Alex Smith Exemplifies The Perseverance Required To Be A Professional Football Player – But At What Cost?

Matt Rushford, Living Arts Editor

When quarterback Alex Smith announced his retirement on Monday, without context it appeared to be like any normal hanging-of-the-cleats. He thanked the Washington Football Team for his time there, stated he needed to spend more time with his family, and looked back upon his 16 years of playing professional football. 

But for those who know the story of what Smith has gone through for the past two years, his struggle is far from ordinary, even for the NFL; an organization that routinely sees its players succumb to devastating injuries, disappointing retirements, and of course plenty of post-career trauma.

During a game against the Houston Texans in 2018, Smith was sacked by two players which resulted in a variety of injuries including: a crushed right leg and a spiral compound fracture in his right tibia and fibula. Fans were devastated since his injury was thirty-three years to the day that former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann suffered his own respective gruesome leg injury. A day after this terrible  injury, the team published a statement saying that Smith’s injury recovery was going well and that he would presumably be ready to play next season. Despite this reassurance from the team, the worst was yet to come. 

Not long after Smith’s initial surgery, his leg became infected which caused him to develop sepsis. In what quickly became a worst-case scenario, Smith couldn’t think about whether he would return to the field again, but was instead dreading the loss of his right leg, or even worse, his life. 

Smith ended up requiring 17 surgeries with four hospital stays over a nine month period. He was persistent in his claims that he planned to play football again. However, it was clear even a year after the injury that he still had a long way to go. As he began to prepare for his return to football, he started to open up more about his recovery, including a feature interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about my ability to walk normal, to ever play with my kids, to ever go on a hike, go on a walk with my wife, hiking, skiing,” said Smith. “There were no guarantees about anything.”

Despite this uncertainty, positive news was on-the-way.  In August of 2020, Smith was cleared for football activity and earned a spot with Washington after training camp. While the year itself was rather uneventful, the simple fact that he had worked to make it to that point was certainly spectacular enough. However despite the stunning return, Smith was conclusively released at the end of the season. Following this release, he announced his early retirement a month later.

Since his return, Smith has been a lot more open about why he decided to make his return to the NFL after such a traumatic injury. Smith was plagued with self-doubt, but he claims that after he touched a football again following his surgery, he started to work up the confidence to return to the field. 

“It really did energize me. It started to become this thing, to put this crazy thing out there,” said Smith in an interview with GQ last February. “I knew if I never achieved it, my life would be better. I would be able to do more. I was going to take my rehab further than I would if I had just settled on being able to stand or golf.”

Smith has also been up front with how Washington had no interest in his return throughout much of the process. Ron Rivera, who was hired as the head coach throughout Smith’s recovery process had no connection to Smith and expressed less interest in his return than some others.

“There was a very small group of people that actually thought that I could do this,” said Smith. “I think the rest of the world either doubted me or they patronized me.”

Washington’s decision to move on from Smith shows the cold reality of football: it’s a business. But Smith’s story is uncharacteristic in the level of perseverance and personal strength that it took for him to return. Smith has repeatedly stated that his comeback year was a different milestone than earlier moments in his careers. 

“I’ve had some teammates, these crazy special teams guys,” said Smith. “These guys run down on kickoffs—and this is back when they had walls [behind the end zone], and they were running through the walls….They’d get all hyped up before the game in the locker room. I had two in particular that would always talk about living. They would always talk about, ‘Man, I’m going to live today.’ And they’d walk around and challenge you, like, ‘are you going to live today?’ And I’m this young quarterback and I’m like, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’…. But I learned (that) what that means, (is) to just live. Being in the moment, making the most of the opportunities. And certainly what an opportunity it is to go out there on Sundays and play, to be like kids. That stuff’s not going to last forever. We don’t know when it’s going to slip through our fingers.”

In a lot of ways, Smith’s return feels almost masochistic. Despite his optimism, it’s clear from his answers that he wasn’t in it just to say that he returned. He did it for himself, to prove to everyone that he could do it. He did it to show the level of dedication that he had to play football again at a professional level. To close this story with a few final words from Alex Smith himself: “after 16 years of giving this game everything I’ve got, I can’t wait to see what else is possible.”