not some fake Disney thing where everything works out if you persevere. How do we react to challenges? … It took me a long time to get there. I was bitter and negative and depressed about what happened to me. I was thinking the best part of my life was over. I was dwelling on all these things I can’t do … and how they had been robbed from me. I was wallowing in self pity for a long time.”
In case someone doesn’t know his story by now — one that transcended sports — Smith suffered a gruesome injury while playing quarterback for the Washington Football Team in the fall of 2018 — a compound spiral fracture of the tibia and fibula, with bone breaking through the skin. Doctors said the only thing they could compare it to was a war injury, like those inflicted on soldiers who have been hit with a bomb.
Making matters much worse, it became infected. Doctors went from trying to save Smith’s leg — fearing it would have to be amputated — to trying to save his life. There were doubts about whether he would be able to walk again.
The leg was rebuilt through 17 surgeries and the use of screws, plates and muscle taken from other parts of his body. He couldn’t walk for months. He spent days sitting on the couch consumed by anxiety. In the end, he was left with a leg that was lumpy, scarred and misshapen below the knee. During the TED Talk, he showed graphic photos of the leg at various stages of the rebuilding process; it looked like something found in a butcher shop. Near the end of his talk, Smith rolled up his pants and showed the audience his leg.
“I wake up every day with my new normal,” he was saying last week. “I bear the scars daily. It’s obvious I have to adapt the moment I step out of bed. I’m not the same. The leg was a reminder of all the things I had lost. Now I wake up proud of my leg and what we’ve been through. It’s an attitude shift. There was a time I couldn’t bear to look at it. I view it much differently now (although) I still have struggles and dark days.”
At the nadir of the experience, Smith was filled with self-doubt. “We are put in these situations,” he says. “What are you going to let it do with you? You have the ability to confront it. It certainly shook me and took me to a dark place. I’m thankful for the people who helped me out of it.”
Ultimately, Smith decided to try to play football again — a decision that was greeted with universal shock and concern for his well-being. Smith received calls from concerned acquaintances. Some of his friends told him they felt like his mother because they found themselves so worried for him.
“Why would I want to do that (play football again)?” he says now. “My leg crumbled. I almost died and now I am going out there again. Even though I was old in the locker room (37), I was young in life and there were things I wanted to get back. If I could play football, I could do anything.
“When I was in my wheelchair, I built a lot of mental walls about things I can’t do again and my Everest was playing pro football again. I really did it for the rest of my life. When I get out of bed I feel I have no physical limitations. I can adapt. Football gave me that back. I spent a lot of time being apprehensive about what I could do again. It was conquering my fears again, venturing out among 300-pounders again. At least I was living for something again.”
Smith, who missed the 2019 season, not only made the active roster for the Washington Football Team almost two years after the injury, but he found himself called into a game when the starting quarterback was injured. Some 693 days after the injury, he trotted onto the field again.
“I never thought I would play again,” he says. “Even when I pursued (a comeback) I never thought I’d get there. I was scared to death when I ran on the field that I was going to break. I thought I was fragile. I can’t tell you what getting tackled that first time and getting up afterward did for me, knowing I’m not fragile and taking that with me. The next six games I started, and I played without fear. It was an amazing place to be. I was so happy to be out there and to be in the moment, playing the game I love.”
Smith led the team to the playoffs and then retired in the offseason, although he had offers from other teams. It marked the end of a remarkable career, one that probably will always be remembered more for the injury than his fine, underrated play.
His career began inauspiciously. The University of Utah was the only school to offer him a scholarship. Four years later, the San Francisco 49ers made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Then they did their best to sabotage his career the next few years; it was as if the 49ers were trying to create a recipe for retarding the development of a young quarterback. Then Jim Harbaugh was hired as the head coach and Smith thrived — at least in spurts. His career would be marked by starts and stops and bad timing.
He came within a couple of fumbles by his teammates of taking the Niners to the Super Bowl. In three subsequent seasons, with three different teams, he was the starting quarterback of a team in first place when he was forced to the sideline. He was traded away twice to make way for young, second-year quarterbacks (Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Mahomes) who proceeded to take the team to the Super Bowl.
In all, Smith played 16 seasons — actually 14 because he missed two of them with injuries — passing for 35,650 yards and 199 touchdowns and producing a won-lost record of 99-67-1. Ultimately, the 49ers might have regretted picking Kaepernick over Smith because the play of the former declined rapidly and he never possessed the complete game that Smith brought to the field.
All that is behind him now, and he’s left to cope with retirement from the game he loved and the aftermath of that injury. Smith can add one more thing to be grateful for. Unlike so many others with injuries as severe as his, he does not have to deal with chronic pain and the complexities of pain management that can make life so difficult.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why some people do and some don’t, even with similar injuries,” he says. “I deal with minimal pain. I’m very lucky. I’m definitely grateful for that. I get out of bed, and I don’t have to deal with chronic pain.”
Smith’s return to Utah next week — he will speak March 22 at Murray High as part of the ongoing Voices program — will mark the first time he has returned to Salt Lake City since giving the commencement address at the University of Utah in 2014. Much has happened to him since then, including that life-altering injury. That injury and its varied ramifications will be the subject of his remarks that day.
An Evening With Alex Smith
When: Tuesday, March 22, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Where: Murray High School
To order tickets: voicesutah.com
Note: In addition to Alex speaking and sharing his story, there will be a silent auction with proceeds going to Murray High School. Premium ticket holders will be able to attend the photo-op at the end of the event and have their picture taken with Alex.