The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most athletes don’t get a second chance. Alex Smith made the most of his.

Alex Smith throws a pass during his final NFL game Jan. 3. The victory over the Eagles, which gave Washington the NFC East title, might be one of Smith’s finest moments. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Few athletes get a second life after seeing their careers die. How many former stars must have wished their broken bodies could give them one more run, one last chance to feel alive in a way the rest of us will never understand?

Alex Smith got to do just that these past seven months. Maybe it’s why his smile looked so wide during the ESPN interview Monday afternoon in which he talked about his retirement. Perhaps this is why he never seemed to laugh more in his 16-year NFL career than he did over the past few weeks and months. He knew he was the lucky one, living the kind of dream most players in his position never have.

His final act as an NFL quarterback was to pull the Washington Football Team to an NFC East championship, clinched Jan. 3, that was close to as improbable as his comeback. In some ways, that night was his finest moment, grinding out a victory while playing on a right leg that could no longer do miraculous things, the pain from a bone bruise suffered weeks before so intense that he could barely move. Still, he somehow managed to drag Washington on a nine-play touchdown drive just before halftime that would be the difference in a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

He completed just five more passes that night for only 31 yards. After bringing Washington from last to first in less than two months, he had nothing more to offer. In the weeks that followed he would miss the team’s playoff loss to Tampa Bay, win the NFL’s comeback player of the year award and then be released. The bone bruise on a leg that had been gutted of so much muscle and tissue after 17 surgeries to remove infection was the final warning that a second life is not forever.

Still, Smith had taken a chance, at 36, that few would have dared, and he did everything he could with it, all the way to a 5-1 record and a division title. For this, he will be forever remembered.

“This isn’t just a game,” he said on his retirement Instagram post Monday. “It’s not just what happens between those white lines on a Sunday afternoon. 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 the bond between those 53 guys in the locker room and everybody else in the organization. It’s about fully committing yourself to something bigger.”

The story should have been over Nov. 18, 2018, as he lay on the FedEx Field turf with a compound fracture in his right leg that saw the bone break through his skin. In days, the infection would set in, refusing to leave, nearly costing him his leg and his life. After the operations, there appeared no way he could play football again. Even as he pushed through his rehabilitation at Washington’s practice facility during the 2019 season, no one could have dreamed he would play once more.

But something had happened at Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility for wounded soldiers in San Antonio. One of the people he was working with put a football in Smith’s hands. Bending on one knee, he threw it.

“All of a sudden,” he said Monday in his announcement, he “felt stronger, more driven, and what once seemed impossible began to come into focus.”

Alex Smith, an injured soldier and a friendship born from a shared journey

That’s when the comeback became real.

For most of the past few months, Smith tried to explain his will to play despite what seemed to be ridiculous risks. He talked about the walls that kept appearing at each step of his rehabilitation and the compulsion he had to knock each one down, doing so again and again until the only logical barrier left to blast through was to play again in a game. He said it so matter-of-factly, stripped of any emotion and wonder, that it was hard for anyone else to relate.

“I think people need to understand Alex sets goals in front of him and it’s always just knocking down the next one,” his wife, Elizabeth, said as she left the stadium following the first game he played Oct. 11. “Alex’s mind-set is: Get the win. So you need to know Alex is just going to keep pushing through until he can get himself back to winning football games.”

And that is what he did. He gave belief not only to himself last fall but to a team that had won just two games when he took over as a starter in the season’s 10th week, leading it to the playoffs. Whatever winning happens for Washington in the coming years, the seeds for that success were planted with his November and December.

On Monday, he told ESPN his decision to retire came on a snowboarding trip with his sons. It’s unclear what other opportunities he might have had — he said in the interview that he visited the Jacksonville Jaguars and talked to their new coach, Urban Meyer, who had coached him in college at Utah, but didn’t say whether Jacksonville or any other team had offered him a contract.

Given his fight to come back last season, and the hopeful note he struck in postseason interviews about the prospect of continuing his career, it’s possible football was done with Smith more than Smith was done with football. But that shouldn’t tarnish the joy of these past few months.

No one in football might ever get more from a second life in a career left for dead.

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