After breaking the tibia and fibula in his right leg, undergoing 17 surgeries to repair them and surviving a life-threatening infection, Alex Smith is back on a football field with his teammates.
Just 21 months after the gruesome injury that put his NFL career in jeopardy, the veteran quarterback has gotten through a rigorous rehabilitation process and is now a few steps away from completing an improbable comeback. He's taking snaps in some team drills at Washington's training camp and could soon earn the green light to take contact and, incredibly, get back into game action.
“When you’re in the hospital and you’re wheelchair-bound and I’m in a walker, you build up a lot of walls in your head as far as what you’ll ever be able to do again,” Smith said Wednesday. “This is it. This is the big giant one at the end: to see if I can go play quarterback again.”
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Smith's leg bent the wrong way when he was hit by two Houston defenders, and the sight was so severe it made retired QB Joe Theismann “turn away” from watching a play eerily reminiscent of his own injury 33 years to the day before. Smith was hospitalized for almost a month after the incident, had the leg stabilized with a giant brace and knew he had a long road ahead in rehab.
“It took a long, long time before I could even look at my leg,” he said.
Lying in the hospital bed and in the ensuing months after, Smith doubted his ability to return, especially as a player in his mid-30s. Now 36, he credits medical developments made in the last decade for allowing him to do what Theismann and others before him couldn't.
It was a gradual process that saw significant improvement in the past month. After opening camp on Washington's physically unable to perform list, Smith on Sunday was cleared to practice and could be back in uniform with teammates.
“I was really excited for him," said New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who used to train with Smith in San Diego. "I shot him a text just to tell him how happy and excited I was for him and he responded back, so I’m sure he’s really excited, really relieved to be able to get back out there again.”
Relief is one of many emotions Smith tries to shut out while he's practicing. There's discomfort occasionally in his right knee because doctors had to insert a rod as part of the repair, but he has gotten used to that and the brace he'll have to wear on that leg from now on.
Coach Ron Rivera and his staff are easing Smith back in — it's just 7-on-7 drills for now, then it will ramp up so he can anticipate pressure — but the 2005 No. 1 pick doesn't look like he's hampered by the injury or the equipment needed to manage it. He's taking second-team snaps after projected starter Dwayne Haskins, and Smith's arm looks as good as he says it feels.
“He definitely seems like himself," receiver Steven Sims said. "Balls are coming out early, on time, before guys are even playing at the top of their routes. It looks very smooth. It seems like he’s letting the ball quickly, like he wants to let the ball go fast.”
Rivera wants to make sure Smith doesn't progress too fast. The two have had conversations about this comeback path, and Rivera told Smith: “The biggest thing is, you have to be able to protect yourself. You’ve got to be able to show us that you can protect yourself.”
Smith has to trust himself, and the team has to trust him.
“You never want to put a player at risk, and that’s really more so what I’m concerned with is that I’m not putting him at risk based on my judgment,” Rivera said. “I just want to make sure at the end of the day based on what I’ve seen, based on what I’ve heard, we can sit there and make the right decision whether to play him or not.”
Smith wants to play, to show it's possible, but second-guessing remains. Once he progresses to full, 11-on-11 football practice, the biggest hurdle remaining is him getting hit — really hit — like he was by Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt on Nov. 18, 2018.
He has thought about it. Of course he has.
“That has been in the back of my head throughout this entire process,” Smith said. “I’ve got to go out there and get hit. I’ve got to go down there and do it and know that my leg is strong enough to take it, from a decision-making standpoint in life not to obviously let that fear dictate my decision making.”
Fear hasn't dictated his actions yet, and now Smith feels the best he has since just before the injury. It still remains to be seen if he can return to a real NFL game, though now he's close enough to sense the finish line
“It’d be like running a marathon and getting close to the end of the race,” he said. "That competitiveness kicks in, and I want to see if I can do it.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed.
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