The Greatest Comeback in Sports: The Story of Alex Smith

February/March 2021

On November 18th, 1985, Joe Theismann was the quarterback for the Washington Redskins (now referred to as the Washington Football Team) against their NFC East rivals, the New York Giants. At the end of the night, Theismann was in the hospital with a broken tibia and fibula after being tackled by three-time Defensive Player of the year Lawrence Taylor. His career as a football player was over. On November 18th, 2018 Alex Smith was Quarterback for the Washington Redskins against the Houston Texans. Alex Smith was recently traded from the Kansas City Chiefs and had helped Washington improve their record to 6-3 putting them at the top of the NFC East division. In the third quarter of the game all of that changed, Alex Smith was sacked by three-time Defensive Player of the year JJ Watt. He suffered a broken tibia and fibula. Smith was immediately carted off and taken to the nearest hospital.

Smith was rushed to the operating room where he would have two plates and multiple screws placed in his tibia and one plate placed in his fibula. The surgery was a success and after a few days Smith was cleared to go home. He left the hospital excited to return home and begin his recovery process to get ready for next season.

Smith had been running an off again and on again fever since the surgery which is normal for operations of that magnitude, but the fever became progressively worse and Smith returned to the hospital. When lead team physician Robin West and team doctors unwrapped the leg, the difference was shocking. The leg was oozing with black blood,
surrounded by dead skin and tissue. His blood cultures were positive as well, which meant he had bacteria in his blood. This condition is called Septicemia, which if uncontrolled could lead to death. Doctors began the first of eight surgeries removing infected tissue from his leg. The bacteria in his leg was extremely rare and is called necrotizing fasciitis, also known as “flesh-eating bacteria.” Smith was fighting for his life when Doctor West spoke with Smith’s wife Elizabeth. Dr. West explained to her that, “we are in the life-saving mode, and leg saving mode, but in that order.” When the surgeries were finished, Smith’s leg was stripped of the majority of the tissue but the bacteria had been controlled. His leg consisted of bone and very little muscle tissue. Smith was faced with a decision, a limb salvage where they would attempt to take muscles and tissue from other parts of his body and put them in his leg in hopes that they would connect with the few muscles left and influence bridging of the bones in his leg or his other option of amputation. Smith chose the limb salvage where doctors moved muscles and skin from his shoulder and quads to his right leg. On December 16th, Smith was cleared to go home; he would be lucky to walk on his own strength. The military granted Smith special permission to receive medical help from the Center of the Intrepid in San Antonio, a military medical facility designed for combat injuries. Although Smith had suffered this injury from football it looked like a “blast injury.” Smith’s experience at the Intrepid not only allowed him to make significant strides with his leg injury but also humbled him after seeing other veterans such as Kelly Elminger who had her
leg amputated. After months of rehabilitation, Smith’s bones had bridged together and miraculously healed. On July 15th, 2019, Smith received his 17th and final surgery which involved removing an external fixator that supported his leg. Two weeks later he was able to walk on his own.

Smith returned to San Antonio and continued his rehabilitation. Doctors were impressed with his progress, his motivation to continue to work, and his positive approach to the healing process. On August 16th, 2020, Alex Smith was cleared to play football. This alone would be a worthy achievement, but Smith’s comeback story was not over.

On October 11th, Alex Smith entered the game to replace quarterback Kyle Allen for the Washington Football team. Smith struggled against an impressive Rams defense, but to see him back on the field was an inspiration. Kyle
Allen would continue as the starting quarterback, but on November 8th Kyle Allen suffered a devastating leg injury forcing Alex Smith to replace him. The Football Team lost, but Smith had earned the starting job. After a loss to the Detroit Lions, the Football Team went on a two game win streak with wins over the Bengals and Cowboys. The Football team then faced the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers who had been unstoppable. On Monday Night Football at Heinz Field, Smith threw for 296 yards and one touchdown and led Washington to a 23-17 win over the  undefeated Steelers. This was Washington’s fourth consecutive win placing them first in the NFC East with a 6-7 record. Smith suffered a calf injury but would return in Week 17 to secure the Washington Football Team a spot in the playoffs with a decisive win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

As a starter, Alex Smith led Washington to five wins and only one loss. Unfortunately, Smith was unable to play in their playoff game against the Buccaneers due to a lingering calf injury, but Smith was on the sidelines supporting his team and helping backup Taylor Heinicke. Washington would come up short losing 31-23. Although Washington did
not win the Super Bowl, it was a successful season for the franchise. Smith not only returned to the football field but won five games and helped Washington to the playoffs. On February 6th, Alex Smith won comeback player of the year at NFL Honors. Smith will take the next few weeks to evaluate if he will return for the 2021 season, but he has already provided a beacon of inspiration to all that anything is possible.