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Football or not, Alex Smith answered every question that really matters

Football or not, Alex Smith answered every question that really matters

I knew we were cool when he made fun of me. 

I looked like an idiot, wearing a green and white striped Glasgow Celtic jersey along with light blue shorts and then a pair of blue, grey and pink Huaraches. I tend to keep things pretty simple from a clothes standpoint, but that day I was sitting down with Josh Norman for an interview, and I knew he would appreciate the soccer jersey and have something to say about the footwear. Little did I know I'd bump into Alex Smith in the hallway at Redskins Park before the interview. 

Calmly, he walked by, said hello, and then looked back and said, "What are you wearing, dude?"

He was right. I looked like an idiot. This was late August 2018, and I wasn’t worried about that interaction because I thought there would be many more years of bumping into Smith in the hallway. 

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We first met in Minnesota a few days before Super Bowl 52. The Redskins had just traded for him, and while as much focus was on the Eagles and Patriots, all the talk early that week was about the blockbuster deal that sent Alex Smith to Washington. 

I was running late to meet Brian Mitchell at the Ruth’s Chris in downtown Minneapolis and by the time I got there B-Mitch had already eaten. Thanks for waiting B. We had a drink and then Smith walked in. He said hello to some Redskins employees, but it’s important to remember the trade wasn’t technically official. Nothing could be official until the new league year in mid-March. 

Still, I was a reporter that covered the team that just made the biggest trade in the NFL. I couldn’t not go for the introduction. I waited around for a decent moment, a chance to not be interrupting but still grab him with a second to talk. Smith and his wife headed for the door and I made my move. 

I gave the typical, ‘hi I’m a reporter’ blah blah blah. Not only Alex but his wife Elizabeth were both incredibly courteous. We spoke for a minute and it was pleasant. Then I shot my shot, because I had to, and asked for his number so we could talk more for a story. 

He shot me down. 

Ok, that happens, but it was a little blow to the ego. The next move is to ask for the agent or manager, just so we can be in touch. 

“I mean this the right way, but let’s just let the trade happen, then I’m happy to talk.”

I remember that clear as day. Normally I’d be somewhere between offended and pissed, but when Smith said it, he made eye contact. It was clear he meant no malice, he wasn’t just blowing me off. He legit wanted to do things the right way. Nothing was official, and once it was, we could talk more. 

That moment made me realize Smith was a different dude. A standup dude. 

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I’m not close with Alex Smith. In no way should the above stories present that viewpoint. We’re cool, and before a freak leg injury hijacked his time in D.C., we even talked about golfing. 

Smith was a very big deal before he ever got to D.C. A number one overall pick with his own wild NFL backstory, he was more than established by the time he landed with the Redskins. 

That’s what makes this story so damn complicated. 

The injury was awful. Not career threatening, but life threatening. 

Read that again: Life. Threatening. 

That doesn’t just happen, and it’s beyond scary. Football is a tough game played by tough people, but still, life and death should not be the concern when stepping inside the 100. 

For Smith that happened, and the Project 11 documentary on ESPN did an incredible job of telling that story. Redemption and paralyzing fear, the anguish that Smith and his family must have gone through, and the remarkable drive to continue to push forward. 

The moment from Project 11 that stood out most came in two subsequent sound bites. 

First came Liz Smith, putting out the hard truth while fighting back tears, “My husband is laying there dying.”

In the next frame, Alex Smith, “Football might not be out of the question.”

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So here’s the real question that lots of fans are probably wondering: How to reconcile watching the awful things that happened to Smith? He nearly lost his leg, and dealt with months of terrible pain, infection and surgery. 

The images are graphic. The first-person view is unimaginable. 

It’s a term that seems to lose meaning, but Smith is wildly resilient. At one point he’s asked to decide between amputation or limb salvage, a surgical procedure that replaces a diseased bone and reconstructs a functional limb.

Smith chose limb salvage. 

After months of pain and carnage he got to a point where he faced an incredibly difficult decision, and with what seemed like zero hesitation, he chose to keep pushing. To keep fighting. 

And people are surprised that Smith still thinks football is a possibility? He physically chose to allow doctors to take skin, muscle and tissue from other healthy parts of his body and attach them to his rebuilt leg. 

Smith chose to keep fighting, and it’s time to stop being surprised. 

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It was late October 2019 when I knew he wouldn’t quit. I don’t know that Smith ever plays again, but I know he won't quit trying. 

Every Friday in the season we streamed a live podcast out back of Redskins Park. We had to do it early, long before practice started and the real action broke out on the practice fields. The rules were understandable.

Making the long walk from media parking along the exterior of Redskins Park, down around the building, past the player’s parking lot, the coaches parking lot, and then everyone else’s parking lot, there’s a hill. As you walk down that hill, slowly, the four practice fields at Redskins Park come into view. 

The closest is an old-school Astroturf field that gets no real use. Blocking sleds and tackling dummys get stacked there along with other random intermittent equipment. A giant tire here. A football taped to the end of a broomstick there. 

