It was two years ago today — November 18, 2018 — when Alex Smith’s life changed.
The former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback had led the Washington Football Team — then known by another name — to a 6-3 record during his first season as the team’s starter. But halfway through the third quarter of the Week 11 game against the Houston Texans, Smith suffered a gruesome injury, fracturing both the tibia and fibula of his right leg when he was sacked by Kareem Jackson.
There was immediately a question about whether Smith would ever play again. In the days and weeks that followed — after he developed serious infections following surgery — there was a question about whether he would even survive.
Smith’s long and difficult recovery — and his determination to return to the playing field — eventually became the subject of an amazing ESPN E:60 documentary entitled “Project 11.”
It was a story that eventually had the happiest possible ending. During the summer, his doctors cleared Smith to play, allowing him to rejoin his Washington teammates. But in his return to action in Week 5 — when he came in for the injured Kyle Allen against the Los Angeles Rams — he was sacked six times in just 23 dropbacks.
Four weeks later, he played again after Allen sustained a dislocated ankle against the New York Giants, passing for 325 yards and a touchdown while leading his team back from a 10-point deficit — a comeback that ended when he was intercepted during the last two minutes of the 23-20 loss.
But then — with Allen expected to miss the remainder of the season — Smith was once again Washington’s starting quarterback. And the Detroit Lions were next.
“All week, it was such an eerie feeling,” Smith told ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell in an E:60 interview this week. “Driving into work, all those moments like you’re saying — and certainly laying down at night — knowing that this is really happening. Like, ‘I’ve got the ball in my hands again. I’m getting the start. I’ve got the keys to the car.’ And never in a million years, I never thought I’d be back here in this position — doing this.”
Two years ago today, Alex Smith suffered a gruesome injury most thought would end his career. Now he shares what it feels like to have his starting job back. pic.twitter.com/Mrfp8Xyr7G— E60 (@E60) November 18, 2020
Smith said that despite the brave and determined face he’s displayed to the world during 17 surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation, he was never completely certain he would again reach this point.
“As hopeful as I was, at times I still didn’t necessarily think I’d be starting in the NFL again. So just for me, it was just that moment of embracing that thought: about how lucky I am — and [I’m] going to make the most of it.”
On Sunday, Smith faced another tall task. Trailing the Lions 24-3 halfway through the third quarter, he led his team to three consecutive touchdown drives to tie the game at 24 with 6:09 remaining — and then after a Lions field goal with 2:42 left, led the team to another field goal to again tie the game with just 21 seconds remaining. But in the ensuing Detroit drive, a costly roughing-the-passer penalty gave the Lions’ Matt Prater an opportunity to kick a 59-yard field goal to win the game with just three seconds remaining.
“I got extended time last week coming off the bench, and then another step here this week, starting and taking all the reps,” said Smith after the game, per the Associated Press. “It felt good. It felt like I saw it well. I didn’t feel like I was hindered at all. Felt like I moved around well when I needed to.”
Washington head coach Ron Rivera was impressed with Smith’s 38 completions on 55 attempts for 390 yards — all of which were career-highs for the 36-year-old veteran — saying that he “played a heck of a football game” and that “he’s getting more and more comfortable back there.”
Even though it was a loss, Smith’s first start since his recovery showed that he’s no longer just the subject of an inspirational NFL story. Instead, he is back. And NFL teams will need to take notice.
“This guy, he’s a good-looking guy, people get tied in up in the way he looks – he’s got the quarterback look – good looking guy, speaks well, does all that stuff” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid just before the premiere of the documentary about his former quarterback. “But underneath that is a tough, tough guy that is highly competitive and has this drive that is ridiculous.”
Still, Smith acknowledges that he’s learned a larger lesson — and achieved a bigger goal — than just returning to his role as the starting quarterback for his third NFL team.
“This is the thing that people think i crazy: that I kept pursuing this,” he told Bell this week. “But also, having talked to a lot of the experts, knowing that the rest of my life would be better because I’m doing this. Knowing that I can play quarterback at this level, certainly I don’t have any limitations beyond this. So that’s an amazing feeling — having lived for a long time with the doubt in your head.”
Here at Arrowhead Pride, we’ve taken care to cover Smith’s injury and recovery over the last two years; it was the least we could do for a player who gave his all to the team we love — and played such an integral role in transforming the franchise from the league’s worst to Super Bowl champion.
But now, that part of Smith’s story has concluded. We’re very happy to report that henceforth, our Smith coverage can transition to what we wish it always could have been: stories about a worthy (and respected) opponent the Chiefs will play every few seasons.
The next time will be in 2021. We’ll see you then, Alex!