NFL Thanksgiving a fitting stage for Alex Smith's miracle comeback
Washington visit the Dallas Cowboys in the second of two Thanksgiving Day games live on Sky Sports NFL this evening, with the first seeing the Detroit Lions take on the Houston Texans.
By Cameron Hogwood
Last Updated: 26/11/20 4:56pm
In a year tarnished with desolation and loneliness, upset and despair, Alex Smith has been ironclad testimony to hope beyond pain, the reward of resiliency and the idea that nothing is impossible.
This time two years ago the veteran quarterback was lying in a hospital bed having undergone surgery on a gruesome compound fracture in his right leg, suffered as a result of a bruising hit from J.J. Watt and Kareem Jackson during Washington's clash with the Houston Texans on November 18.
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A football injury would soon take on the appearance of that of a war zone. Smith's raging fever led doctors to discover an infection in his blood before taking him back into the operating theatre in order to remove muscle tissue. It was later revealed Smith was battling necrotising fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease that left surgeons fighting to save not only his leg, but his life.
He underwent eight debridements to remove skin, tissue and muscle over the next week as doctors continued to monitor the rapid growth of the infection, leaving his tibia completely on display with nothing from his knee to ankle. The options facing him were amputation or muscle transfer, the latter, despite it's well-documented complexity and risks, getting Smith's go-ahead.
Two years on, after 17 surgeries entailing debridements, muscle transfers and microvascular surgery, followed by Smith having to wear a bone-stabilising leg brace before enduring a gruelling rehabilitation process, he is now set to step out as an NFL starter on Thanksgiving in traditionally the most-watched game of the regular season.
"You take a moment," said Smith on the two-year anniversary of the injury last week. "Just to certainly appreciate everything about where we are. Certainly, as a family, how lucky we are. I'm grateful for so many things, certainly to be in this position again. I didn't think it was ever possible for a long time."
The recollections from Smith's wife Elizabeth range from memories of her husband screaming as team doctors re-positioned his leg in the tunnel after the incident, to him detailing the number of people who would 'love to trade positions' with him in an extraordinary call for perspective.
A fighter of that humility is beyond worthy of such a remarkable revival.
The Comeback Player of the Year award belonged to Smith the minute he was added to the 'physically unable to perform' list to begin training camp this offseason after being cleared to return by doctors. That alone was a win. Simply being able to walk again was a win.
If Smith later being activated to the main roster was a bonus, then him seeing a live-action snap this season was nothing short of a miracle. A miracle befitting of the stage on a day to be thankful.
"I don't think you totally know how resilient you are until you get tested and this was definitely the biggest test I've had in my life," he told People.
From ESPN's 'Project 11' series taking us behind the scenes of Smith's gut-wrenching comeback, to his family spraying him with champagne to celebrate his return to football activities, it's been an onion-cutting experience for all.
He was no stranger to adversity even before his life-threatening leg injury, having missed half the 2007 season and the entire 2008 campaign with shoulder problems amid a period in which he was striving to convince as the San Francisco 49ers No 1 overall pick in 2005.
The response on that occasion was ascending figures carrying into his time with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he would later go on to throw for a career-high 4,042 yards and 26 touchdowns to just five interceptions in 2017 while playing an indispensable role in mentoring a then-rookie Patrick Mahomes.
"Alex Smith was phenomenal. He let him into his world," said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. "Patrick couldn't pay Alex enough for what he gave to him."
Having laid the foundations for Mahomes, Smith was traded to Washington in January 2018 before signing a four-year, $94m extension. He went 6-3 as starter with Washington sitting top of the NFC East, and then came the injury. An injury that would almost kill him.
Exactly 693 days later Smith was making the most unlikely of returns, replacing the injured Kyle Allen during Washington's Week Five defeat to the Los Angeles Rams.
His first play was a short pass to J.D. McKissic for a gain of six. His second was an incomplete pass intended for Terry McLaurin. His third was a piggy-back sack from Aaron Donald for what marked his first hit since the injury.
That was the first of six sacks on Smith that day. Welcome back to the NFL.
"It'd been two years since I had been hit," Smith told NBC's Peter King. "The last time I did, my leg broke. I just spent the previous almost two years doing everything I could to protect my leg, and then all of a sudden now I'm running out onto a field to play tackle football again."
The biggest compliment the 280-pound Donald could have paid Smith in his first game back was by swarming him as he would with any other quarterback in the league. This was a reminder of who he was. This was a reminder of what he had accomplished and overcome just to be there.
Smith's nine of 17 for 37 yards felt like a rousing 500-yard, five touchdown exhibition.
"That is truly one of the most amazing things I think, not only that we've ever seen, but one of the most amazing things in football history, is him getting back from that injury," said Rams quarterback Jared Goff. "The respect I have for him and just the way he goes about his business."
"I said it in postgame, but I'll be able to tell people forever that I watched that and saw that happen."
After defeats to the New York Giants and Detroit Lions, Smith ticked off the first win of his return on Sunday as he went 17 of 25 for 166 yards, one touchdown and one interception to help Washington beat the Cincinnati Bengals 20-9.
It was all too fitting that Smith was the man playing across from No 1 overall pick Joe Burrow as he was carted off with a season-ending knee injury likely to rule him out the start of 2021. The former LSU star needn't look far for an emblem of inspiration.
For most, it will be difficult not to wince at every hit he takes, or at least allow the context to trigger a split-second of concern when he hits the turf. For Smith, every hit he is able to get back up from must feel like a triumph.
What's so great is that the interceptions, the incompletions and the defeats thus far will be grating on him just as they would have prior to the injury.
Despite the repeated surgeries, the injections, the metal screws and plates to hold his leg in place, the immobility and the dips in and out of consciousness, the mentality of an NFL quarterback never left him, nor did the will to excel in a game that nearly killed him.
It's a joy to see him back out on the field, and to witness his family in stands playing every snap with him.
In a year like 2020, Smith's story is one to hold onto.
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