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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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