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Alex Smith’s remarkable comeback hits home

The Washington Football Team quarterback has returned to the field after an injury that nearly took his life.

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Washington quarterback Alex Smith (11) warms up before an NFL game against the New York Giants on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J.

Adam Hunger, Associated Press

On the afternoon of Oct. 11, Robbie Owens, the head football coach at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, California, got a phone call from his son, Zack. Zack, a college baseball player at Azusa Pacific University, had attended the school where his father coaches, and the subject of his call was one of immense local importance. Alex Smith, the pride of Helix Charter, had just stepped onto the field to take his first snap as an NFL quarterback in almost two seasons.

“You’re not going to believe it,” Zack told his father. “Alex is in!”

“I had to scramble to my TV to get it on so I could see him play,” Owens recalls of that afternoon. It was gray and drizzling in Washington, D.C., where Smith suited up for the Washington Football Team, but appropriately sunny in the San Diego suburb where the coach of Smith’s alma mater tuned in.

By any conventional measure, Smith had a rough go of it that day, completing just 9 of 17 passes for 37 yards as his team lost by 20 points to the Los Angeles Rams. But his is not a conventional story, in its degree of hardship, in its standards of success, or in its influence on others. When Smith suffered a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula during a game in November 2018, the question was not whether he would play football again but whether he would walk — or even, following a series of infections and 17 surgeries, whether he would live.

Smith’s return to play has been received across the sports world as a story of the triumph of perseverance. He is widely considered a shoo-in to receive the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, and today’s Thanksgiving day game against the Dallas Cowboys will be the latest step in that journey. But nowhere does his comeback inspire more pride, and teach a greater lesson, that at his alma mater, where coaches and administrators have used it as a living example of the kind of fortitude they hope to instill.

“I’ve never met Alex in person,” Owens says. “But just in that story, he makes an impact on me every day.”

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Washington quarterback Alex Smith (11) is taken down by New York Giants cornerback Isaac Yiadom (27) in the first half of an NFL game between the New York Giants and Washington on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Landover, Md.

Al Drago, Associated Press

The humble high school legend

To football fans in the West, the Alex Smith era at Helix Charter is the stuff of legend. Smith, the future University of Utah standout and top overall pick in the NFL draft, partnered with Reggie Bush, the tailback who would go on to win a national title and a Heisman Trophy at the University of Southern California (which he eventually returned). To revisit film of their high school days, now, is to glimpse the traits that would define them in the college and professional ranks: Smith’s sharp release and accuracy, Bush’s gyroscopic cuts and field-opening burst.

Over Smith’s junior and senior seasons, in 2000 and 2001, he and Bush led the team to a 25-1 record, winning two city championships. But it was Smith’s humble, hardworking bearing that made the biggest impression on those who knew him during his high school years. “My kids are 21 and 19 years old,” Damon Chase, the athletic director at Helix Charter, says. “They were on the sidelines when Alex played, they followed him and Reggie Bush. It’s not so much about the football; they’re good people.”

Since starting his professional career, Smith has donated equipment to Helix on occasion — quietly, as is his preferred method of doing almost anything. “Alex came back in January or February, came into town sort of unannounced,” Chase said, speaking to Smith’s aversion to press and hubbub. “That’s before people knew the extent of what he had gone through. He’s a great human being, a great father. There’s nothing flashy about him.”

Having tracked the evolution of Smith’s career — from an even-tempered high-school star to a top draft pick to a Pro Bowler during his time with the Kansas City Chiefs — Chase has been heartened, but not surprised, by his comeback. “What Alex is going through certainly has shown his poise. He’s always been a super tough competitor, a hard worker. This certainly shines a light on all of that.”

An example in trying times

Helix Charter’s football team is facing its own tribulations this year. Before their season was to start, the California Interscholastic Federation suspended it until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The shift threw wrenches into the program’s plans; its expected starting quarterback, transfer Tyler Buchner, will enroll early at Notre Dame in the spring, when Helix Charter’s season is expected to begin.

Smaller challenges abound: hauling weights outside to comply with COVID-19 regulations, breaking students into groups of 14 or fewer, conducting team meetings and delivering key instructions over Zoom. “It’s not true football,” Owens says, “in the sense that we’re not having the group dynamics.”

Andre Salcido, a safety and wide receiver at Helix Charter, describes hardship that extends beyond a delayed — or possibly canceled — senior season. “For a lot of players, the recruitment process has been messed up,” Salcido says. “The college coaches are looking past us, being that they don’t really need a 2021 class. Very few kids are being recruited, and it’s kind of a wasted opportunity for them to be able to go to college for free and experience playing college ball.”

In Smith, Owens has found a natural and fitting example for his players to follow as they experience the most trying chapter of their athletic lives. When “Project 11,” an ESPN documentary chronicling Smith’s injury and arduous recovery, debuted in May, Owens watched it immediately. At the next team meeting, he implored his players to do the same. “I started off our Zoom talking about it,” Owens said, “telling our kids they need to watch it.”

Smith’s comeback — from the documentary that showed the life-threatening extent of his injuries to the initial return to the field to, last weekend, a win over the Cincinnati Bengals — has become a central theme of Helix Charter’s quasi-season. The message?

“We’re in a different climate now; this is a very difficult time,” Owens recalls telling his players. “I know this is difficult for you guys, but understand there’s a lot worse things that could be happening to you.”

Despite many players on Helix’s current roster being too young to remember much of the Smith-Bush heyday, the two figures retain a special pull on the program. “They’re definitely legends,” Salcido says, and recites their high school uniform numbers with a kind of habitual awe. “No. 5 and 7. Alex comes around to see a game every once in a while, and everyone’s super hyped to see him.”

Smith’s influence extends beyond the football team. Helix students can take a class on sports science and rehabilitation, and their famous alum’s injury and recovery has become a case study. Even in a scientific context, instructors are sure not to deemphasize the importance of grit and determination.

“This could be a real study in anatomy and physiology and rehab,” Chase says, “but this is more about the human spirit than anything else.”

The Helix football season remains up in the air, with a spike in coronavirus cases leaving the scheduled January start in question. A group of players, like a generation of students across the country, now faces hardships they never planned to contend with. Some treasured experiences, like farewell seasons and recruiting visits, could be lost to a twist of history. But Smith breathes life into a football cliché: It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get back up.

“It comes back to what he tries to represent, what we as a school and community teach: dealing with adversity, fighting for what you believe in,” Owens says. “Everybody here is a tremendous fan of him.”