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Alex Smith opens up about new ESPN job, retirement and his final season

Former Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith will appear on ESPN. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A year ago Monday, Alex Smith was activated from the Washington Football Team’s physically unable to perform list at training camp and cleared for a comeback that not even he fully believed could happen.

But after returning from a life-threatening leg injury, regaining his starting job at quarterback, leading Washington to the top of the NFC East and guiding it back to the playoffs, winning the league’s comeback player of the year honor, getting released by Washington and later retiring from the NFL, Smith has started a new chapter.

Smith is joining ESPN as an NFL analyst, the network announced Monday. He will appear on multiple shows, including “SportsCenter” and “Monday Night Countdown,” and in various capacities. The one-year deal is an experiment for both sides — for him to test the waters of sports broadcasting and for the network to figure out how best to use him.

Although Smith has a long-standing relationship with ESPN, strengthened by “Project 11,” the documentary of his recovery from his leg injury, discussions with the network didn’t begin in earnest until Smith announced his retirement in April.

“I’m trying to balance this next phase with my family, and ESPN was so open to the fact that they were going to kind of design something specifically for me in that sense, where I could get to do a lot of different things, which I wanted,” Smith said in an interview. “I get to experience a lot of different sides of those parts of the game. It was a no-brainer for me.”

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

Smith declined to provide specifics of his recent “free agency” but did say multiple networks pursued him. The competition “wasn’t very close,” he said, because of ESPN’s ability to offer a flexible role that also allowed him to spend ample time with his family.

“Every other place was really kind of putting you into one specific role: ‘This is what you’re going to do, and you’re going to do it over and over and over again,’ ” he said. “I’m kind of excited again with ESPN to do a lot of different things and mixing it up and kind of figuring that out.”

For the first time in 25 years, Smith is experiencing a summer without training camp or injury rehabilitation. And for the first time in 25 years, he’s looking forward to a fall and winter that aren’t dictated by football.

“This is a game that has provided so much for me, and I’m not talking materially, although it has provided that, too,” Smith said. “But it’s shaped my life since I was a little kid. And there’s so many things to be gained from it — relationships that are lifelong because of the intensity and the nature of them, the accountability you have to have for one another. So, yeah, it was important to me to try to strike that balance.”

When Washington’s season ended in January, with a playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which Smith was sidelined with a different injury to his surgically repaired leg, he insinuated in multiple interviews that he hoped to keep playing. But Washington released Smith in March, and roughly a month later he announced on Instagram that he was retiring. He insists he isn’t contemplating another comeback.

“I am so 100 percent with my decision; I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “That’s not something at all that entered my mind. Obviously, never say never, but no, absolutely not.”

He is looking forward to remaining close to the game, something that was important to him as he sought his next career. Last week he was in Chicago attending Bears training camp, where his friend and former Kansas City Chiefs teammate Nick Foles is a backup quarterback. The final day, Smith played the “uprights” game with the quarterbacks. It was the first time he had thrown an NFL football since Week 17 of last season.

This past week he spoke to Alabama’s football team. Smith contemplated coaching in his second career, he said, but not for long.

“I think every guy that plays that long thinks about it,” he said. “For me, it was pretty quick, just in the sense that my family and kids have sacrificed so much for my career for the last 16 years. Football has dictated our lives, my wife’s life, and I owe so much to them and really, at this point, they deserve to take the focus.

“That’s why I’m excited again with ESPN. I’m still going to get to be around the game that I love, but I also get to be a dad and a husband, too.”

As he begins his broadcasting career, he’ll be able to bring with him the experience of his final season.

“I never in my wildest dreams throughout that comeback really, actually thought I would ever get there — even up until the end,” he said. “. . . I had so many teammates and friends that would reach out to me last year and tell me how terrified they were for me as they watched. They all felt like my mom. And it was so funny juxtaposed with how I felt on the field, because for me there was something serene about it. I was so calm in those moments.

“And to juxtapose that with how I started my career as the number one pick with a lot of anxiety and dealing with expectations, and how it took me several years to climb out of that hole and to really kind of come full circle. The injury and comeback continuing to even help me get there to play, not thinking about tomorrow, not thinking about making mistakes, not thinking about what other people are going to think and really being out there in the moment and playing for my teammates, it was amazing. It was an amazing experience. It was an amazing way to end my career.”

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