A normal person, looking down at Alex Smith’s right leg, which was snapped like a dry tree branch at FedEx Field on Sunday, breaking both his tibia and fibula and leaving his foot and ankle flopping limply, might be horrified or even incapacitated for minutes by a sight so grotesquely unnatural.
But to a pro athlete, especially an NFL player who sees and endures things we can barely imagine as part of his job, the response is often much different. It’s not the broken bones that register or the incredible pain that’s arriving or the surgery that’s coming or the months of rehabilitation that may or may not return you to a reasonable facsimile of the player you were an instant before the injury. Instead, the physical injury evokes a deep emotional empathy.
“Alex has had a great career, obviously, without a doubt. But when you have an injury like that, it’s more heartbreaking than it is physical,” Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said Sunday after his dignified, universally respected veteran quarterback was lost for the season in a 23-21 defeat to Houston. “Just breaks your heart because this is what he loves to do, loves to lead this team, loves to be with the guys, and now the season is over and he has a long way back. It’s just hard to watch that happen to any athlete.”
Smith’s career, it’s logical to assume, must now be resurrected, not merely resumed next year. The rest of us measure our skills and careers, our dreams and ambitions, in decades. NFL players measure them in those precious years. The disastrous injury that makes many of us turn away makes them turn inward. Their response is akin to someone dying or being in mortal danger because their athletic career, which resides at the center for so many of them, is in grave danger.
“You say your prayers [for Smith] and get ready for the next play,” center Chase Roullier said.
Football is different. You can get badly hurt in almost any game. But to those who have played all the sports, football is simply different; the action is so fast and violent, you simply cannot control what will happen to your body in the next instant, from any direction. You have to disregard your body to play at all. Vince Lombardi called the mental state to play the game properly “reckless abandon.” In other words, play as if you’re using somebody else’s body.
As exhilarating as that can be, the dark side comes in a blink. A blitzing cornerback Kareem Jackson hits you first, knocking you back, then perhaps the most violent and feared player in the entire NFL, 285-pound J.J. Watt, a mammoth with sprinter’s speed, plows into you an instant later — his body against your head, driving and twisting you as everybody falls in a random spinning tangle. When it’s over, everybody looks around and most pick themselves up off the turf — except one.
“We’re all gutted for Alex,” said Watt, who came to midfield with the entire Houston defense to join the Redskins as Smith sat on a cart, his leg in an inflatable immobilizer, to rub his head, pat his back, bump his knuckles or mutter a word. “You know the risks going into it, but you never want to see anybody hurt, especially out for the year. I absolutely feel terrible for him. It sucks. It’s the worst part of the game.”
Among those at midfield was Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. “You never know when that play is going to happen,” Watson said. “It’s a brotherhood. We are battling out there, but at the end of the day we all support each other. . . . I just wanted to pay him respect.”
Roullier did not look at his quarterback’s leg. “I just saw him begin to move upward and then fall straight back,” Roullier said. “When we get to that in the [game] film, we’ll speed past it — watching it hurts yourself. Horrible to see. Speed past that.”
Millions of fans have seen similar stomach-turning famous plays that can barely be watched, two of them to other Redskins quarterbacks — Joe Theismann 33 years ago to the day and Robert Griffin III in the playoffs six years ago. Theismann never played again after an injury that broke the same two bones as Smith. Griffin tore up his knee so badly that his leg collapsed under him. He hasn’t been the same player since.
As expected and as is proper, the Redskins all predicted a near-inevitable return by Smith, even though they cannot have any clue, nor can they use Smith’s history of recovering from career-threatening injuries to be a predictor. They’re bonded by the athlete’s approach to injury — measured in the time, effort and pain needed to rehabilitate it. Never recover, like Theismann? That’s not on the menu, even for a financially protected player such as Smith who wisely negotiated a contract extension with the Redskins as a condition of his trade from Kansas City last season that guarantees him $71 million if he never plays another snap. His salary and cap hit would linger if he never returns.
“In my heart, the compassion is there,” said tight end Vernon Davis, whose relationship with Smith goes back to their playing days in San Francisco. “I played with him so long, he’s like a brother. To see him go down and suffer is like, ‘Why not me?’ Maybe I should suffer and let him continue to go out there and do his job and help this team win.”
To most of us, saying “my leg for his” sounds incomprehensible. Don’t discount it. The higher the risk, the tighter the bonds.
“I know how much work he’s put in,” Davis said. “Starting from San Francisco, going to Kansas City, he’s worked extremely hard. He’s resilient. He’s the most resilient person I’ve ever met.”
The football damage to Washington from this injury probably will fall along the line from “large” to “enormous.” Smith was supposed to be the Redskins’ starter for several years, at least, and the man who would make fans forget the departure of Kirk Cousins for Minnesota. Now Smith’s future, especially since mobility and throwing on the move are essential to him, is under a cloud.
Washington has a solid backup in Colt McCoy, 32, who knows Gruden’s offense inside out and has a 27-23 ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions in his career. But “good backup” is a relative term. McCoy is a spunky gunslinger type, capable of big plays and hot games but, over time, more likely to outweigh those moments with big mistakes and limits of talent. McCoy has not started a game in six of the past seven seasons. His career record as a starter is 7-18.
And everybody loves him. “I’m a big firm believer in Colt McCoy’s talent. . . . This is the opportunity of a lifetime for him. I know he would like it in different circumstances,” Gruden said.
It’s conceivable that, short term, McCoy can be a viable replacement for Smith simply because the starter has been so ordinary this season, largely because the Redskins have ordinary skill players, plus three injured starting linemen.
“Colt is the strongest competitor I’ve ever seen,” Roullier said. “Even when he’s out there leading the scout team, it’s like a Super Bowl every single day for him.”
Washington, team and town, will try to rally around McCoy because he has earned the chance, sports really do have Cinder-fella stories and the Redskins, still a respectable 6-4, may make the playoffs if they can simply find a way to scrap to a 9-7 record with the help of manageable games coming up such as those against the Giants and Jaguars.
Those thoughts are for the future. This is a day that will be remembered for the third-quarter scene of both the Redskins and Texans gathering around one of the NFL’s most respected overachieving players who led the league in quarterback rating last season. They surrounded him in a bonded silence of dangerous men who perfect their ability to do dangerous things but who, in that moment, all felt “gutted” or “heartbroken” for the one member of their brotherhood who could not get off the ground.
Though he could not stand, Alex Smith stood for them all.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.