The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alex Smith opens up about his recovery and its next steps: ‘Go out there and get hit’

Washington quarterback Alex Smith looks to throw during Wednesday's training camp practice. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

In some of his first public comments since he returned to football, Alex Smith opened up about the struggle to accept his “new normal” early in his recovery and said his hunger to play again is spurred in part by a desire to test his physical limits.

“You naturally build up a ton of walls, wondering what you’ll ever be capable of again, what life will be like again,” the Washington Football Team quarterback said Wednesday, following his second practice in pads since he suffered a compound fracture in his right leg two years ago. “I spent a long time thinking about those things, that inner voice in your head. And so for me, ever since I’ve kind of been on the road to recovery — yeah, to see what I can do and to knock down those walls.”

During the media session, Smith recounted the mental and physical toll of his injury — and shared some fears he tried hard to guard. That included early in his recovery when he lay in a hospital bed, his leg gutted from the debridements, and struggled to come to terms with his injury and his altered life thereafter.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a lot of the ‘Why me?’ especially early in the hospital,” Smith said. “You fall asleep, you kind of forget what had happened, and you wake up and it kind of hits you again every single day, like, ‘Nah, this is really real. And it’s not coming back. There’s no going back. This is what I’ve got moving forward for the rest of my life.’

“I think that was part of being comfortable with what my life, my new normal, is and then from there moving forward.”

Alex Smith’s physician feared for his life. Now she is confident he can play football again.

Robin West, an orthopedic surgeon and the team’s lead physician, said in a recent interview that Smith’s quest to return to football seemed to start in early 2019, during a visit to the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio. There, Smith met with wounded combat veterans who were recovering from significant limb injuries like his and were eager to get back on the front lines.

“Finally, you get over that crest, I guess, and start trying to knock those walls down slowly as they come,” Smith said. “Still kind of doing that. … It took a long, long time before I could even look at my leg.”

The closer he gets to returning to full-contact football, the more eager Smith has become. But his reasons for wanting to play, he said, have become about much more than him.

“When I became a father, it was something obviously that changed my life, but I think you learn pretty quick that parenting wasn’t always about me telling them things and really more about the example that I give and lead with,” Smith said. “And faced with this — the injury, the aftermath and the recovery process and how I was going to handle that — I feel like the older my boys get, the more they see. And for me [to be] determined, to give it everything I’ve got, I’m not going to be ruled by fear.

“Also, I think there’s so many things I’ve benefited from. There’s been so much progress made with limb injuries in the last 10 to 15 years, and certainly this is something that if it [happened] even 10 years ago I probably wouldn’t be able to be out there. A lot of progress was made that I benefited from, and I really feel like I owe it as well to push the limits for the next person in line.”

Not much looks normal at Washington’s training camp — except for the football

As recently as two months ago, Smith didn’t appear to be in Washington’s plans at quarterback for 2020. But he was placed on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp, which opened the door to his possible return, and following a week of notable progress while working with a trainer, he was activated.

Smith has participated in individual work, has thrown to receivers with no defense and competed in seven-on-seven drills. The plan is to ease him back into situational football and, eventually, full team drills — but for now, the focus for Smith and Washington’s coaching staff is his footwork and mobility.

“We’ve got to watch that, and we’ve got to see how he’s moving,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s getting a simulated pocket with seven-on-seven. The next move will be probably nine-on-nine, which is a half-line pass rush vs. a seven-on-seven, so he gets the feel and sense of guys coming at him. At least in that drill he’ll know exactly where it’s coming from so we can watch his movement as he escapes.

“Everything’s a process. Everything’s a step forward. Everything’s about his foot speed, his quickness and his decision-making. He’s done a great job.”

The significance of even making it to this point, where Smith can wear his No. 11 jersey and throw to his receivers again, isn’t lost on him. Getting back on the field was one of his many goals — “the big giant one at the end,” he said — and he says he’s “lucky” and grateful” it came to fruition.

But he’s not done. With each workout, each day of practice, Smith said he feels more comfortable in his own skin and with the rhythm of the game that two years ago felt so natural.

“The first day out there, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about [my leg], as far as just how it would react and respond, and would I be quick enough and strong enough and things like that,” he said. “Even just a few days in, how much more natural I felt out there — I just wasn’t thinking about it and was thinking more about football and playing the game, which has been really, really nice to kind of lose yourself in that.”

The next mental and physical hurdle to cross will come with his first hit, be it in a practice or a game.

“I’ve thought about that more than I can probably say,” Smith admitted. “Certainly, that has been in the back of my head throughout this entire process. . . . I’ve got to go out there and get hit. I’ve got to go down there and do it and know that my leg is strong enough to take it.”

There is no timetable for reaching the next markers in his recovery, but both Smith and Rivera believe it will be obvious to them when he does. And until then, Smith is treating each day of practice just as he has the rest of his recovery — even the toughest moments.

“I’ve done the best when I’ve really focused on the steps and the next step and not dwelling on something too far down the line,” he said. “For me, the next step is [to] continue to keep thriving in the opportunities I’m given but really get into a team scenario, get into an 11-on-11 and going out there and seeing if I can play.

“I think I’ll know. It’ll be very clear.”