Bell, a licensed physical therapist and injury analyst, would come to learn Smith survived a harrowing bout with sepsis that required multiple additional operations to get the infection under control and forced Smith to consider amputation.
Smith’s lengthy recovery after electing to have doctors salvage his limb — and the emotional burden his wife, Elizabeth, carried over the course of his 17 surgeries — is the subject of “Project 11,” an hour-long special that will premiere Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN.
Bell and producer Dan Lindberg began following Smith in January 2019 after Robin West, the Redskins’ head team physician, suggested to Smith that he consider documenting his recovery. When Smith asked West whether there were people he could talk to about what to expect in the months to come, West told him no athlete had ever suffered an injury quite like his.
“That was really important to Alex,” Bell said. “He thought maybe this will help someone who thinks that there is no way forward. At the time he thought about doing it, he didn’t really know what the future would hold, so it was very brave of him to express an interest in doing that."
Bell said ESPN never put a timeline on the project, which documents Smith’s rise from lightly recruited high school quarterback to Heisman Trophy finalist at Utah and his successful, three-team NFL career after the San Francisco 49ers made him the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. Smith didn’t share much publicly about his recovery over the past year, choosing to keep the details under wraps until the full story could be told.
ESPN’s cameras were in San Antonio in February 2019 when Smith visited the Center for the Intrepid, a military rehabilitation facility, to meet with veterans who had experienced similar lower-leg trauma. During the visit, a smile crept across Smith’s face after he threw a football for the first time since his injury.
“He was very forthright from the beginning with us about wanting to be as authentic as possible,” Bell said. “That meant being there for the good days and the not-so-good days. Certainly there were both."
The quarterback’s insistence on authenticity is one of the reasons ESPN decided to include graphic photographs of his infected leg in various stages of the debridement process to remove dead skin and tissue.
“There’s no way to tell his story and have it really have the same impact without seeing what happened to his leg,” said Bell, who indicated there were multiple conversations about just how much to show. " … When he said he came close to losing his life, that was no exaggeration. The appreciation for how sick he really was, how compromised his leg was and why this is such an amazing story in terms of what he’s been able to do and how he’s living his life, I really think you had to know just how bad it got.”
For nearly eight months after his injury, Smith wore a bulky external fixator that stretched from his ankle to his knee to stabilize the repaired spiral fracture. Within a year, he was running on a treadmill at Redskins Park. Bell said Smith’s wife is the unsung hero of his recovery.
“I don’t know that anyone could possibly appreciate the role she played in saving his life,” Bell said. “Everything Elizabeth did, from being by his side night and day while he was in the hospital to caring for him when he couldn’t do anything for himself while being a mother to three kids."
Smith, who turns 36 on May 7, is entering the second year of the four-year extension he signed after being traded to the Redskins in 2018 and hasn’t ruled out a return to the field. Bell understands outsiders’ skepticism but said she was routinely “blown away” by Smith’s progress as she spent time with him over the past year. As a physical therapist, she knows the steps that are supposed to come next in recovery, but in Smith’s case “there was no knowing what was next.”
“The passion is there. The drive is there,” Bell said. “You want your patient to set a goal that is meaningful to them because that’s how they work the hardest. … This guy, there isn’t anything that he can’t do, and everyone around him feels the same."
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