SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to Alex Smith’s horrifying, interesting and inspirational story and ESPN’s storytelling mastery and access, Utah sports fans who want to watch a riveting documentary with a happy ending now have an option.
While Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” promises to be a painful reminder of back-to-back NBA Finals shortcomings for the Jazz in upcoming episodes, the stunning behind-the-scenes look at Smith’s journey leading up to, during and after a devastating leg injury will make viewers from everywhere, Utah included, root even harder for the former All-American and Pro Bowl quarterback.
The documentary “Project 11” — Smith’s jersey number — debuted Friday night on ESPN.
Fittingly, Smith’s successor with the Kansas City Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes, posted two flexing arm emojis in a tweet about the documentary. This must-see hour of TV deserves more than just two thumbs up.
Like MJ’s project, though, there are parts some people with squeamish stomachs might want to skip. The piece includes multiple viewer warnings due to graphic and gruesome images of the extensive damage to Smith’s leg that was ravaged by a compound fracture and an ensuing life-threatening infection. It’s enthralling but grotesque in a few brief (and important) parts.
That said, here are 11 (spoiler-filled) takeaways from “Project 11:”
- Smith decided to become a quarterback when he was a young boy because his older brother, eight years his elder, played that position. He went on to win all but two games as a starter at a strong football program in high school (Helix High near San Diego) and under Urban Meyer at Utah after Ron McBride was fired following his freshman season. “I’d never heard of him,” Smith recalled of the up-and-coming Meyer. “He was intense.” Meyer’s first impression of the lightly recruited Smith: “skinny ... not very athletic ... a decent thrower ... but not a great player.” By the time spring football came around, Meyer knew he had his quarterback. “It took him a while to just play but you started to see our first spring that there was something special there.” By the time Smith’s All-American career was over (after his junior season) and the Utes had climbed to No. 4 with a BCS-busting Fiesta Bowl victory, Meyer was a huge fan. “He’s one of the toughest human beings I’ve ever been around. If that guy can’t play quarterback in the NFL, I’ll never have one.”
- Smith earned his bachelor’s degree after just two years in college and started working on his master’s degree as a junior before leaving a year early for the NFL draft in 2005. He’d gone from being an overlooked high school prospect to having draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. vacillating between him and California’s Aaron Rodgers as the No. 1 pick. Kiper picked Rodgers, the 49ers took Smith. “His athletic ability jumped off the charts,” then-offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy recalled. “You could see right away he was going to be able to handle whatever you threw at him.”
- Smith had a rough start with the 49ers. He remembers hearing that he was a No. 1 bust but wanted to prove otherwise. Things really began clicking for him when Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2011. Despite statistical and playoff success, Smith lost his starting job to Colin Kaepernick after missing one game with a concussion. The Kaepernick-led Niners surged to the Super Bowl, losing to Baltimore, and Smith was then traded to Kansas City. Though he’d been a consummate pro after losing his job, Smith was ecstatic. “I was pumped. I was sprinting to Kansas City.”
- BYU product Andy Reid coached the former Ute star to a new level with the Chiefs. But even after earning three Pro Bowl invitations, winning 50 games in five seasons and leading the NFL in passer rating (2017), Kansas City decided to go a different direction and drafted Mahomes. “It hurt,” he said. “It was disappointing.” Smith became a valuable mentor to Mahomes — “I learned a ton from Alex Smith. I attribute a lot of my success, especially early in my career, to him,” he said — the veteran QB got another fresh start through a trade to the Washington Redskins in 2018.
- By this time, the 33-year-old Smith had married his sweetheart from San Francisco, Elizabeth, and was the father of three kids. “Everyone was adjusting really well. Alex was loving being with the team,” she said. “It felt like we’d just gotten here and just settled and then ... bam!”
- The Redskins were in first place in their division with their new quarterback when they went up against the Houston Texans on Nov. 18, 2018. Crazy enough, that was the 33rd anniversary (Nov. 18, 1985) of Joe Theismann’s career-ending compound leg fracture on national TV against Lawrence Taylor and the New York Giants. Smith described the play called in this third-and-9 situation and noted the pre-snap adjustment before he snapped the ball and his life changed forever after being crunched by a couple of Texans, including JJ Watt. As replays showed, Smith’s lower leg snapped and things went fuzzy for him. “To know immediately your leg is broken, bending where it shouldn’t bend, certainly is an unusual sight.” Players and fans rallied around him as he was carted off the field waving before the shock wore off and his leg pain intensified en route to the hospital. He needed emergency surgery.
- The Redskins’ head team physician, Dr. Robin West, described Smith’s injury as “a very complex fracture.” He needed multiple screws and three metal plates inserted into multiple bones that were shattered in multiple places. By all accounts, the surgery went well. The next day, Smith felt fine and asked, “Can I just go home? I’m feeling all right. I’ll be fine. I can tough it out.”
- Things progressively got worse. His fever skyrocketed, his blood pressure dropped. “Alex is not Alex anymore,” his wife said. “It’s test after test after test.” Turns out, Smith’s open wound somehow became infected after the bone burst through his skin. His leg was undergoing serious trauma and developed huge black blisters. His wife said it looked like he’d been in a war movie. Smith needed more surgeries to battle an infection that was wreaking havoc. Surgeons told his wife, “We’re in lifesaving mode and leg-saving mode now, but it’s in that order.”
- Four different bacteria — two that are common, two that are rare — were infecting and spreading throughout his leg, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Steve Malekzadeh said. He became extremely sick and sceptic. Necrotizing fasciitis — more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria — spread from his calf up to his thigh leaving dead and darkened skin and muscle tissue in its wake. It was so serious that Smith was presented with two options: amputate the leg or try to save it by cutting out all of the dead tissue or “limb salvage.” Smith chose the debridement path, but it took eight surgeries to rid his leg of the infection. The surgeries took tissue and muscle out to his bone. A photo of the carved leg offers a stark reality of the miracle that took place to salvage this limb and perhaps his life. The leg required calf muscle to be moved to the front of his leg and muscle and skin from the thigh of his healthy leg. Overall, he needed 13 surgeries and two hospital stays to be cleared to go home for good. His leg was braced with a metal contraption that included multiple halos and metal rods to keep everything stabilized while new bone muscle and tissue generated.
- Part of Smith’s grueling and extensive rehab was spent at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. He received special permission from the secretary of defense to be treated at a place where soldiers wounded in combat get treatment. Football wasn’t on his mind at this point in early 2019. He was trying to gain full mobility and strengthen his leg. When Smith was given a football and started playing catch, his wife noticed a spark in his demeanor. Smith had remained positive throughout the ordeal, but now he had his mojo back. “Football might not be out of the question,” he said at the time. “Can I go play quarterback again? Can I push it that far?”
- Smith’s hardcore rehab continued over the ensuing months and his leg healed to the point where the stabilizing apparatus was removed. “I never thought this day would actually come,” an emotional Smith said. Eventually, Smith went from using a scooter and a walker to crutches to being able to walk on his own. On Sept. 23, 2019, Smith walked back into FedEx Field for the first time in almost a year. Though he’ll be 36 by the time the 2020 season starts, he still has a few years left on his contract and he has fire in his belly to get back on the field. More importantly, he has his health and life back. He can run. He can play with his kids. “It feels good,” he said. “I’m anxious for the next steps. What I have in front of me, where the road ends.”