Alex Smith’s star-crossed career has thrown him adversity at nearly every breakthrough moment, yet he’s kept it all in perspective
Has there ever been a more star-crossed football player than Alex Smith? Ever since he left the University of Utah as the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft, fate has dealt him a blow at every turn, just when it appeared he was on top of his game.
In three different seasons, with three different teams, he was the starting quarterback of a team in first place when he was forced to the sideline — twice by a young second-year quarterback who proceeded to take the team to the Super Bowl, and once by injury. He has missed two complete seasons and half of another one with injuries.
Alex Smith is now working toward a comeback from one of those injuries — a gruesome broken leg that became infected and almost killed him, eventually requiring 17 surgeries to repair. He is universally admired for the attitude, courage and humility he has exhibited since suffering a compound fracture on Nov. 18, 2018.
But is there anyone familiar with the details of his injury who really wants to see him play football again? Would we all avert our eyes?
In different circumstances, the 36-year-old Smith could play another four or five years in this era, following the lead of Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers. But now he’s got a leg that was almost amputated and had to be rebuilt with metal plates and screws.
It’s the latest in the series of setbacks he has endured in the NFL. He had a charmed career in high school and college, losing only two games total in all that time and leading Utah to an undefeated 2004 season. The San Francisco 49ers made him the first pick of the draft. It’s been a white-knuckle roller coaster ride since then.
You could not design a worse program for nurturing a young quarterback than the treatment Smith was given his first few years in San Francisco. Then in 2011, the team hired a new head coach in Jim Harbaugh and just like that Smith thrived. That season, only a pair of fumbled punt returns kept him from taking the Niners to the Super Bowl. Smith led the team to a 13-3 record. He threw the game-winning touchdown pass to give the 49ers their first playoff win in nine years. In the NFC championship game, the 49ers lost in overtime thanks to those fumbles, the second of which set up the game-winning field goal.
A year later, the 49ers were 6-2 and leading their division. Smith was among the league leaders in passing, setting a club record for most passes completed without an interception and maintaining a 104 passer rating. Then in the ninth game he suffered a concussion. When he was healthy enough to play a couple of weeks later, Colin Kaepernick, his backup, was retained as the starter and the Niners went to the Super Bowl, losing to the Baltimore Ravens.
In the offseason, Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs and history repeated itself. He took the Chiefs to the playoffs four times in five seasons and in 2018, the Chiefs finished first in their division with Smith ranked among league passing leaders with the same 104 rating. In the offseason he was traded to the Washington Redskins in favor of another second-year quarterback named Patrick Mahomes, who took the Chiefs to the Super Bowl win last January.
Heading into the 10th game of the 2018 season, Smith and his new Redskins teammates were in first place with a 6-3 record. The Redskins would win only one more game the rest of the way. Smith’s leg buckled as he was tackled by two players against the Texans. Both bones in the lower leg were broken, one of them sticking through the skin. The injury became infected and for a time the doctors stated their priority was to save his life and then his leg, in that order. Doctors considered it tantamount to a war injury.
The injury is so gruesome that midway through the “Project 11” documentary that chronicles Smith’s story, viewers are met with this warning: “The following segment contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.”
It would be difficult to imagine there is anyone who isn’t cheering for Smith, not only out of empathy for what he has endured but equally for the person we come to know in the documentary (which was reviewed by my colleague, Jody Genessy). His wife Elizabeth describes a scene in which she is sitting by his bed in the hospital during one of the low moments in his recovery and he looks over at her and says, “It’s going to be OK, you know … Do you know how many people would love to trade positions with me.” Elizabeth, confused, says “What?” He continues, “Do you know the things and blessings we have and we can’t take it for granted, not even for a minute.” She marvels at his perspective and gratitude at such a time.
Later, Smith says, “This has been such a long road. I’m thinking about my kids and the rest of my life as a husband and father and being able to do things with my kids … I’m excited for when that day comes. I’m feeling pretty good about the rest of my life regardless of what happens with football.”
Correction: The original version of this column incorrectly stated the San Francisco 49ers lost to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVII. They actually lost to the Baltimore Ravens.