After 17 surgeries, a life-threatening infection, a lost season and months of arduous rehab, Smith returned to the field in October. On Saturday, he will start Washington’s first playoff game in five years.
Here’s a chronological look at Smith’s improbable recovery.
Nov. 18, 2018: The injury
Thirty-three years to the day after Washington quarterback Joe Theismann suffered his own gruesome leg injury, Smith suffered a spiral compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his right leg on a sack by Texans safety Kareem Jackson at FedEx Field.
“It just breaks your heart,” Washington Coach Jay Gruden said after Washington’s 23-21 loss. “Physically, he’ll be fine. Mentally, he’ll be fine. It’s just hard to watch that happen to any athlete on the football team.”
“I saw the way his foot was, and I turned away,” said Theismann, who watched the fateful play from a stadium suite.
Dec. 6, 2018: Team issues statement
One day after Smith’s injury, Gruden said the quarterback’s surgery went well and that he faced a six- to eight-month recovery timeline. With Smith still hospitalized three weeks later after developing a serious infection in his leg, the team issued a statement.
“Although this is a serious injury, Alex and his family remain strong,” the statement read in part. “We would ask that everyone please honor the Smith family’s request for privacy at this time.”
It would be more than a year before Smith spoke publicly about just how dire the situation was, but there were some harrowing days during his initial hospital stay as doctors struggled to get his sepsis under control and considered amputation.
Dec. 16, 2018: ‘HOME’
In mid-December, Smith finally returned home. His wife, Elizabeth, shared the news on Instagram.
“HOME … This last month has been a difficult ride,” she wrote beneath a photo of her husband giving a thumbs-up in front of a Christmas tree, his legs covered by a blanket.
Jan. 21, 2019: Smith attends a Wizards game
In his first public appearance since his surgery, Smith was spotted at a Wizards game with crutches and a bulky metal external fixator surrounding his heavily bandaged lower right leg.
Feb. 10, 2019: Smith meets with combat veterans
Less than three months after his injury, Smith traveled to the Center for the Intrepid, a military rehabilitation facility in San Antonio, to meet with veterans. Smith’s medical team, including head Washington team physician Robin West, received clearance from the office of the secretary of defense for Smith to receive consultation from the military while he was there.
It was during that trip, the details of which weren’t made public until ESPN’s hour-long documentary about Smith’s recovery premiered in May 2020, that he threw a football for the first time since his surgery and expressed a desire to return to the field.
“And all of a sudden it was like a fire was lit,” West recalled. “We spent the day there, and as we were walking out, [Alex] grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, Dr. West, when are you going to clear me to play football?’ And that was the first time he had ever talked about it.”
May 23, 2019: ‘Slowly but surely’
During a session of organized team activities that was closed to the media, the team tweeted a photo of Smith, cropped above the knee, throwing a pass. Washington had drafted quarterback Dwayne Haskins to be their long-term answer at quarterback with the No. 15 pick a month earlier.
“He’s recovering nicely, slowly but surely,” Gruden said of Smith in June.
June 21, 2019: Smith says he plans to play again
“I got to conquer some more steps before I get there, but yeah,” Smith told Fox 5 when asked whether he would play football again in his first interview since the injury.
July 15, 2019: External fixator comes off
Smith celebrated another milestone in his recovery when his external fixator was removed eight months after surgery.
“We are shedding the weight Alex has been carrying (literally and figuratively),” Elizabeth wrote on Instagram. “It’s one step closer to the goal. The resilience, determination and mental fortitude of this man is unmatched.”
Sept. 23, 2019: Back at FedEx Field
Before Washington’s “Monday Night Football” game against the Chicago Bears, Smith, who spent the entire 2019 season on injured reserve, walked without assistance on the FedEx Field turf.
Dec. 30, 2019: Smith puts front-office speculation to rest
As his teammates cleaned out their lockers at the end of a 3-13 season, Smith dispelled the idea that he was in line for a front-office position.
“I love all the rumor mill and all the stuff that circulates out there,” Smith said. “Like I said, my focus is to get out there and play again. I have no aspirations other than getting on the field and playing football again.”
Feb. 1, 2020: Smith details post-surgery experience for first time
In an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Smith revealed he was in danger of dying and had to ask doctors not to amputate once his infection was under control.
“Very much lucky to be alive, very lucky to still have my leg,” Smith said.
May 1, 2020: ‘Project 11’ premieres
In “Project 11,” ESPN’s Stephania Bell gave viewers an in-depth look at Smith’s recovery. The documentary featured graphic images of Smith’s infected leg at 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,” Bell said. “ … When he said he came close to losing his life, that was no exaggeration.”
Aug. 16, 2020: Smith is cleared for football activity
One day after Smith’s family doused him with champagne in an Instagram video shared by Elizabeth, Washington activated the quarterback from the physically unable to perform list ahead of the padded portion of training camp. Unable to lift his right foot when he walks or runs, Smith took the field with a sleeve and a special brace on his lower right leg.
Sept. 5, 2020: Smith earns a spot on the roster
When Washington released its first 53-man roster at the end of training camp, Smith was on it.
“You guys didn’t get to see it, but we threw him right in the middle of the fire the last two days of practice,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said on cut day. “He handled all the 11-on-11 drills for the backups and for the practice team stuff. [He] got right in the middle of it.”
Oct. 11, 2020: A ‘very surreal’ return
After a Jalen Ramsey hit sidelined starting quarterback Kyle Allen late in the second quarter of Washington’s home game against the Los Angeles Rams, Smith entered the game. With his family looking on from the stands, Smith completed his first pass, 693 days after he was carted off the same field.
Three plays into his opening drive, Rams defensive end Aaron Donald jumped on Smith’s back and brought him to the ground, one of six sacks Smith would endure on the day.
“Obviously, very surreal at first,” Smith said after completing 9 of 17 passes for 37 yards in Washington’s 30-10 loss. “To have it happen as fast as it did was probably almost a blessing.”
Nov. 8, 2020: Allen goes down
Allen suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first quarter of Washington’s 23-20 loss to the New York Giants at FedEx Field. After the game, Rivera announced that Smith, who threw three interceptions in relief of Allen, would start the following week at Detroit.
Nov. 15, 2020: Smith airs it out in loss
Making his first start in nearly two years, Smith set new career highs in completions (38), passing attempts (55) and passing yards (390) in a loss to the Lions.
“I think that the scary part was how normal it felt,” Smith said. “It felt really good; it felt really normal and a little bit of I got to pinch myself of how lucky I am to feel that way.”
Nov. 22, 2020: At long last, a win
Smith threw for only 166 yards, but he earned his first win since his injury as Washington came back to beat the Cincinnati Bengals at home.
“Another step, another thing I never thought I’d be doing again,” Smith said.
Dec. 13, 2020: Smith leaves game with calf soreness
Smith exited Washington’s 23-15 win over the San Francisco 49ers late in the first half with calf soreness in his surgically repaired leg and did not return. He would miss Washington’s next two games, which resulted in losses that set up a must-win scenario in the regular season finale.
Jan. 3, 2020: Washington clinches division title
Hours before Washington took the field in Philadelphia, Elizabeth shared a photo of her husband’s external fixator, which she had an artist rebuild in the shape of the Lombardi Trophy as a Christmas gift.
Smith’s calf bothered him against the Eagles, but he threw a pair of touchdown passes in a 20-14 win that clinched the NFC East title. Next up: a first-round playoff game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.