What would West do, Elizabeth asked, if she were in her husband’s situation?
“I would have [my leg] amputated,” West replied.
West’s good friend Johnny Owens, a physical therapist, had other ideas. Owens spent a decade as the chief of human performance optimization at the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility for combat veterans in San Antonio. He was the first person West called to get an opinion on Smith’s path to recovery.
The injury West described to Owens — a spiral compound fracture of Smith’s right tibia and fibula — was similar to ones he saw in victims of blast trauma.
“I’m biased, but I said I would keep his leg and go through what we’ve learned from the wars,” Owens said in a phone interview. “You can always amputate later. Luckily, he’s a guy who has money, and he doesn’t have to worry about getting back to a construction job or something, so he has time.”
West put Elizabeth Smith in touch with Owens, who explained the clinical research on limb salvage and shared his experience working with combat veterans. He described programs that Special Forces members who suffered similar injuries completed before being redeployed.
During a trip to Washington in February 2019 to speak at a military conference, Owens visited with the Smiths in their home for several days. When Owens mentioned his experience at the Center for the Intrepid, Alex Smith expressed interest in making a trip to San Antonio to pay his respects to the people there.
Smith’s medical team received clearance from the office of the secretary of defense for Smith to receive consultation from the military while he was there, and Owens arranged the visit. Since the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, civilians with serious injuries have occasionally been admitted for treatment at the Center for the Intrepid, but Smith is the first athlete Owens can recall receiving such a clearance.
“Athletes don’t have warlike injuries like Alex had,” he said. “We’ve had movie stars and rock stars and politicians come by to say hi to service members, but we never had a VIP-type person come walk into the center with an injury that looks the same as what these guys and girls had.”
During the Feb. 10, 2019, visit, Smith met with military members and threw a football for the first time since his injury. He described the experience as humbling.
“You certainly didn’t see anybody feeling sorry for themselves,” he says in ESPN’s special. “You saw a lot of people trying to get better and move on with their life.”
One of the programs Owens developed while he was at the Center for the Intrepid, and which he introduced to Smith early in his recovery, was blood flow restriction training. It’s a way to exercise with little or no weights, which is especially beneficial to those rehabilitating from injury. The Houston Texans became the first NFL team to start using the technique in 2015.
Owens left the Center for the Intrepid in 2017 to start his own business, Owens Recovery Science, and he has worked with multiple professional teams, including the Redskins and Washington Nationals. He has continued to follow Smith’s progress and said what the quarterback has already accomplished is “pretty amazing.”
“To do what a quarterback is supposed to do — drop back, throw or hand the ball off — I think he’s there,” Owens said. “He could do that already. The wild card right now is, when J.J. [Watt] comes running at you again, do you have that first-step acceleration and the ability to cut? Can he open his hips? To even be thinking about that and asking those questions now is just crazy.”
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