‘Vintage Alex Smith’: Former Utes QB shares his NFL comeback story with appreciative Utah audience
Smith answered questions from the audience, said he ‘definitely’ plans to return to Utah a lot now that he is retired, and joked that he has forgiven J.J. Watt, but his 8-year-old son ‘still holds a grudge’
MURRAY — Former University of Utah quarterback and 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith has forgiven future NFL Hall of Famer J.J. Watt for the hit that caused Smith to suffer a life-threatening fractured leg on Nov. 18, 2018.
His 8-year-old son certainly has not.
“He still holds a grudge,” Smith said. “To him, J.J. Watt is up there with Darth Vader.”
That was just one of many humorous, poignant and inspirational stories Smith shared with the audience at a two-thirds filled Murray High auditorium Tuesday night as part of the “Voices” program — which bills itself as “conversations with some of today’s most inspirational and influential voices.”
Smith is certainly that, especially in Utah where he is adored by Utes fans after leading Utah to an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl championship in 2004 and even admired by rival BYU fans for his incredible journey back from near-death, then near-leg amputation, to starting in the NFL again less than two years later.
“Those remarks were vintage Alex Smith, that’s what they were,” said University of Utah booster and benefactor Spence Eccles, who attended the event with his grandson, recent Stanford graduate Randy Quarles. “Alex was just the way he was from the first day I met him and all the time I have supported him since he was here. It was great to have him back and hear the story, which is an incredible story.”
With KSL-TV anchor Debbie Worthen moderating, Smith sat on a sofa and talked about his life in football for about 90 minutes, then took pictures with fans who had paid $125 apiece to hear the legend and meet him afterwards. Audience members submitted questions for Smith before the event and four were chosen to stand and ask him in person, including one self-described Utah Utes diehard who asked him if fans would see him at Rice-Eccles Stadium more now that he has retired and moved to the San Diego area with his family.
“Without a doubt,” Smith said. “I will definitely be back more and more.”
It was Smith’s first public appearance in Utah since he was inducted into the University of Utah Athletics Hall of Fame last September before the Utes’ football season opener against Weber State. He said he was also here in January with his family on a skiing vacation. Of course, he gave the commencement address at the University of Utah in 2014 when he was still a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Regarding the circumstances that led to him being traded from Kansas City to the Washington Football Team, Smith said: “We drafted a guy named Patrick Mahomes, who’s been OK for them,” referring to the former NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl MVP.
It was those kinds of humorous and self-deprecating quips, deftly mixed with some heartfelt and emotional descriptions of his injury and comeback, that had the audience engaged throughout and ended with a standing ovation.
Smith was excelling for Washington and had his team at the top of the division standings before Watt’s sack bent his ankle back at an awkward and unnatural angle and fractured both his fibula and his tibia.
“It thrust me into a dark, dark place, mentally,” Smith said.
Describing the moment when doctors were discussing whether or not to amputate his infected leg, Smith remembers hugging his wife and saying aloud: “How did we get here?”
He also admitted that after he got the “green light” to play again, culminating months and months of rehab as was outlined in a powerful ESPN documentary, he secretly hoped his wife would put the kibosh on the whole deal because he had his own self-doubts about being able to perform again.
“Fortunately, she was all-in, 100% behind (the comeback),” he said, describing a conversation the couple had in their car minutes after he got the news.
He recounted the story of how the first hit he took upon returning to the field was from NFL defensive MVP Aaron Donald of the now-Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams.
“He just jumps on my back,” Smith said. “… Honestly, to this day, it is still the most empowering moment of my life. … I am proud of my leg. It is crazy looking, but I am incredibly proud of it.”
And the state of Utah is incredibly proud of its adopted son, Eccles said, marveling over how far the football program has come since Smith’s days on the Hill.
Before Smith took the stage to a round of applause, Murray High junior class president Abby Cook recited facts about his career. That came after Cook met the former quarterback backstage and told him how her father was such a big fan that he had a framed photo of Smith on a wall in their home. As a young child, Abby knocked the photo off the wall one day and it fell on her sister’s head, drawing blood.
“And that’s how I learned who Alex Smith was,” she said.
John Elmer wanted his young son, Carter, to get to meet Smith and hear his story firsthand, which is why they made the effort to be there Tuesday night.
“I thought it would be a great thing for my son to hear what Alex has gone through, because he plays sports and in sports you have a lot of things that happen that get you down. Obviously, this is an anomaly, what Alex went through. But to see him go from the lowest of the lows and get back on the football field, and to hear what he had to say about that, it was really compelling.”
Added Carter, who shares the same birthday (May 7) as Smith: “It was super cool, and it was just awesome to be here.”
Carter’s favorite story Smith told was about how Smith’s parents — who graduated from Weber State — wouldn’t let him play tackle football until he was a freshman in high school. Smith said he was 5-foot-7, weighed 107 pounds, and had size 13 feet.
He was the slowest guy on the team.
“Dad asked me if I would rather run cross country,” Smith said, drawing the first of several dozen laughs from the crowd.
He told the story about how his only scholarship offer out of San Diego’s Helix High was from Utah secondary coach Bill Bush. He turned down an opportunity to attend some Ivy League schools, which did not sit well with his mother at the time.
“You’ve heard of four stars and five stars (in recruiting rankings),” he said. “I had no stars.”
Tyler Gulbransen, 29, was one of the fortunate fans who got to mingle backstage with Smith before the chat. Gulbransen wore a No. 11 Washington jersey, but said he’s actually a Denver Broncos fan.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “It is really neat that Alex is taking the time to do this. You don’t see a lot of professional athletes doing this.”
Then again, you don’t see a lot of people returning to the field after a massive leg reconstruction.
But “vintage Alex Smith” did.