Joe Theismann will never forget the date: November, 18, 1985, the end of his NFL career when his right leg snapped after a sack in a game against the New York Giants.
November 18, 2018 is a date Theismann will never forget, either. That’s the day Redskins quarterback Alex Smith also sustained a horrible broken leg that could have cost him his limb – or even his life. We just don’t yet know if that was the end of Smith’s career quite yet
The similarities between the two quarterbacks’ injures are eerie, so much so that even Theismann can’t ignore them. It was Week 11 when both men broke their right tibia and fibula. Both were compound fractures. Both games ended in a 23-21 score. Both happened near the 40-yard line – one at RFK Stadium, the other at FedEx Field.
But there is a one dramatic difference between the two and it left a lasting impression on Theismann.
While watching the E:60 “Project 11” documentary like the rest of us, the visuals of Alex’s leg are jarring even to someone who went through a similar ordeal.
“I was stunned and shocked by how much of his leg they had to take out to save his life first of all, and then his leg,” Theismann said.
Theismann dealt with infections as well, but he says the level of severity for Smith was more dramatic.
“I wondered why I was in the hospital for so long and they said we’re just trying to control the infection,” Theismann said. “Fortunately for me they did. The difference in Alex and I are that I had a chance to come back and start rehabbing right away. He has had to go through so many more surgeries just to be able to get to a point where they could start to think about the possible rehabilitation process.”
Smith told reporters on the last day of the 2019 season that his intention is to play again "without a doubt."
It would be nothing short of a miracle to go from almost losing his life to returning to the role of quarterback in the NFL so it’s hard to tell if that was simply Smith putting on a brave face.
Despite the odds, Theismann is cheering Smith on. And he sees a tenacity in his approach to rehab that goes with what he knows about Smith.
“I think at one point Alex wasn’t sure, he was looking at the quality of life,” Theismann said. “And then as he got down into the rehab he started doing things and throwing the ball quickly, even when he had that halo type thing around his leg. And I think the thought the juices started flowing again. ‘Maybe I can do this. There’s a possibility I might be able to do this.’”
Theismann never did play again, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Physically he was unable to do what was required to return, but he understands the passion that has Smith wanting to try.
“Once Alex started throwing the ball again, I think that flicker, became more a pilot light, that pilot light has become now more of a blaze,” Theismann said.
NFL players are the one-percent of the one-percent. Most will tell you what separates them from others just as physically gifted is their mindset. IF Alex is to return, Theismann says the mental side may even be more difficult to overcome.
“I can certainly relate to the emotions and really when you go through the catastrophic injury he’s gone through,” Theismann said. “It’s the mental part of it that becomes the toughest. And the fact he is this type of a determined individual, in my opinion, is the best thing that could possibly happen.”
It’s all about perspective. Theismann’s injury gave that to him and he hopes Smith’s gets the same peace.
“If he can’t play again, all the hard work that he has put in will give him a quality of life that maybe if he had “quote - unquote” given up on it,” Theismann said. “And said I’m just going to live my life. I’m going to spend my time with the kids, my family and do those things. I don’t know that he would have driven himself as hard as he does.”
It’s Smith’s determination to return to the game he loves that has all of us playing the role of cheerleader. As for IF Smith ever does return, Theismann says that’s not what will determine him coming out a winner.
“For this story to end in only one fitting way, is for Alex to be able to come back and play and leave on his terms,” Theismann said. “Not somebody else deciding his future.”
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