Walking down that hill, turning the corner to the building, I saw Smith out on the field. He was dropping back, shuffling his feet to simulate a moving pocket, avoiding an invisible pass rusher. It wasn’t game speed, but it also wasn’t the speed of a dude that almost lost his leg a year ago either. He was moving, and he was moving well. 

Considering everything, it was wildly impressive. And that was six months ago. 

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What’s funny is going back through notes and memory, two of my most interesting interactions with Alex came at FedEx Field, but neither was after a game. 

The first came early on in his Redskins tenure, shortly after the trade became official. It was probably April 2018 and I got asked to host a chalk talk with Smith for a group of Redskins season ticket holders. The event was cool, it was in the Redskins locker room and packed with some of the most die-hard ‘Skins fans in the world. 

I had met Smith a few times at this point and we had a decent rapport, but this night was about the fans and their questions. My job was just to facilitate, but the truth was with Alex, I didn’t even need to be there. He could handle that event with his eyes closed. 

Some players like the spotlight. Some players hate the spotlight. Alex didn’t seem to like it or not, he just seemed to be himself. Above all else, I learned that about Smith that night, and it holds true throughout the Project 11 documentary and every time I’ve seen him since the injury: Smith is honest and real, every moment, and it’s endearing. He’s a genuinely good person. 

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Chris Thompson had no reason to lie. He was an established NFL veteran that had found success with previous Redskin quarterbacks Kirk Cousins. 

But, when Thompson talked about Alex Smith, it sounded different. 

“Every game, don’t matter if we were losing or not, I thought we would win with Alex on the field,” Thompson said. 

Unfortunately those comments came in the aftermath of the lost 2018 season. That year is damn near impossible to remember accurately. The first half of the year was about football, an at-times ugly offense with a pretty good defense winning games by running the ball and controlling the clock. 

Then, Smith got hurt and the season unraveled. 

It’s hard to think back to the football aspect of the Redskins 2018 season, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that Smith’s gravitas wasn’t felt throughout that locker room. 

Ask any veteran on that team. Ask any rookie on that team. The vibe was different with Smith at the helm. 

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Daron Payne came in as the first-rounder but second-round pick Derrius Guice was the headliner. It was the 2018 NFL Draft, and the Redskins hosted a big draft party at FedEx Field. Both Payne and Guice were there, but so was Alex Smith with his family. The Redskins traded for him about three months earlier. 

There was plenty of work but the moment I remember most was after the party was winding down. Smith’s kids played, the two young boys being two young boys and running all over the field, while Alex and Liz doted over their little girl. There was a bar, I ended up near it, and got to talking with Alex’s sister. It was totally random but an incredible conversation, and a real glimpse into the upbringing for both Smith and his sister. 

It was clear immediately this was a smart family. The parents were educators, and education was serious. 

They were also cool, and compassionate, and more than anything, ready to put down roots in Washington. 

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That game against the Texans carried a lot of meaning. Sure, the Redskins were 6-3, but the detractors said Washington hadn’t beaten anybody and the three losses were blowouts.

The blowout part was accurate, but NFL wins are NFL wins. It doesn’t matter what they look like. 

Regardless, Houston came to FedEx Field with an equally impressive record and it was an opportunity for a signature victory for Smith. 

Everybody knows what happened. The snap. The sack. The snap. 

Time froze. First for an instant. Then for a flash. Then for a second. 

Eventually, time ceased to pause, but it moved slow, like the moments spent waiting for a shout back from a child that is just out of sight.

Then, it was a minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. The cart. 

Social media went ballistic and soon everyone knew it was the same day as Theismann some 30 years earlier. 

Nothing made sense and everything was just a bit terrifying. It looked bad in real time and way worse in slow motion. 

The 2018 season would never be the same for the Redskins. For Alex Smith, nothing would ever be the same. 

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It’s crazy because almost every big name from that game is gone. Jay Gruden is out, Bruce Allen is out. Trent Williams is out. Colt McCoy is a New York Giant. Jordan Reed is out of football and Josh Doctson is a New York Jet. DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney and Tyrann Mathieu no longer play for the Texans. 

Still, Smith remains with the Redskins.

He hasn’t played a snap since that day, November 18, 2018, and hasn’t even been on the active roster. He damn near lost his leg, so of course he hasn’t played. 

But he won’t rule out playing again. 

Few people hit the athletic achievement of a person like Alex Smith. Almost nobody in the world. 

To do so requires different mental wiring than most of us. The truth is most people are weak. They quit when things get hard.

Smith doesn’t. That’s what got him to November 18th, 2018.

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May 2020. 

Dwayne Haskins is the Redskins starting quarterback, taken 15th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Kyle Allen is the presumed backup. Smith is still on the roster, scheduled to make more than $20 million, but few, if anybody, expect him to play this season. If ever.

Does that even matter though?

To come back, this far, this fast, does it even matter to get back on the field?

Alex Smith says football might not be out of the question. The truth is that question doesn’t matter. 

Alex Smith already answered everything that matters. 

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With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

Positive reports about Alex Smith's early training camp performance came out over the weekend, and on a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media, Ron Rivera echoed those reviews.

"He's looked good, he really has," the head coach said. "I'll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along he is. It's been exciting to watch his progression."

