SALT LAKE CITY — The remarkable comeback story of former University of Utah quarterback Alex Smith took its biggest step Sunday: playing in an actual game.
Smith, playing for the first time time since suffering a gruesome leg injury 693 days ago, entered Washington’s game against the Los Angeles Rams late in the first half Sunday, after starter Kyle Allen left the game with an injury.
“Obviously, very surreal at first,” Smith told reporters about having little time to react as he returned to action. “To have it happen as fast as it did was probably almost a blessing. ... It was kind of nice, in that sense, not having to think about it. Just go out there and do it.”
“It was great to be out there, the feeling, the range of emotions, the good and the bad. It’s why I fought so hard to come back. Sometimes you can take it for granted. Certainly to be away from it for a couple years, I’ve missed it.” — Alex Smith
The field conditions at FedEx Field were far from ideal — by the second half, a pouring rain left the field a wet and soggy mess. The end result was disappointing, too, for Smith and Washington, as the Rams beat the Football Team, 30-10. Smith completed 9 of 17 passes for 37 yards, was sacked six times and Washington netted minus-6 yards in the second half and 108 total yards of offense.
The opportunity to return to the field — and the odds stacked against it — wasn’t lost on the 36-year-old Smith, though.
“It was great to be out there, the feeling, the range of emotions, the good and the bad,” Smith said. “It’s why I fought so hard to come back. Sometimes you can take it for granted. Certainly to be away from it for a couple years, I’ve missed it.”
The first pick in the 2005 NFL draft completed his first pass, a 6-yarder to J.D. McKissic, with his family in attendance, and Smith received a standing ovation. Moments later, the drive stalled and Smith took his first hit, being sacked for a 4-yard loss by Aaron Donald on a third-and-4 play.
Smith later led a field goal-scoring drive to end the first half, after Kendall Fuller intercepted a Jared Goff pass, setting up Washington with possession at its own 41. Smith completed four straight passes on the scoring drive, setting up a 48-yard field goal as the half expired to cut the Rams’ lead to 20-10. He completed 5 of 6 passes in the first half for 35 yards.
Smith broke his right tibia and fibula in a game on Nov. 18, 2018, during his first season in Washington. The injury led to a life-threatening infection and near amputation of his leg. The compound fracture required 17 surgeries.
The NFL world responded to Smith’s return, including former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, who suffered a leg injury eerily similar to Smith’s that ended Theismann’s career. “Incredible story,” Theismann tweeted.
“I was nervous for him. I wanted to see him get through it,” Theismann told NBC Sports Washington. “I know the exact things I went through. ... I wanted to see if Alex would be able to take a hit, handle the weight on his back.
“... Oddly enough, it sounds a little crazy but when he went down in a pile there, got sacked and got up, I was very relieved that he could take the hit.”
Cheers for Smith’s return — mixed with concern for his health — poured out on social media. Among them, TV sports media personality Erin Andrews tweeted, “Screaming for Alex Smith like it’s the Super Bowl.” From former NFL linebacker turned analyst Emmanuel Acho, “I’m watching Alex Smith play like I’m a concerned mother.” “Alex Smith just played football in the NFL again ... absolutely INSANE,” wrote another player turned analyst, Pat McAfee.
I’m watching Alex Smith play like i’m a concerned mother. 😰— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) October 11, 2020
Alex Smith just played football in the NFL again.... absolutely INSANE— 🅿️at McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) October 11, 2020
Alex Smith a wayyyyy better man than me lol....ain’t no way I’m stepping back on a field after what he went through— Kerryon Johnson (@AyeyoKEJO) October 11, 2020
Earlier this past week, Allen was named the Football Team’s starter and Smith the backup, making this the first game Smith was active for a game this season. Washington’s original starter, Dwayne Haskins, was demoted to third string, with the team off to a 1-3 start.
Washington coach Ron Rivera said after the game that Allen, who suffered an arm injury, will start in Week 6 against the New York Giants if he’s ready, with Smith returning to the backup role if needed.
The coach, who himself is battling skin cancer, didn’t lose sight of what Smith’s return meant.
“I realized the gravity of it,” Rivera told reporters, “but I also realized he’s a football player who has been waiting for his opportunity, he got his opportunity and he did a good job. I was very pleased with what I saw. He was put in a very difficult position, and I thought he handled himself very well.”
His opponents on this day realized the importance of Smith’s return as well.
“I took a step back when I got off the field and I was like, ‘Man, wow, this dude is really out there with us.’ He was so close to not even playing again,” Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers told reporters. “... It’s impressive to play this game at a high level, especially once you feel like it was all taken away from you. Shout out for him stepping in there and taking a snap when everybody really counted against him.”