Smith, 36, said he made the decision while on a recent snowboarding trip with his father and two sons. It was his first such trip since undergoing reconstructive leg surgery, so there were both nerves and excitement. The trip, he said during an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” on Monday, invigorated him to want to try more things with his family — things he believed not too long ago would be impossible.
“This all started as a father and husband. For me, that’s where it began, wondering what, if anything, I would be able to do with my kids again, with my wife again,” Smith told ESPN. “And I’m so lucky that it continued down the road that it did and I got to chase the big daddy, that I got to go to my Everest and see if I could go play football again. …
“My kids are at an amazing age, and to be able to go do some of these things with them that I thought had been taken away from me forever, again I’m so grateful and I want to go do them. I want to do more. I want to say yes for me, and I’m excited for it.”
Smith was released by Washington in March after returning from a life-threatening injury to guide the team back to the playoffs for the first time in five years last season. His triumphant return was one few anticipated — not even Smith anticipated it — and it landed him comeback player of the year honors. It also ensured his roller coaster of a career — which began as the No. 1 overall draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, included three Pro Bowl selections with the Kansas City Chiefs and was altered by two trades — would be remembered most for its ending.
In November 2018, only 10 months after Washington reached a deal to trade for him, Smith suffered a compound leg fracture during a game against the Houston Texans. The bone broke through his skin. He underwent 17 surgeries to repair the bones and clean out a life-threatening infection that destroyed much of the surrounding tissue in his lower right leg.
Smith spent much of his rehabilitation at Center for the Intrepid, a facility in San Antonio designed to treat wounded veterans and amputees, where he relearned to run with the help of a brace and started throwing a football again. It was there that he renewed his love for the game and began working toward his comeback.
Though some questioned how he could even want to play again after nearly losing his leg, Smith said his desire to return, which started as simply wanting to be able to be active with his kids again, became about more than the game itself.
“It’s not just what happens between those white lines on a Sunday afternoon,” he said in his retirement video. “It’s about the challenges and the commitment they require. It’s about how hard and how far you can push yourself. … It’s about fully committing yourself to something bigger.”
Smith was medically cleared by his surgeons in July, and he played in his first game in a rainy loss to the Los Angeles Rams in October. He became Washington’s starter a month later, posting a 5-1 record as he helped the team to the NFC East title. He missed two regular season games as well as a first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because of what was later reported to be a bone bruise.
“He was the ultimate professional and one of the finest leaders I’ve ever had the privilege to coach,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said in a statement Monday. “His resilience and work ethic will serve as an example for our team as we continue to build a winning program here in Washington. He is an inspiration to me personally and to the countless others who followed his journey these past few years.”
Smith said in interviews after the season that his comeback “emboldened” him and that he felt he “got stronger and stronger, and better and better,” insinuating he hoped to keep playing in 2021. In an interview with GQ magazine, Smith also described how Washington had reacted to his comeback efforts the previous summer.
“They didn’t see it, didn’t want me there, didn’t want me to be a part of it, didn’t want me to be on the team, the roster, didn’t want to give me a chance,” he told the magazine. “Mind you, it was a whole new regime. They came in, I’m like the leftovers and I’m hurt and I’m this liability. Heck no, they didn’t want me there. At that point, as you can imagine, everything I’d been through, I couldn’t have cared less about all that. Whether you like it or not, I’m giving this a go at this point.”
Rivera didn’t dispute Smith’s account, but he admitted he was hesitant to let Smith play again out of fear of re-injury.
“I told him, I said: ‘Alex, to be quite honest, I was scared to death. I had no idea. I didn’t know what to expect,’” Rivera said in March. “What I believe he appreciated was that I just told him exactly how I felt and how hard it was for us.”
Smith told ESPN that, after Washington released him in March, he took a trip to Jacksonville and thought about reuniting with new Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, who coached Smith at the University of Utah. Smith didn’t say whether the Jaguars offered him a contract, and he said the trip was out of due diligence because he was leaning toward retiring.
In a recent interview on the Michael Irvin Podcast, Meyer confirmed that he wanted to sign Smith but said, “There’s some medical people in our organization that were very concerned.”
Smith leaves the game with a 99-67-1 record as a starter for the 49ers, Chiefs and Washington. Over the course of 14 seasons, he completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 35,650 yards, 199 touchdowns and 109 interceptions for a passer rating of 86.9. He also finished with an average of 0.8 turnovers per game, the fourth fewest among quarterbacks with at least 100 starts during his tenure.
But his comeback against the longest odds and the leadership and mentorship that became career hallmarks were more remarkable. Now, he says, he is eager to find more mountains to climb.
“I am ready,” he told ESPN, “and I’m so excited about what else is out there and to experience it with my family and to have no limitations and to take on the challenges that lie ahead.”