According to Rivera, Smith has been working off to the side with Washington Football Team trainers at the Ashburn facility and is mirroring what Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen are doing, too. Coordinator Scott Turner and QBs coach Ken Zampese are apparently involving Smith as much as they can, and Smith is looking "very fluid" so far.

"It's a tribute to who he is, it's a tribute to his trainers and his doctors who have helped him get where he is today," Rivera said.

That all, of course, is wildly encouraging. The fact that the 36-year-old is in a place where he can check off those boxes and do those activities is astounding. That can't be pointed out enough, either.

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Yet it's also fair to note just how different mimicking a starting signal caller and actually serving as the starting signal caller are. So, is there any real chance of Smith transitioning from that first phase to the second before the season? 

With what he's seen from the veteran so far, Rivera certainly believes there is.

"I can envision it," he said. "The big thing is if he can do the things that we need him to do, that he needs to do to help himself on the football field, he'll be part of the conversation most definitely. He did some really good things last week. He went through all four workout days, had no residual effect the next morning, which is always important because the next day usually tells.

"We'll see how he is this week and we'll go from there."

As Smith continues to rehab and try to make his way off PUP, the challenges are solely physical. Rivera is not worried at all about the veteran having to adjust to a new scheme or dealing with any other mental task; instead, the primary concern is ensuring that Smith can handle the contact that'll come if he makes it back into live action.

"I believe he already knows probably 75-percent of our playbook," Rivera said. "So for him, it's really just a matter of can he do the movements he needs to do? Can he protect himself when he's on the field?"

It feels like every time Smith is brought up, he's taken another step. The next one, however — going from the PUP list to the huddle — is particularly daunting.

But at this point, it's gotten pretty difficult to imagine anything being particularly daunting for Alex Smith. So don't be that floored if he makes it happen. Rivera clearly won't be. 

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Making a case for Red Tails as Washington Football Team's new name

Making a case for Red Tails as Washington Football Team's new name

It's been several weeks since the Washington Football Team announced it was retiring its former name and logo after more than 80 years. Ever since FedEx became the first known sponsor to formally ask Washington to change its name, fans have taken to social media to voice some of their favorites among potential replacements. I spoke with several marketing experts about a few of the fan-generated names, and will use their responses to make a case for some of the most popular suggestions. This is the case for Red Tails.

Case for: Washington Red Tails

“Red Tails” might’ve been the favorite among fans and others on social media before the “Red Wolves” hype train started gaining traction.

The origin of the name comes from the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black pilots in the United States military. A group of Tuskegee Airmen known as the Red Tails -- because of the paint on the tails of their planes -- made up the 332nd Fighter Group during World War II. The Red Tails had one of the lowest loss records of all escort fighter groups.

CONCEPTS: TOP 5 NEW FAN-GENERATED WASHINGTON REDTAILS UNIFORM, HELMET DESIGNS

Brad Nierenberg, CEO of RedPeg Marketing, an Alexandria, Virginia-based marketing agency, thinks the history of the Red Tails provides an opportunity for Washington to attach itself to a powerful story, particularly in a time where conversations about social justice have been amplified.

“The Red Tails is an incredible opportunity for [Washington]," Nierenberg said. "I don’t know of it as a major team name. I think that it allows them at this time to take a leadership role in this time of changing of understanding of social justice. And I think that their recognition of the Red Tails could be a dramatic, great first step for them as a brand that I think is overcoming… there’s a great story behind it. They can run with that story that already exists.

"And at the time to actually capitalize on this, you can get a lot of wind beneath your wings on that one. I think there’s a lot of energy there with society. I think this town would wrap their arms around it. As a company and as a team, as an ownership group, recognizing this incredible story could be powerful forever. And it’s a fighter group, it’s a fighter, it’s an overcoming odds -- there’s a tremendous story there, and I think that with today’s society doing what it is, I think it could be an incredible time for them to take advantage of this groundswell of energy. And it’s not going backwards, it’s only going forward, so I think they could be in a very positive position.”

RELATED: WASHINGTON'S NEW NAME MAY BE MORE FOR FUTURE FANS THAN CURRENT ONES

Additionally, the Red Tails name allows the team to maintain its "warrior" ethos, according to Matt White, president of the marketing and ad agency WHITE64. White also likes that the name provides the opportunity for Washington to stick with its traditional burgundy and gold color scheme. 

"Graphically, the [old] logo on the helmet had the feathers. So you could certainly see how that could be very consistent," White said. "And certainly with the colors of the uniform."

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Most marketing experts have stressed the advantages of a team's name drawing a connection to the city it plays in. While Red Tails doesn't immediately evoke thoughts of Washington, Tim Derdenger, assoicate professor of marketing and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, thinks there's a strong enough connection for it to work.

"It’s a strong choice for multiple reasons. One being that it relates to D.C. and the military," Derdenger said. "It keeps the team colors. If you keep 'red' in [the name], it has to be the right name. And I think Red Tails is one of those right names. It has a strong connection to the city, to the military, the colors, it still can pay homage to the team, the players of the past with keeping the 'red' name in there. It should be a strong candidate.”

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