The Alex Smith Story
Today’s post is a story featuring the kind of heartbreak and anguish thankfully precious few athletes will ever know. It also shows the value of having family and wider community close during dark times.
Alex Smith is a veteran quarterback who was picked No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Prior to this, he played college football for Utah under the emerging Urban Myer. Myer says he is one the most competitive and the smartest players he’s ever coached. After a long career in the Bay Area, followed by a happy and highly productive spell in Kansas City, Smith arrived in Washington to play for the Redskins. He suffered a presumed career ending injury playing quarterback for the Washington Redskins in November 2018. Brought down by two Houston defensive players, his leg buckled and broke. The bone protruded from the skin. Smith suffered a spiral compound leg fracture, featuring a broken tibia and fibula.
Initially, Smith’s surgery appeared to go well. Then, he came down with a fever and it went through the roof; his blood pressure dropped dramatically. In the words of his wife, Elizabeth, “Alex is not Alex anymore.” The Choice He was then told the wound was contaminated and sepsis had set in.
Alex Smith was faced with a choice: Limb salvage or amputation.
His doctor was frank: "We're in life-saving mode now and leg-saving mode, but it's in that order." He chose to save his leg and the lengthy process to recover - laden with setbacks - got underway. Football can be a brutal game but the gruesome nature of Smiths’ injuries sets him apart in U.S. sports.
Smith’s injury is considered without parallel in U.S. sports. I can think of one injury in English soccer from the 1990s that comes close. Coventry City defender David Busst broke his tibia and fibula and then got an infection in hospital, which led the surgeon to cut away four of his tendons. Busst was touch and go, but ultimately recovered. The mere mention of his name in the U.K. and Ireland will elicit a wince from those familiar with his plight.
Owing to the unprecedented nature of his injury, Smith and his team had to consider their options. His injury was similar to victims of blast trauma. He went to the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility for combat veterans in San Antonio after his medical team received clearance from the office of the Secretary of Defense for Smith to receive consultation from the military. There, Smith took part in blood flow restriction training. It’s a way to exercise with little or no weights, which is especially beneficial to those rehabilitating from injury. And it was extremely beneficial for his leg.
The Sporting Impulse
I think because Smith is such a competitive animal, once he had begun to recover, the mindset of playing football again served as the carrot in the push for a full recovery. He never lost perspective on what he was going through, even telling his wife: “Do you know many people would love to trade places with me?” Throughout his recovery, Smith has radiated humility. Even though one might pause and question whether getting back into football is precisely what he needs, it is hard not to respect his decision or see why he has set that goal.
His story goes to the heart of why we need sports and our communities.
Sports bring people together. Even more so in the age of a COVID-19 pandemic, sports - and the belief that they might one day return with an air of normalcy attached - feeds into our dread of isolation and need for human contact.
Other people are required for sports. You need other people - your family, friends and wider community - for life. Sports speak to a fundamental part of the human condition that craves doing things together.
When he needed them most, Smith’s family, football community and medical team came through.
"I'm feeling pretty good about the rest of my life," he said. "Regardless of what happens with football."
Alex Smith is grateful to be alive. Anything else is a bonus.