Alex Smith’s road to recovery over the past 21 months has been fraught with pain and self-doubt, the lasting effects of the devastating leg injury he suffered in 2018 evident with the black brace he wears on his right leg to this day.
Wednesday, however, was an unmistakable high for the 36-year-old quarterback, who has beaten the odds by returning to practice with the Washington Football Team earlier this week.
“Today was the best I’ve felt out there, for sure,” Smith told reporters Wednesday during his first news conference since the injury. “So I’ll just keep stacking them.”
Smith is currently working in 7-on-7 drills with Washington. That he’s even practicing is a testament to his work ethic and mental toughness.
His injury was gruesome — the bone in his leg pierced his skin while he was being sacked — and a recent ESPN documentary on his rehab revealed how ugly the ensuing war against the flesh-eating bacteria that promptly attacked his wound has been. He needed multiple surgeries to save his leg and extensive, grueling rehab to regain the use of it.
“I had so many doubts,” Smith said Wednesday. “On a lot of days, I was sure I would never be in this position today … it’s hard to know what you’re made of until you get tested with something like this.”
Smith kept working, putting everything into his rehab.
”You build up a lot of walls in your head when you’re in the hospital, wheelchair-bound and in a walker, as far as what you’ll ever be able to do again,” Smith said. “Then you try to knock those walls down slowly. It took a long, long time before I could even look at my leg.”
Along the way he learned patience and gained an understanding of why he couldn’t retire and count his millions, why he had to keep pushing forward in his comeback.
“When I became a father, it’s something obviously that changed my life,” said Smith, who has three children with his wife, Elizabeth. “I think you learn pretty quick that parenting wasn’t always about me telling them things, it was really more about the example that I give and lead with.
“And faced with this — the injury, the aftermath and the recovery process — [it was about] how I was gonna handle that.”
The older his kids get, Smith added, the more they see. He owed it to them to be a living example that it’s possible to come back from this nightmare, with the knowledge that even if he falls short of playing in games again, there’s nobility and honor in trying.
“I’m not gonna be ruled by fear,” Smith said. “I think it’s easy to talk about it, but for me, [I wanted] to be about it.”
Besides, Smith said, there’s been much progress made in the medical field as it relates to rehabbing limb injuries in the past 10-15 years.
“This was something that, even if it was 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be able to be out there,” Smith said. “A lot of progress was made that I benefited from, so I really feel like I owe it as well to push the limits for the next person in line.”
Smith has to push those limits because he finds himself in a young quarterbacks room with a talented second-year starter in Dwayne Haskins Jr. and another passer the coaching staff trusts in Kyle Allen.
Washington coach Ron Rivera said the next step for Smith is to graduate to 9-on-7 and 9-on-9 drills, which will allow the 17-year veteran to be reminded of what it’s like to have rushers coming at him and allow the coaching staff to watch how Smith handles the heat.
Rivera said Smith will also be judged on his footwork and how quickly he’s making decisions, with the goal of getting him in 11-on-11 drills, possibly as soon as this training camp.
“Now your natural ability … your experience and feel and sense for what’s going on will have to come into play,” Rivera said. “That’s where we’re hoping to progress to eventually, and see if he’s still capable of doing it.”
Still, Rivera noted the most important thing is making sure Smith protects himself.
Smith said he’s already feeling good working through his progressions and ball-handling. But can he do the unchoreographed things? For instance, when the pocket breaks down, can he escape and make a play?
Smith wondered aloud what taking his first hit would be like.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about that probably more than I could probably say — that’s been in the back of my head throughout the entire process,” he said, adding there’s a progression where “maybe you do try to simulate getting tackled.”
He still has to prove his leg is strong enough to take it. That’s a one-day-at-a-time thing, with few certainties other than this: For the rest of his career, he vows to always be wearing some sort of orthotic brace on the leg.
If he’s ready to play in a game again, he’ll know. And if he doesn’t get to that point, he will, in his own words, “move on with my life.”
Until then, Smith is full steam ahead on playing quarterback, determined to complete the final chapter in one of pro football’s most improbable comeback stories.
“I haven’t given any thought to anything else,” Smith said. “I’m lucky to still be playing at this point, to put the jersey and pads on and still go out there. Over the course of my career, it’s something I’ve learned not to take for granted. It doesn’t last forever.”
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