It is impossible to have too much respect for Alex Smith.
That should be the main takeaway from ESPN's documentary, "Project 11," which debuted on Friday and chronicled Smith's recovery from his disastrous 2018 leg injury and post-surgery infection.
There is a lot that's worth talking about and pointing out, all of which can be found in a list below. But overall, there is no way to truly sum up Smith's courage, along with the courage of his wife, Elizabeth, the rest of the family and those who've helped him get to where is he right now.
Make no mistake about it: "Project 11" is really difficult to watch. Some of the images and videos of Smith's leg are worse — way worse, actually — than anything you've ever seen in pop culture or fiction. And those things may make it hard for people to get through the entire hour.
But anyone who is able to, whether you're a diehard Redskins fan or someone who couldn't care less about football, will benefit from seeing Smith battle, and battle, and battle through insanely unfortunate circumstances that no one would ever wish upon anyone else.
Whether Smith accomplishes his next goal of returning to the NFL and taking a snap remains to be seen, and some will question why he'd even want to do it after processing "Project 11." There is no questioning Smith as a person, though. The word inspiration gets thrown around a lot, but for him, it fits. It totally fits.
Here are some notes that were taken throughout the show.
- Warnings for graphic material preceeded the opening of the doc and were also used coming back from every commercial. They were warranted.
- This won't be breaking news to a lot of people, but the fact that Joe Theismann's injury took place on the same day as Smith's — November 18 — is still mindboggling. By the way, each contest finished with a 23-21 score.
- ESPN framed a lot of what was happening post-injury by showing the date of when he went down — 11.18.18 — and then putting the number of days that had transpired since next to it. So, it would look something like "11.18.18 + 34." It was a nice little touch and made viewers constantly aware of where the QB was in his recovery.
- There were a ton of emotional moments that sprouted out of never-before-told stories. One of the hardest to hear came from Elizabeth, who said that when she saw her husband initially lying on the FedEx Field grass, she looked down at her eight-year-old son who was already tearing up because he saw the cart coming out. Man.
- After being rushed to the hospital and having the initial operation, Smith felt ready to go home. He was smiling and explaining that he was ready to start using crutches and begin the road back to health. He had a slight fever, sure, but that was normal, according to team physician Robin West. When the fever got worse, however, it was clear something was very wrong.
- Eventually, doctors learned that Smith's leg was infected and they struggled to keep the infection under control. Alex remembered one night in particular when a group came into his room to unwrap the bandaging on the limb, allowing them and him to see just how dramatically the situation had changed. His wife described it as something from a "war movie."
- Soon after, Smith's mom recalled how at one point, she was told that the doctors were in "life saving mode then leg saving mode," and it was in that order. Can you imagine?
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- When Smith seemed to be at his most dire place, Elizabeth pulled West aside and asked her point blank if she was going to be able to leave the hospital with her husband alive. The thought of going back home to her kids without Alex by her side was understandably something she couldn't even think about. It was there she said they should amputate Smith's leg if they felt it was necessary. As long as he was alive, she didn't care.
- There's a decent gap in notes here, because for a few minutes, it was legitimately tough to do anything but look at the screen. Few things will ever compel you and wow you like this.
- Following that particularly rough stretch, which made up about the middle 20 minutes of "Project 11," things slowly began to turn around. Eventually, the doctors were able to corral the infection and at least determine he could keep his leg. A grueling rehab was to follow, but he would have something to rehab, which mattered to him.
- Because the injury was so traumatic — it wasn't even considered a sports injury; instead, it was looked at as a military injury — Smith was given clearance to head to the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas. There, he got consultation from the military and interacted with war veterans, some of the few people on the planet able to relate to what he was experiencing.
- 239 days after the afternoon that changed his career and life forever, Smith finally had the external fixator brace removed from his right leg. He was shown crying alongside his wife, which was the first time cameras showed him really breaking down. He expressed gratitude for everyone who kept him focused in those 239 days. It might've been the most poignant part of "Project 11."
- After 17 surgeries, Smith can finally be a dad again and also work out, drop back and do other athletic activities. Calling that remarkable is an understatement, especially after seeing how ravaged his leg was at its worst. Of course, he wants to return to the league, but he closed the documentary by saying that he's "feeling pretty good about the rest of my life, regardless of what happens with football." Hearing that was comforting.
ESPN and Stephania Bell should be commended for how they told Smith's story, and the Smiths should be commended for letting it be told. A lot of "Project 11" will stick with you for a while, but the thing that will most resonate is the calmness, bravery and perspective Smith has displayed throughout it all.
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