Thursday, November 26th, 2020

Miracle Man

Liam Blackburn

Editor

Miracle Man

Liam Blackburn NFL

This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of Gridiron Weekly, earlier this year – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE



The world loves a comeback story. The NFL even has an annual award for those who have overcome season-ending injuries, dreadful campaigns or off-field adversity to thrive once again on the gridiron. Yet no one has attempted to return from what Alex Smith has gone through over the past 30 months.

November 18, 2018. In his first season since being traded by the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith had led a 6-3 Washington team to the top of the NFC East. There was a very real chance the 14-year veteran would be playing postseason football for the sixth time in eight years – for a third different team no less. Then, midway through the third quarter, on a third-and-nine just outside the Houston Texans’ red zone, Smith’s life would change forever, 33 years to the day that former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann’s career was ended by a gruesome leg injury.

Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson’s blitz had not been detected and he drove a helpless Smith backwards and to his right, beginning to drag him down just as J.J. Watt arrived from the other side. The quarterback’s leg buckled and bent at an unnatural angle. The historic play-by-play details a 13-yard loss and No. 11 having “an ankle injury”. That does not even begin to tell the story.

Smith, who had bone protruding from his skin, soon realised the injury – a fractured tibia and fibula – was season-ending. He immediately had surgery to fix the problem and, upon declaring that a success, then-Washington head coach Jay Gruden estimated Smith’s recovery time at six-to-eight months.

“Knowing the type of guy he is, I think he’ll bounce back,” Gruden said at the time.
 


“Four days following the initial injury, Smith’s mum, Pam, was told by surgeons about to operate on her son: ‘We’re in life-saving mode now, and leg-saving mode, but it’s in that order’.”


 
In the days that followed, it soon became apparent that Smith’s injury was worse than feared. A soaring fever led to blood tests and eventually the realisation that his wound had become infected. The recently released ESPN documentary Project 11 provided gruesome shots of Smith’s leg at this point, one that his wife, Elizabeth, said she would not even expect to see “in a war movie”.

Rare flesh-eating bacteria had entered Smith’s right leg and were ravaging through skin and muscle tissue – spreading up his leg into his thigh and causing irreparable damage. At this point, amputation was seriously considered.

Four days following the initial injury, Smith’s mum, Pam, was told by surgeons about to operate on her son: “We’re in life-saving mode now, and leg-saving mode, but it’s in that order.”

It took eight debridements to remove all the damaged tissue and get the problem under control. What was left of Smith’s leg resembled something you would expect to see hanging from a butcher’s meat hook. Given the absence of muscle tissue, amputation was again seriously considered, but Smith decided he wanted to try and salvage the limb so muscles from his calf and thigh were taken to basically restore his leg.

After 13 surgeries and 59 days, Smith finally left hospital with his leg in a brace. That in itself could be viewed as a success given where he was in the days after his initial operation, but the prospect of Smith ever being the same man again was hard to believe. An NFL quarterback who had thrown for over 34,000 yards and made three Pro Bowls needed help to do even the most basic task.
 


“Don’t underestimate his steely resolve. He is, according to ex-San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, ‘tough as a two-dollar steak’.”


 
Understandably, the thought of ever playing again was not at the forefront of Smith’s mind throughout this ordeal. But the possibility crept forward during a visit to a military centre in San Antonio. There, with his leg in a brace resting on a block, Smith tossed a football around for the first time since that Texans game. There was childlike enthusiasm spread across his face as he performed a rudimentary act – one he had done countless times from a young age. The seed of possibly, against all odds, doing this again on an NFL field was planted.

“Football might not be out of the question,” Smith mused.

His leg brace eventually came off, 239 days after the injury, after a 17th and, hopefully, final procedure. Following all that, Smith is still pushing himself – not just to live a normal life again, but to resume his NFL career.

There has never been any evidence of pumping up teammates in pregame rah-rah huddles from Smith and no cries of ‘LFG’ from a softly-spoken man. But don’t underestimate his steely resolve. He is, according to ex-San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, “tough as a two-dollar steak”, a person his old Utah coach Urban Meyer describes as “one of the toughest human beings I’ve ever known”. The very notion that he aspires to play again is a testament to that.

Smith is also easy to root for, not least because the world loves a comeback story. Just listen to the warmth with which Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes speaks of his predecessor and the importance of Smith’s tutelage in his ascent, and compare that with the icy coldness some other QBs supposedly give their heirs apparent.

The likelihood of Smith ever taking another NFL snap still seems unfathomable, even if he has three years remaining on his Washington deal. The end of the ESPN documentary shows him gingerly hobbling off while playing with his kids. And yet the past two-and-a-half years have shown he is not a man to be underestimated.

Tom Brady’s transition to Tampa Bay, Philip Rivers’ relocation to Indianapolis and Tua Tagovailoa’s time in Miami will garner the headlines in 2020, but keep an eye on Smith’s progress in the shadows. Should he even just suit up in burgundy and gold again, it will be perhaps the most miraculous NFL comeback story of them all.



This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of Gridiron Weekly, earlier this year – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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